LA’s top taco truck

TACO TRUCKS

food trucks in Venice BeachLos Angeles is the city of food trucks. There are literally hundreds of them roaming the streets each and every day and although their food offer is as diverse as the city’s population, ranging from German currywurst to Vietnamese banh mi, it’s the Mexican taco trucks that dominate the scene.

For in LA there are two very different tiers of food trucks: the up-market, social media-friendly trucks that charge a premium for their often chef-driven menus (think Roy Choi’s Kogi), and the Mexican loncheros, which set up shop on a daily basis, serving their local community the burritos, tacos, sopes, mulitas and quesadillas the city is fuelled by.

First launched to cater for construction workers, these taco stands can be found in virtually every neighbourhood across LA. In fact every person living in LA has a “local” – their own favourite taco truck (mine is Tacos Arizas), which loyally provides many Latino families with their nightly dinner and offers revellers a much needed snack in the wee hours after a night on the booze. With cheap, fresh and delicious food, taco trucks are a tasty alternative to the fast food giants that still govern LA’s casual restaurant industry.

LA TACO MADNESS

TACO-MadnessLA’s taco trucks are such a big part of the city’s cultural identity, every year there’s a dedicated event that celebrates them in all their glory. Since 2009, LA Taco Madness, organised by art and culture website LA Taco, has pitted some of the city’s best tacos against one another in a taco-tastic tournament.

The event’s committee of nine of the city’s best experts on tacos submits a list of their favourites, from which a shortlist is drawn. This year, organisers divided contestants into four categories according to the most popular ingredients: asada, pork, mariscos, and a wild card for all those that don’t quite fit into the first three.

The LA Taco Madness committee then cut them down to four in each category, with eight of them battling it out for the title in the 2015 LA Taco Madness final. More than 10,000 members of LA’s taco-loving public then voted for their favourite online.

GUERRILLA TACOS

sweetpotato_tacoThe 2015 winner was Guerrilla Tacos, a truck that serves a menu so innovative, revered LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold described it as “a kind of tasting-menu restaurant whose dishes happen to be composed on tortillas instead of on fancy plates”.

Led by chef Wesley Avila, who studied at the California School of Culinary Arts and trained under Alain Ducasse in Paris, his carefully sourced ingredients may include the likes of fresh sea urchin or scallops, alongside vegetables from the farmer’s market.

Tacos feature toppings such as braised oxtail and foie gras with pickled onions, almond chilli and coriander; oasted sweet potato with braised leek, Oaxacan cheese and red pepper chilli (pictured); or bacon with chili de arbol, scrambled eggs, fried Brussels sprouts and queso fresco.

With other dishes such as Hawaiian-style raw-fish poke with pickled pineapple, habanero, avocado and lime; or a burrito of braised lamb shank with root vegetables, feta cheese and tomato chilli, this truck’s menu may be a far cry from the traditional loncheros but it is certainly a worthy winner of this year’s taco truck of the year award, who really stands out from the crowd.

A Ducasse disciple cooking up a storm in a taco truck parked on a street corner? That’s something you will only find in LA.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Grand Central Market – one of LA’s most historic and cultural gems

Grand Central MarketAt nearly 100 years old, Grand Central Market is one of Los Angeles’ most historic venues and cultural gems and a recent revival has seen it turn into one of the city’s culinary hotspots, too.

The 30,000sq ft market first opened in 1917 and has been in continuous operation since, reflecting Downtown Los Angeles’ ever-changing population. In the early days, vendors included the likes of green grocers, fishmongers, Jewish delis and butchers and over time, it became a popular destination for the city’s large Latino community, with Mexican food vendors and spice stalls joining the market.

In 1984, property developer Ira Yellin bought Grand Central Market with the aim of preserving this historic Downtown site and turning it into a vibrant, contemporary food spot. He passed away in 2002 and since then his widow Adele has continued to champion his vision.

In the past two years, Grand Central Market, much like the rest of Downtown LA, has seen a remarkable transformation. Less than a decade ago, it was mainly about tacos and fresh produce and, although authentic, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly a hang out for the food loving masses.

