The cold, hard truth about eating tacos in Los Angeles after eating a lot across Mexico is that you’ll come to realize the differences between the American taco lifestyle and the Mexican taco lifestyle very quickly.
The latter tend to replace freshness with convenience or quality with profitability; it’s an understandable compromise for the greater good. The reality is that it’s good enough to appease most taco lovers. But for true taco obsessives, taco snobs, and anyone lucky enough to eat tacos aquí y alla, it gets harder to achieve that feeling of tortilla, meat, and salsa euphoria.
In LA, I’m thrilled to report that the list of taqurías achieving this boss-level taco mastery seems to grow every year. El Ruso, Los Dorados LA, Sonoratown, Detroit, to name a few, top this list. These are the kind of legendary taco places you can take someone from Mexico to visit, and they’d be hard-pressed to find anything masa worth talking about.
And now, LA TACO recognizes new taqueros to achieve this transnational excellence: La Carreta Tacos, specializing in Sinaloa-style carne asada tacos.
José Manuel Morales Bernal has been flying low in the South and Southeast Los Angeles taco scene for seven years now, selling tacos everywhere from Compton to Paramount to Bellflower to the current super industrial location in the far north area of Long Beach where he now parks his taco truck. .
What keeps La Carreta floating among the sea of incredible LA taqueros is Morales’ hyper focus on asada. It’s the only carne the young taquero has on the menu, and its heavenly smell attracts those who know what’s going on from all corners of the county. One Thursday evening there was a mamalona at the end of the street trying to make donuts while a group of four tacuaches recorded, laughed and ate tacos on their own platter. There were families showing up and ordering a big cup of sweet toast from La Carreta abarley gua (like horchata, but made with toasted ground barley flour instead of rice; a Sinaloan specialty) for all family members. Other taco-loving vatos who excelled at parallel parking their lowered cars with pronounced spoilers would hail Morales. “Al 100, viejo! Gracias.
Everyone flocks to La Carreta for its simple tacos, chorreadas, vampiros, quesadillas, “papas locas” and their amazing toritos. But deeper than that, they return to La Carreta for juicy, reliable meat, thanks to Morales’ dedication to grilling nothing but sirloin steak for his asada. Not a thinly sliced chuck, known as a diesmillo, in sight. Diesmillo is more affordable and tends to be standard at most LA taquerías as well, and while it’s undoubtedly delicious when smothered in salsa, it’s been known to be tougher and crunchier in its texture. “A mi no me gusta el diemillo!” Morales put it very simply. In the northern states of Mexico, bringing diesmillo instead of arravera (flap meat or “ranchera” cut) or sirloin can be a point of pride and class. There are memes in Mexican pop culture tales that poke fun at the homie who shows up to a carne asada with a packet of diesmillo but is the first to eat the whole snatch.
“A good taco is really about the quality of the meat and the salsa,” says Morales.
For him, tacos are also a family duty and a cultural obligation. While born and raised at Paramount, Morales often returns to Sinaloa. Specifically, where his family is from: El Verde Concordia, a municipality of about 1,000 people about an hour from Mazatlán known for being an incubator of taqueros and worker taqueras. The small town has recently held the manufacturing record for the “the greatest carne asada taco” in Sinaloa. Morales’ father is also a taquero, continuing his lineage. He just got back from a trip there, actually, hence his tacos so good right now.
An ideal order at La Carreta is a squirt, which are two crispy tortillas topped with delicious asiento (grilled lard drops that taste like browned butter and carnitas, combined), cheese, and this gorgeous, juicy asada. Then a vampire, which are similar, but without an asiento and instead dressed in a creamy vinaigrette, a crazy dad, which is a “crazy” baked potato filled with carne asada, cheese and sour cream, and finally a Torito, which is a very nice charred Anaheim pepper that is butterfly shaped and covered with a small amount of cheese and asada.
The little details Morales puts into his tacos don’t get enough love. Like the fact that instead of dipping his tortillas in oil to grill them, he instead uses a piece of greasy beef like a brush to gently brush each tortilla, bolstering each tortilla with an extra dose of beefy umami while they crunch. Also, Morales doesn’t serve cilantro on his tacos. Instead, he shreds the cabbage very finely as is done in Sinaloa. It adds a nice veggie contrast and makes it a treasured rare taco in LA that all those people born with taste buds who perceive cilantro as “soapy” can relish in complete safety. Finally, the salsa is not diluted.
By the way, Morales’ tortillas come from the family business Diana’s Tortillas, also from SELA.
When he’s not making amazing tacos worth a destination, he’s a do-it-yourself importer of Sinaloan and Sonoran products such as frozen clams known as “callo de hacha”, dried chiltepin chiles , frozen jumbo shrimp, frozen ahi tuna medallions. (medallions) and bags upon bags of dried ox silk which is the basis of a real machaca, a popular guisado from northern Mexico. Wistful Sinaloans have been known to come for tacos and leave with handfuls of clams as a keepsake and reminder of home.
Morales is a full-time taquero, but it’s only open Thursday through Sunday nights. He has big dreams of having a few locations soon. “El sol sale para todos,” Morales says, relying on the mighty Mexican dicho who’s as full of wisdom as his tacos are full of juicy steak to guide him through his career.
Tacos La Carreta is located at 3401 E. 69th St., Long Beach, (562) 377-2819. Follow them on instagram to find out the approximate times for the day of your visit.
All photos by Memo Torres.