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The best Mexican restaurants in LA

From a Farmers Market Original taco stall to a destination Oaxacan eatery, LA's best Mexican restaurants satisfy your South of the Border cravings

Photograph: Jakob N. Layman
Carne asada nachos at Diablo Taco

Mexican food might be the official cuisine of Los Angeles, with a tacqueria on every corner and freshly made horchata a standard summer drink. But the South of the Border fare runs so much deeper than tacos, with flavors and preparations that can vary depending on what neighborhood we happen to be in. We tasted our way through moles, barbecue and piquant plates to round up LA's best Mexican restaurants. 

RECOMMENDED: Best Restaurants in Los Angeles

Here's where to get your Mexican food fix

El Cholo

Having opened in 1923, El Cholo is Los Angeles' oldest continuously operated Mexican restaurant, and it probably hasn't been at the cutting edge of cuisine for something like 80 years. Still, the Mexican comfort food is fantastic and the atmosphere is historic in a way very few other LA eateries can manage. Must-have options include guacamole (made tableside), green corn tamales and the margaritas, by which all others (at least in LA) are judged.

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Mid-City

El Huarache Azteca

Transport your taste buds to Mexico City with homemade sopes, tacos, burritos, quesadillas and authentic eats like huarache—a flat, fried masa that serves as the base for thin slices of grilled pork with beans, crema, shredded lettuce and grated cheese piled high and served street-style in a paper plate. Large pitchers of colorful aguas frescas (flavors include horchata, melon, cucumber, pineapple, hibiscus and tamarind) offer the perfect sweet pairing. Take note: cash only.

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Highland Park

Diablo

In the same vein of never judging a book by its cover, never judge a restaurant by its façade. From Sunset Boulevard, Diablo Taco looks pompous and cold among Silver Lake’s gritty strip malls, rusty food trucks, and of course, the Los Angeles relic that is Los Globos. Why would any Angeleno opt to get their taco fix from a trendy restaurant rather than the stand on the corner? The answer: Red duck mole, braised pork belly and bison chili. Their “Urban Tacos,” which run between $2 and $6 each, utilize the basic construction of a taco to create unique and exciting flavor experiences. But it doesn’t stop at tacos. The “Knife and Fork” section offers shareable dishes, specifically the carne asada nachos, which come in a pho-sized bowl with no lack of cheese, jalapenos and bacon refried beans. Other highlights are the grilled sweet corn and the Diablo Dog, a bacon-wrapped kobe beef hot dog topped with bison chili.

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Silver Lake

Flor Del Rio

The specialty at this family-run, Boyle Heights eatery is roasted Michoacán-style goat, and there’s plenty of it. At Flor del Rio, there are no menus, just one key decision to make: bone-in or boneless. Either way, spice-rubbed goat is swimming in an addictive, chile-flecked, clove-infused consommé and pairs beautifully with corn tortillas, onions, cilantro, a squeeze of lime and flame orange chile de arbol salsa. There are also tacos of pulled goat meat and sticky shreds of rosy cow’s head, and menudo—a stick-to-your-ribs stew available with or without hominy and featuring tender strips of tripe in savory, red chile-stained beef stock.

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Boyle Heights

Gish Bac

Oaxaca natives David Padilla and Maria Ramos’ Mid-City restaurant is where Angelenos and their families pay respects to all things spiced and barbecued. Barbacoa dishes draw large crowds chowing down on goat meat enchiladas in a tomato broth with crunchy cabbage and cilantro, or bone-in lamb served with salty queso-sprinkled refried beans. Adventurous eaters opt for the lamb: pancita (stomach) cooked with iron rich blood, onion and spice seals the deal. The house trinity of salsas reside in bins under a shiny painting of the Virgin Mary: tangy tomatillo with avocado and cilantro, roasted tomato and spicy jalapeño. Of course, no Oaxacan eatery would be complete without mole. Gish Bac’s mole negro ($9.95) is particularly good with chicken leg and thigh blanketed in a well-balanced sauce of smokiness and spice.

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Los Angeles

Gracias Madre

It should be said, right off the bat, that Gracias Madre is beautiful. A cross between Mexican chic and Palm Springs casual, the vegan Mexican restaurant is decorated with festive cushions and tiles, a gorgeous courtyard and, inside, high ceilings and a comfortable bar. Wherever you choose to sit, order the guacamole—it is truly fantastic. The sopes con piña, looking like mini savory quiches, are two masa cakes piled high with pineapple salsa, cabbage, beans and guacamole. For dessert, a more traditional option might have been the flan, but the pumpkin cake is the way to go. Flanked by creamy vanilla bean coconut ice cream, the seasonal cake is gently spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, and tastes remarkably like fall. It is a necessary reminder that vegan doesn't have to mean void of flavor, and that Gracias Madre has arrived as an ethically-conscious alternative to LA's growing haute Mexican scene.