Today, more and more contemporary operators are joining the market, in a complete overhaul of its offering. Ranging from a BBQ restaurant to an artisan cheese vendor, hipster coffee shop, gourmet pizza place and a healthy juice store, what once was a destination for blue collar workers in search of a hearty lunch, the market now also draws in a crowd of suits from the nearby financial district and foodies from across town.

Some of the traditional operators – like the 56-year-old China Café, a handful of Latino vendors, a green grocer and two spice stores – remain but many have been replaced by an increasing number of modern concepts. While some critical voices argue that the gentrification of the market takes away its historic value, others insist the new wave of operators is giving those long-standing vendors exposure they would never otherwise have had, including a place in food mag Bon Appetit’s top 10 hottest restaurants in America.

What’s clear is that Grand Central Market is now more popular than ever before. Its rich diversity of food stalls epitomises Los Angeles as a whole and not only makes it a unique culinary destination but also the most fascinating of all the food halls in the USA today.

Here’s a highlight of some of my favourite Grand Central Market vendors.

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BelCampoBelcampo Meat Co.
A full-service butcher-shop-cum-restaurant serving 100% natural, organic, grass-fed meat and poultry raised on a 10,000-acre ranch in Northern California. All meat is butchered on site and what doesn’t sell, gets cooks up in the kitchen, meaning there’s virtually no food waste.
What to order: The cheeseburger is the pièce de résistance here: a patty made from dry-aged beef, served medium-rare and covered with caramelised onions and cheddar. At $12.50 it ain’t cheap but it’s worth every cent.

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EggSlutEggslut
This kiosk bills itself as a ‘chef driven, gourmet food concept’ that celebrates the humble egg. The ovo-centric menu takes classic comfort food and gives it a modern twist, including sandwiches on house-made brioche buns, burgers and salads. Eggs aren’t just for breakfast at this place but for lunch, dinner and any other time of day, everyday.
What to order:The namesake signature dish comprises a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar and served with a demi baguette ($9). It’s an ingenious balance of comfort and innovation.

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McconnellsMcConnell’s Fine Ice Cream
Founded in Santa Barbara in 1949, McConnell’s makes its fine ice cream from scratch using the milk and cream from Central Coast grass-grazing cows, which it pasteurises at its own creamery. It sources local, sustainable and organic ingredients from farms and artisan producers and ice cream flavours range from chocolate covered strawberries, to sea salt cream and cookies, and toasted coconut almond chip.
What to order: Eureka lemon and marionberries is one of the most delicious flavours. Oregon marionberries are cooked to jammy perfection and folded into tart and tangy, Eureka lemon, milk and cream.

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Oyster_GourmetThe Oyster Gourmet
Run by Frenchman Christophe Happillon, who bills himself as Los Angeles’ only Master Ecailler (shellfish master), this is GCM’s most upmarket and unique venue. Serving sustainable seafood from around the USA, with a focus on oysters, it’s as much its menu as it is its unique design that draws in the punters. The 14-seat circular bar comprises a wooden structure designed to resemble a clam. Featuring canvas wings that can be pulled up and down, they create a sense of space and openness when up and completely close in the bar when down.
What to order: Oysters aside, the tuna poke is a must try. A generous portion of cubed raw tuna is seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and chopped chillies and heaped on a scallop shell ($10). Paired with a cold glass of Sancerre, it’s heaven.

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StickyRice(1)Sticky Rice
This Thai street food concept was the first to join the market as part of the ascending wave of new operators. Sticky Rice, which started as a stand at the Altadena Farmer’s Market featuring food from chef Johnny Lee, is a counter worth sitting at both for the food and to watch the chefs in action in the tiny open kitchen.
What to order: Gai yang is the thing to order here, tangy Thai barbecued chicken is served with sticky rice and som tam, spicy green papaya salad ($9).

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Tacos_TumbrasTacos Tumbras a Tomas
One of the long-standing traditional vendors, Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been run by Tomas Martinez and his brothers Manuel and Jesus for 20 years. The stall built its success on the famous fried pork dish of carnitas but also specialises in birria, goat served in a spicy red sauce. Other meats include carne asada, grilled chicken and carne al pastor, which are served in tacos, burritos, tortas, tostadas or in combination plates with rice and beans.
What to order: For $3 you get a vastly generous portion of carne asada piled on corn tortillas, with lime wedges and extra tortillas on the side. It’s greasy, spicy and fresh all in one mouthful.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.