Quenching a Westside Taco Craving: Tacomiendo vs. Pepes vs. Carniceria Sanchez
There are some who will claim there is good Mexican food to be had in Manhattan, but after 5 years there (and two weeks here) I can honestly say those people are mistaken. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find… in Midtown, for example, you can get decent stuff at the El Rey del Sabor cart, and over on 10th Ave. in Hell’s Kitchen there are a few great dives for sopes, tacos, and mole. (There are no good burritos, but that’s a different matter altogether.) It’s like the equivalent of pizza in L.A. You can make a convincing argument for a few places here and there… but overall, you’re not going to find too many good slices of New York pizza in L.A. and you’re not going to find too much good Mexican food in NYC.
I guess what I’m saying is this week I was craving some tacos! The Glutster treated us to his favorite taco spots in the latest issue of Saveur, and then of course there is the Taco Task Force… but I was looking for something a little closer to home. For me that’s Culver City, and when most people say tacos and Culver City they’re usually talking about Tito’s (which was just named one of The Guru’s 99 things in L.A. to eat before you die). There is something to be said for Tito’s fried crunchy goodness, but I don’t really like to be limited to ground beef, and I was looking for something a little more authentic softer (in the tortilla category.)
Thankfully, just west on Culver there are 3 places serving just what I was looking for… and after a few weeks of doing Midtown Lunch: L.A. I feel like I haven’t fulfilled my cliche blog post quota this month. So, without further ado, it’s TACO CRAWL TIME!
The whole “where can I get the best taco” question usually just creates more questions than it answers. What kind of taco? Do you mean who makes the best tortillas? Or who makes the best Carne Asada? Do you like lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head) or are you one of those “I only eat chicken” people? Narrow it down by location, and it becomes a little bit easier… and when talking about Culver City, three places usually come up for fast food tacos (not sit down restaurants), and they’re all within spitting distance of each other: Tacomiendo and Carniceria Sanchez (on Culver & Inglewood), and Pepe’s Tacos (on Culver and Centinela). All have a pretty standard menu of tacos, burritos, tortas, and platos… but I was just going for the tacos.
Tacos being sold from a window of a meat market sounded amazing to me (it might be pretty common for you people who have lived here forever, but for me it’s new and exciting!) so the day started off at Carniceria Sanchez. The food is served outside, from a window attached to the meat market, but I wanted to see what was going on inside before we ordered lunch- and was immediately rewarded with this:
You’re joking, right? A serve yourself, by the pound chicharron case?!? With fried pig’s feet and pork ribs? Did I get hit by a car on the walk across Ingelwood, and now I’m dead and walking into heaven? Nope… still alive. And this shit is real. Once again, this is probably a common site in all L.A. meat markets but it’s all new to me! And I like it. I was here for tacos, but couldn’t resist just a few bites of crispy pork skin, a pork rib, and a pig’s foot. A pre-lunch snack if you will. Apparently collagen doesn’t really stand up well to deep frying, making the fried pig’s foot a little too hard to dissect (I prefer them grilled Japanese style) but the rib was delicious and the fried pork skin, was, well… fried pork skin. Alright… back to the job at hand.
I got my standard taco order… one carnitas (yes more pork), one tongue (if you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing) and one cabeza (which isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds.) At $1.35 they’re the cheapest of the three spots, and the tacos are the smallest as well. “With everything” means onions, cilantro and a red salsa which wasn’t too hot. (Neither was their salsa verde, which I asked for on the side.)
As for the meat, it was all pretty standard/good. The carnitas didn’t have any of the crispy bits that I like, and was a tad bit on the dry side- but was a decent version, and the tongue and cabeza were both moist and flavorful, with minimal funk (which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you like.) If you’ve never tried tongue, it’s about as flavorful and tender as taco meat can be… and as for cabeza, you could close your eyes and eat and think you were eating brisket.