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West Hollywood

Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza has served as a culinary institution in LA since the Lopez family opened the restaurant in 1994. Named after an Oaxacan dance, the popular Koreatown spot is known for its unparalleled moles, which are paired with plates of hearty tacos, rice, meat and vegetables. Live music usually accompanies your meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner are available here), and it's not unusual to see diners get up and dance. Want to try and replicate your dish at home? An attached store sells Guelaguetza's mole—red, black and coloradito—along with ingredients to make their fantastic micheladas.

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Koreatown

Guisados

At Guisados, which was born in Boyle Heights and now has locations in Echo Park and Downtown, handmade tortillas are made to-order, meat is braised in giant pots and a crowd quickly gathers soon after opening. Snag a table on the outdoor patio or sit inside to watch the kitchen in action as you dig into the mouthwatering tacos ($2.75)—we like the moist tinga de pollo, rich and juicy mole poblano and flavorful cochinita pibil topped with spicy red onions—washed down with refreshingly tart jamaica aqua fresca or creamy, spiced horchata. Can’t decide what to order? The six-taco sampler offers two-bite tastes, while spice fanatics can’t miss the chiles toreados—it’s muy caliente.

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Echo Park

La Casita Mexicana

Thanks to chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, the city of Bell has become a dining destination. The Jalisco natives opened their upscale restaurant in the South LA nabe in 1999 and have since become TV personalities, famously defeating Bobby Flay in a chile relleno Throwdown. Try the duo’s meat-filled version: Chile en nogada ($16.95)—roasted Poblano packed with ground beef, dried fruits, walnuts and candied cactus, topped with pecan cream sauce and pomegranate seeds—is a colorful ode to the Mexican flag. Housemade corn tortillas are similarly patriotic with red (guajillo chile), green (nopales) and white (corn), the perfect accompaniment to a plate of Tres Moles ($13.95) that features three types: traditional poblano and two types of pipián, creamy pumpkin-seen based, sauce. Stop by the adjacent tiendita to pick up Mexican pantry items, but it’s hard to compete with preparations this good.

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East Los Angeles

Lotería Grill

Critics' pick

Ever since Lotería first set up its Original Farmers Market shop in 2002, chef-owner Jimmy Shaw has grown to bequeathing Angelenos with authentic Mexican fare from the beach to the Valley. Shaw's legendary tacos showcase bold, authentic flavors and fresh ingredients. Sample the full variety of Lotería's menu by digging into the Probaditas ($17), featuring 12 different tacos on mini corn tortillas. If you eat your way to becoming a full-fledged Lotería fanboy, you can even have the restaurant cater your next birthday.

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Hollywood

Mercado

With locations in Santa Monica, Hollywood and Third St, Mercado brings an inventive mix of food, atmosphere and tradition to Los Angeles. The menu here has drawn a cult following—diners who flock to Mercado for chef Jose Acevedo's carnitas and flan. During brunch, chipotle Bloody Marys can be paired with a rompope French toast or decadent chilaquiles. And if you're a fan of tequila, Mercado is your spot: There are more than 70 kinds here, as well as mezcals and draft beer.

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Fairfax/Beverly/La Brea/Third St.

PettyCash Taquería

Critics' pick

Gone are the dim lighting and the intimate tables of John Sedler's old Playa. Instead, PettyCash Taqueria is a bright, open space is filled with graffiti dancing on the walls, communal tables and, as is fashionable for painfully cool places these days, very loud music. This is Mexican street food as reinterpreted by chef Walter Manzke (République, Church & State). Crispy Brussels sprouts are nicely amped-up by Morita-cauliflower crema ($10), a beautiful ceviche negro made with mahi mahi, squid ink, mango and peanuts ($15), and, of course, tacos, at about $5-$6 each, are filled with Berkshire pork, grilled octopus and nicely marinated al pastor. Overall, what you have is truly an upscale taqueria, and quite a good one at that.

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Fairfax/Beverly/La Brea/Third St.

Rocio's Mole de los Dioses

Adorned with festive Mexican murals and featuring a back room with a stage, this Sun Valley venue is clearly equipped for parties. But the main event is what’s on your plate. Start with the eponymous Guacamole de los Dioses ($8.99), that's worthy "of the gods." Choose your level of heat, from mild to sangre ardente, or "hot-blooded," packed with habanero heat and passion fruit zing. Or sample the house speciality—as the name suggests, the restaurant offers one of the most extensive mole lists in town featuring nine different types—with a three, four or five-mole starter, served alongside addictive cactus tortillas. Mix and match your moles —we like the sweet house huitlacoche-based version ($12.95) or the 31-spiced Oaxaqueño ($12.95)—with proteins such as veal, salmon or cheese-filled enchiladas that'll make you a believer.

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