A wide array of Mexico’s state cuisines can be found in Los Angeles, in some form, and we are the home to the second largest Oaxacan population on the planet. You’ll even find subregions well represented here, like multiple vendors selling chorreadas, tacos on thick tortillas from Mazatlán.
There’s not even a major city in Mexico that can boast this variety of tacos, antojitos, traditional plates and mariscos trucks that bring a taste of the Pacific to every barrio. It’s no wonder so many travelers make it a point to try some Mexican food when in town.
Besides being the largest Mexican community outside of Mexico in the world, it’s less than three hours away from Baja California, a region often frequented by Angelenos, whether Tijuana for taco crawls, Ensenada for world class ceviches, or the Valle de Guadalupe for destination restaurants and its crisp, mineral Mexican wines.
There are so many other cultural enclaves, restaurants, and bars on your L.A. hot list. Still, it’s prudent to set aside a day just to explore Mexican cuisines in Los Angeles, traveling outside of the touristy neighborhoods to get a glimpse into the many centers of Mexican life and culture.
Pro tip: Start off with a cafe de olla or a horchata latte — you’ll need the jolt to tackle this itinerary.
My go-to drink at the local branch of LA’s popular Mexican coffee shop chain is a cappuccino, but we are now in iced cafe de olla season. A pair of caramel taquitos — sweet puff pastries — is the perfect pairing alongside the cinnamon-flavored iced coffee to begin your Mexican food crawl. You’ll find an outpost of this coffee shop conveniently located in most every barrio.
Huevos con mole — a plate of fried eggs, sunny-side up, drowned in one Lucio and Estela Morales’ handmade Pueblan moles, or pipianes (pumpkin seed moles) — is a deep dive into the colorful wellspring of pre-Hispanic gastronomy.
Ask Lucio and Estela’s daughter, Marisol Feregrino, to set up a sampler of their moles and pipianes, bursting with toasted chiles, herbs, spices, and vegetables, blended into thick, flavorful pools, eaten with rice, beans, and corn tortillas. Try the mole fries for the ultimate Chicano method for eating mole.
2635 Gage Avenue, Huntington Park, (323) 583-1933
3. El Mercado de Los Angeles
Late Morning Stop
It’s time to cool off with a vampiro, a spicy, sour, and salty shaved ice at El Mercadito. Take a stroll past baptism outfits, molcajetes, and boot and belt stalls before heading upstairs to a world of Mexican chiles, spices, mole pastes, and all types of snacks covered in Tajin and chamoy.
There’s plenty to eat here at this Jalisco-style Mexican market, but if you’re serious about this food tour, save your appetite, stick to the snacks, and sate yourself with the sights, smells, and sounds of Mexico in East LA.
3425 E 1st St, East LA. (323) 526-8808
La Comida (The big meal)
Chef Gilberto Cetina Jr’s crowd-pleasing modern Mexican seafood stall in the Mercado La Paloma complex offers an ocean of riches in shellfish, ceviches, shrimp cocktails, and seafood tacos inspired by the Yucatan.
Start with chilled oysters and clams, prepared with citrus, microgreens, and add a splash of habanero salsa. Then opt for a plate of scallop aguachile, biting into spicy, firm bay scallops in a brine of freshly squeezed lime and chile jalapeno. Fans swear by the tacos de pulpo en su tinto (octopus in its own ink), a novel take on the Yucatan standard as a taco, rich with smoky, umami notes that’ll dance around on your palate long after you’ve driven away.
3655 S Grand Avenue #C9, Historic South Central, (213) 986-9972. www.holboxla.com
Mexico City cuisine crafted by modern Mexican chefs makes for poignant conversation about the state of Mexican dining in Los Angeles over sweet crab gorditas enriched with a garden-fresh avocado, shiso salsa, and micheladas, all inside a sleek indoor patio reflecting the position of Los Angeles as a Mexican city.
Chef-owner Enrique Olvera, also of Mexico City’s Pujol and New York’s Cosme, has quickly honed a menu that unites California seasonal produce, Baja California-inspired seafood, and his sophisticated application of regional Mexican cuisine and techniques. Tlayuda tortillas are arranged with thin-sliced zucchini, broken shrimp shells, and crumbled queso fresco. Crispy celery root comes alive with chicatana ants salsa, with added spice from xnipec, a fiery chopped Mayan salsa. Save room for the famed merengue, a dessert that has become part of Olvera’s culinary anthology, bursting with tutti frutti, an ideal transition to after dinner mezcal…
Los Angeles has the best mezcal bar in the country. Run by indigenous Oaxacan restaurateur and mezcal expert Ivan Vásquez, Madre boasts over 600 brands of mezcal and three locations across the city.
Order some Oaxacan botanas (snacks) and expressions like espadin chacaleno handcrafted in Durango, a pour of smoky Cuish made from agave Karwinski, or rare mezcal from Nuevo Leon, Amormata. Ask for Vásquez to arrange a flight where you’ll receive a life-changing education about agave, maestro mezcaleros, and mezcal regions from a native Oaxacan, and one of the foremost experts on mezcal in the world.
In Mexico, and Los Angeles, we get tacos after dinner, and especially after many mezcal shots. Enjoy the free-flowing late night L.A. freeways (don’t drink and drive), and head down to Compton for Mazatlán-style carne asada at La Carreta, cut from fire-roasted sirloin steak, chopped and scooped onto chorreadas, thick corn tortillas, smeared with gooey melted cheese and spoonfuls of asiento, unrefined lard. A dressing of pico de gallo, avocado salsa, sliced cabbage, tomato salsa, and lime brightens the dish like gentle waves reflecting the moonlight off Mazatlán’s Playa Camarón Sábalo.
Next, head to Harbor-Gateway North for Tacos Los Palomos #2 and their sweet, fruity CDMX-style al pastor tacos, flame-roasted on a vertical spit by indigenous Mixes from Oaxaca, a cultural group whose entrepreneurial taqueros have made Los Angeles the top spot in America for this famous Mexican street food.
Tacos La Carreta, 1703 E Alondra Blvd, Compton
Tacos Los Palomos #2, 11416 S Vermont Ave., Harbor-Gateway North