Now I’ve always prided myself on Midtown Lunch being as useful as possible (i.e. you’re here to find decent lunch near your work… not hear me tell why this place sucks because you can find a better version an hour and half away). And most of my friends love “tacos” and “Mexican” food, but they would rather die than eat a tongue taco. Or a “head” taco. (You know the guy I’m talking about. He’s probably sitting in the cubicle next to you… or maybe he’s even there when you look in the mirror.) I felt bad that I didn’t try the chicken at Starry Kitchen the other day, so to make up for it I’m proud to introduce the OBLIGATORY CHICKEN ORDER. I know how much certain Angelenos love their chicken (that’s fine… although you don’t know what you’re missing by choosing chicken over pork, lamb, goat… pretty much everything else), so even though I would usually never order chicken when other meats are present, I’ll do it. For you.
Compared to the other three, there was far less flavor in this bad boy. Chicken is usually boring, but this was especially so. The little chunks just didn’t do it for me… but stick with me chicken lovers- it gets better at the next too places.
Stop two was right across the street at Tacomiendo, which is also fast food (you order from a counter) but unlike Taqueria Sanchez is indoors and actually has seats.
And a salsa bar, so you can dress your tacos however you like. (Bonus!) Downside… the tacos are all $2.35. Upside… they make their own tortillas (super bonus!)
Standard order: carnitas, lengua, and cabeza. The tortillas are hand made, so they were better than the store bought versions across the street. They were also bigger, had a much stronger and tastier corn flavor, and were stuff with more meat. What can I say. You get what you pay for people. Unlike across the street, where you really need at least three tacos for a full meal, at Tacomiendo 2 might do the trick for some. (But not me, obviously.)
As for the meat, it was definitely a bit tastier than the ones from Taqueria Sanchez, and surprisingly a bit funkier too. (Which is I guess why I considered them tastier.) The carnitas was quality shreds, plus more bits and piece of fat as well… and the cabeza looked more like it might have come from a cabeza (with little bites of goodness within the stringy bits of meat that you didn’t see across the street.) And of course, you can’t argue with a salsa bar. We’ve overheard one guy behind us touting the beans as being “as good as my mom used to make”, so I’m guessing there is plenty of other good stuff to be had from Tacomiendo.
As for the OBLIGATORY CHICKEN ORDER… this was better. Small cubes of grilled white meat chicken, perfect for that squemish officemate who wants to eat “Mexican” food but doesn’t like the grease or fat. A little dry for me (isn’t all white meat?) but had a nice grilled flavor and the dryness problem is easily solved at the salsa bar!
We ended our taco run at Pepe’s on Culver and Centinela. This place was easily the worst looking of the three (with its horrible looking chicken sandwich sign in the window that looked like it could have stolen from the menu of a mall food court) but don’t let the looks deceive you!
At $1.39 each Pepe’s tacos live between Taqueria Sanchez and Tacomiendo, both in price and size. They’re not on homemade tortillas, but all the meats were delicious and they were a bit bigger than their Sanchez counterparts. Pepe’s carnitas taco has some really nice crispy bits, making it my favorite of the three. And their tongue taco, and cabeza taco were great too
Surprisingly I loved the chicken taco- which could go from obligatory order, to actual preference next time I’m there. Their chicken had some nice crispiness to it, and bits of fat that I really liked. Of course, for L.A. chicken lovers I’m guessing they’ll prefer the Tacomiendo version for its “safeness”.
None of these spots might be worth driving across the city for, but they’re all decent options… and if you work in Culver City, or Venice, or Marina del Rey it’s the perfect distance for a delicious taco excursion. So which one is the best? It’s tough to say… if you want the cheapest, quickest spot, Taqueria Sanchez wins by a nose with their $1.35 bad boys (and you can’t discount the awesomeness of their meat market and by the pound chicharrones.) For the best tortillas, and best all around food that you could easily take your squemish office mate for, it’s Tacomiendo all the way. But if you’re looking for a cheaper, dirtier experience, that is both cheap and flavorful (i.e. there’s fat in the chicken taco *gasp*), Pepes is for you.
Or you can just do what I did? Go to all three!
Taqueria Sanchez (inside the Carniceria Sanchez), 4525 Inglewood Blvd. (nr. Culver), 310-391-3640
Tacomiendo, 4502 Inglewood Blvd. (nr. Culver), 310-915-0426
Pepe’s Tacos, 4582 Centinela (nr. Culver), 310-391-8667