The Story of Mexicali Taco & Co
If you find yourself on the corner of First and Beaudry, just a few blocks northwest of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, you may spot a crowd huddled around a grill and a billowing tower of smoke. The smell of charred meat wafts through the air and if you’re anything like me, will inevitably find yourself in line for a late night taco. On my last visit, music was playing, an elderly couple was enjoying a quesadilla, and I overheard a teenager raving to her friend about how these were her favorite tacos in Los Angeles. I walked up to the grill, said hello, and fist bumped Javier and Esdras. They’re here every Wednesday through Saturday evening, grilling meat and serving tacos with a smile.
It wasn’t always all smiles for this duo though. Two years ago, Javier and Esdras were laid off from their jobs working in a casino. Like others struggling with unemployment, they contemplated life’s next step. During college, Esdras often invited friends home for the weekend to introduce them to authentic carne asada tacos. After the first bite, they’d collectively groan with pleasure and wish that one day, Los Angeles would have something similar to offer. Long frustrated with the lackluster carne asada served in Los Angeles, Esdras recruited his best friend Javier and together they started Mexicali Taco & Co.
Javier Fregoso, Esdras Ochoa
Like every aspiring entrepreneur, the two struggled initially. The newly-formed business only pulled in $70 the first week. After ingredients and overhead, there wasn’t any profit to split between the two owners; moreover, neither had ever held a job in the food industry before.
What the duo lacked in experience they made up in knowledge of what good carne asada should be. Javier and Esdras grew up on the wonders of grilled meat. The two spent their formative years in Calexico, a small town smack-dab on the Mexican-American border. The town is legally part of California but resembles Mexico far more than the San Gabriel Valley resembles China, with over 90% of the population being Latino. Famous for searing hot summers (over 120 degrees!), Calexico is similar to many Northern Mexican states in that it’s renowned for tripas, al pastor, and carne asada.
“Asada is a way of life there, man”, Esdras said. “We have carne asada cook offs every weekend.”
Mexicali Taco’s carne asada is the real deal. With each taco, the duo shares a part of their childhood and hometown with Los Angeles. They’re grilling meats worthy of a backyard cook off in Calexico, and this authenticity translates to a better product. Instead of buying their asada pre-marinated and chopped like most taquerias do, they pick up slabs of fresh meat every morning and marinate it themselves.
Likewise, they avoid griddling beef on flat tops, which too often results in dry, shriveled scraps of steamed meat. Long slabs of beef are slapped on a flaming grill then later transferred from the fire onto a tree trunk that doubles as their chopping board. The meat, fragrant with citrus and pepper and still hissing from the heat, is charred black at the edges and glistening with oil. It’s chopped with a giant cleaver, loaded into a fluffy tortilla, and served. “Chopping the meat after you grill it instead of buying pre-chopped makes it juicier”, Esdras remarks. I’m sure Peter Luger would agree.
Authenticity and attention to quality is evident in sourcing both the meats and the tortillas as well—one reason why their price of $2/taco is well worth it when others are charging $1. Esdras experimented with prime sirloin at first but the cost was too prohibitive– starting at the top shows his commitment to quality. He settled on chuck, a flavorful cut of meat with a good balance between cost and quality. When the two couldn’t find passable flour tortillas around Los Angeles -even going to the point of trying to get them custom-made for them- they had no choice but to drive down to Calexico every few days and haul back loads of the authentic stuff. The goal was to make tacos just like home.
Sales for the first month were virtually nonexistent, and Javier and Esdras turned to their customers as a source of hope. Despite the slow sales, people from all walks of life could taste the vitality in the meat, salsas and tortillas, and they would always return. Random passerby turned into regulars. Friends always told friends and soon enough there was a sense of community at the corner of First and Beaudry. In the beginning, the two enterprising men weren’t aware of power of social media, Yelp!, and blogs. It wasn’t until one afternoon when Javier and Esdras tried the fish tacos at Ricky’s Fish Tacos that everything changed.
The quality and popularity of the fish tacos at Ricky’s impressed Javier and Esdras, and the trio connected over their similar upbringing. “It was like I was in Baja again”, Esdras recalls. Similarly, Ricky loved the duo’s asada tacos and tweeted about them to his ~2500 followers. Instantly there was a surge of visitors, and it has only gotten better. Their humble business is only approaching its second birthday yet it’s become quite the celebrated taco stand. It’s been heralded by foodbloggers like Bill Esparza of StreetGourmetLA (I credit Bill to my discovery of Mexicali Taco) and LadyDucayne as having the best carne asada in town. Just this April, it won LATaco.com’s Taco Madness 2011 for the favorite taco in Los Angeles. True enough, their carne asada is so good it puts all other Los Angeles-based attempts to shame.
Back at First and Beaudry, the line moved quickly and I was now at the front of the queue. Just as the elderly couple started walking to their car and the teenage girls finished inhaling their tacos, Javier hands me my order. In the middle of the plastic-bag-lined plate was a Cachetada, a corn tortilla grilled to a crisp topped with melted cheese, carne asada and a chipotle aioli sauce. Tostada and quesadilla’s illegitimate lovechild, it’s good enough to make a grown man cry.
Flanking the bastardized composition were two carne asada tacos on flour tortillas. I load them with a dollop of spicy salsa, pico de gallo, and two hefty spoonfuls of creamy guacamole and gingerly lift one to my mouth, trying not to spill on my jacket. I fail and guacamole dribbles down my arm and inside my shirtsleeve. No worries- one bite of the magnificent taco and you would care less if entire vats of meat and salsa spilled all over your shirt.
I’m not sure where this intangible desire and pleasure from eating these tacos comes from, but it’s a joy rarely replicated. Perhaps it’s because my repeated experiences with carne asada over the past years resembled grayish scraps of beef byproduct tougher than cartilage and tasting of refuse; it gotten to the point where I stopped ordering asada altogether. Or maybe it’s because I’ve long favored organ meats (buche! tripas! lengua!) instead of the often-neglected asada. But whatever the case, Mexicali Taco & Co’s carne asada taco is in a league of its own, a peerless marriage of tortilla and the primal, charred, citrus-tinged beef. No sooner than I finished my first I was reaching for my second (that’s why I always order two).
With my hands empty and dripping with oil and salsa, I look up at Javier in hopes of ordering more, but he’s already serving the next customer and the line has grown even longer. At this point, I can’t help but smile. Javier and Esdras inspire me. They are two stand-up guys who simply wanted to bring quality, authentic carne asada to Los Angeles. Bill Esparza says, “Other taqueros around don’t have the courage or knowledge to serve $2 carne asada tacos. This could be the start of a revolution”, and I couldn’t agree more.