This was a typical weeknight in my family: my two sisters, my brother, and I would come home from school where there was usually something prepared for us to eat. My mom and dad worked full time and didn’t arrive home until evening, so a family friend would watch us and make sure we were fed after school. But come night fall, my dad would arrive home to a chirping chorus of “tenemos hambre, Papa!”
While Mom would be at the gym, mid-Jazzercise class, my dad would often have to go back to visit construction jobs of which he was in charge, usually in east Los Angeles or downtown. He had no choice but to let us pile into his pick up truck and tag along. We loved nights like this. Not only did we get to drive around our city with the knowledge that we were up far later than most of our friends, but Dad would always stop to get us something delicious to eat. We would visit either our favorite Chinese restaurant (which we dubbed “Little Star” because of its proximity to a construction site at which my dad created a star shaped in-lay for the building’s entrance) or we’d get tacos downtown.
We were allowed to get out of the car for Chinese because we were obsessed with the giant fish tank in the dining room, and because the owners would give us loads of those pastel mints. When we stopped for tacos, it was the opposite. We would pull into the tiny adjacent parking lot, and my dad would command that we stay in the car with the doors locked. But downtown LA felt dangerous and forgotten, and the surrounding landscape was frightening enough that he didn’t need to warn us at all.
I remember pressing our faces against the window of the back of my dad’s truck, wondering what was taking so long. He’d be making conversation with other patrons, some of whom he knew through odd jobs, or with fellow construction workers, or the guys behind the counter. Once in a while, if we were daring or hungry enough, we’d honk to remind him of the four ravenous children in the car who were up long past their bed time. The ride home would be silent save for the sound of us happily chomping away, the truck filled with the scent of warm corn tortillas, al pastor, carnitas, asada, cilantro, pickled jalapenos and frijoles. Those nights were some of our favorites, but those nights took place nearly twenty years ago.
Fast forward to present day, and I am back home in Los Angeles after living on the East Coast for thirteen years. It was there, mainly in Boston and New York, that I discovered my love for food, hospitality and everything that goes with it. The hustle on the floor, the intensity in the kitchen, the rush of madness, relief and pride after an insanely busy night, the people that become family and the transformation of gorgeous ingredients. After working in several restaurants and bars during and after college, I took a job with a New York based hospitality firm doing public relations for celebrity chefs and restaurants. It was a world that I never knew existed, and I was head over heels.
Yes, Los Angeles had many of the best farmers’ markets in the country, undeniably the best Mexican food and some of the freshest sushi around (and hello, In-N-Out Burger). But no one talked about chefs and restaurants the way they did in New York, at least not in my family or circle of friends growing up. There, chefs were scrutinized and celebrated in a way that Angelenos reserved for the Lakers, and restaurant openings were anticipated in the same fashion that my siblings looked forward to the new fall television series lineup.
When I told my new-found food friends that I was from Los Angeles, I was often met with the same responses: “Oh, I’ve heard you have really great smoothies!”, “You guys have a Nobu, right?”, or “Is everyone vegetarian?” I did my fair share defending Los Angeles in general, and not just against its modest food scene. No, not everyone works in the entertainment industry. Yes, it rains and gets cold. No, we don’t all say dude (although I did little to help debunk that claim).
In 2007, when Mario Batali teamed up with Nancy Silverton to open Pizzeria Mozza, I remember beaming smugly. A vocal, iconic New York chef was opening a restaurant in a city with what was purportedly a less than serious dining scene. For food elitists, this was a reason to take notice. For me, it was a sign that the food renaissance in LA was underway. I kept tabs on the evolving scene from afar, like a proud mom, cutting and pasting each mention of her child in the school paper into a bursting scrapbook and displaying it to anyone daring to make eye contact.
When I returned two years ago, I very much felt like a tourist in my own home. Wasn’t that an IHOP? What’s up with Abbot Kinney? Why is everyone wearing hats? Why is this coffee six dollars, and how did this develop from that sort of sketchy neighborhood where my friend Nancy once lived to what I’m told is one of the hippest blocks in America?
The most surprising transformation though, was the revival of downtown. Walking along Broadway one day with the new Ace Hotel on my left and Alma (which Bon Appétit magazine crowned 2013’s Best New Restaurant) on my right, I was practically strutting with a “take that, haters!” bounce in my step. I barely took notice of the nondescript taco stand wedged between the hotel and a high rise apartment building. Compared with the many shiny new things surrounding it, there was a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others quality, and it stayed with me until the next time I found myself on that side of town.
“Hey, I’m going to go grab tacos at that place on Broadway,” a friend said to me after drinks one night.
“Okay, I’ll come with you.”
I hadn’t recognized it in the daylight, but beneath the light of the moon with the shadows from the glowing sign falling onto the cars in the adjacent parking lot, it all came back. The ride in my dad’s truck, our faces pressed up against the glass, the smell of warm tortillas and grilled meat, the back seat battle for the last sips of horchata on the ride home. I could have cried, suddenly drunk on those childhood memories.
“Oh my god! Holy crap! This is it! I can’t believe it’s still here!”
I ran to the front of the line, as if racing to embrace a friend that I hadn’t seen in years. Except that this friend didn’t recognize me, because technically we had never met.
“Hey!” I called to the guy behind the counter, as if I had known him forever. “How long have you guys been here?”
“This place? Thirty-five years, but the founder started with a taco truck in 1975.”
“My dad used to bring us here all the time when we were little! I can’t believe you’re still here! I’m so happy!”
I was overcome with native pride. That this place was still standing and thriving after so many years, and amidst so much recent commercial development, was a wonder. I imagined a hyper lapse of the last ten years, the taco stand still and unchanged while hip new hotels, retail shops and restaurants rose up around them. I had been so busy boasting and basking in all of LA’s new fixin’s and furnishings that I had overlooked the foundation, the memories and experiences that solidified my love of food in the first place. This taco stand was my LA, still true to itself while evolving, still hustling, still standing with some of the best food in the country, still OG, just with better coffee.
This mysterious little taco stand is called Tacos Mexico and since their first brick and mortar spot thirty-five years ago, the company has expanded across Southern California, parts of Arizona and Nevada.
913 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90015