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 L.A.'s best Mexican restaurants.
Try these Mexican restaurants
For two decades, El Huarache Azteca has been drawing crowds of hungry fans for their excellent Mexico City-style huaraches. They recently underwent a stylish makeover—switching red walls to black and expanded the seating options—but have maintained the magic. For the uninitiated, huaraches are a flat, oval of masa that resembles a sandal (which is where the dish gets its name) that is topped with beans, meat or vegetables, Mexican crema, crumbled cotija cheese and cilantro. It’s a beautiful, delicious mess. Besides the signature huaraches, we also recommend the quesadillas (particularly those filled with huitlacoche, an earthy corn fungus) and the barbacoa special on weekends. Cool off with a refreshing agua fresca made with fresh fruit.
It can be intimidating moving into a space with history, but step into Broken Spanish—chef Ray Garcia's restaurant which occupies the much-revered, now shuttered Rivera—and any sentiment you may have attached to the old space will soon fade. Broken Spanish is bright and colorful with tables boasting hand-woven doilies and Mexican pottery, while the food is decidedly down to earth. Garcia may be cooking things like lamb neck and oxtail, but they are wrapped in tamales and quesadillas, hearty and elevated at the same time. A fiery shrimp dish with cascabel chili, pequin peppers and pineapple may leave your mouth tingling for a good five minutes, and a cellophane-shrouded rabbit stew emits the most incredible smell when unwrapped. Finish with a chile mango panna cotta, which balances sweet and spicy with passion fruit curd and habanero caramel, diced mangos and cayenne meringue.
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.
Chef Esdras Ochoa, who made his name with Mexicali Taco & Co., channels his devotion to fantastic tortillas and mesquite grilled meats through a selection of tacos, sides and steaks at this al fresco Frogtown eatery. Consider the tacos an appetizer and start from there. The pollo asado and al pastor options are serious winners, as is the sliced hanger steak that comes with tortillas and salsa vaquero. Other standouts include the beet salad and street corn, not to mention a whimsical corn flan surrounded by popcorn. But don't miss the drinks—they're just as important as the food here, especially since the bar serves up one of the city's best palomas.
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—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 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.
The farm-to-truck tacos at Guerrilla Tacos are seasonal and well-crafted. Chef Wes Avila is one of the stars of the California taco style, where chefs combine Mexican traditions with California cuisine and culture. The small menu here features local ingredients and changes regularly, which is part of the fun since you can try something different each time. Past creations have included everything from foie gras and oxtail tacos to Puerto Vallarta-style crab tacos ($12 for an order of 3) to sweet potato and feta tacos. Check Twitter for daily locations, hours and menu.
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.
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.
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.
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, a beautiful ceviche negro made with mahi mahi, squid ink, mango and peanuts, 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.
Aqui es Texcoco has gained a steady and committed following with their lamb barbacoa-focused menu. The no-frills restaurant distills lamb into its finest parts—with mixed results, to be sure, but always with care and a cheery disposition channeled through the most kind and helpful servers. To get a glimpse of how Aqui strives to honor lamb at its fullest, look no further than the lamb broth which arrives alongside most entrèes. Is there any way to describe this soup other than pastoral? It smells as fresh as a barn, which doesn’t sound altogether enticing but it most definitely is. There is fried quail here, too, and the crispy skin and tender meat resembles your favorite plate of wings. One of the best parts of Aqui is the unique Mexican beer they have to offer, like Cerveza Cucapa or Los Muertos Brewing. Cheers!
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.