“The Taco Revolution has exploded to such a degree that you have to go out of your comfort zone,” said Tom Vickers.
It was the day after the music business veteran showcased R&B vocal great Billy Valentine at Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks. He was taking a visitor from New York, who was very much impressed by Valentine's gig, on what has become known as the Saturday Taco Hunt.
The two were joined by legendary music publicist Bob Merlis as they walked into Mondo Taco, a small shop on the corner of La Brea and San Vicente unknowingly passed by many times on the way to LAX.
Entering, they were immediately welcomed and thanked by the owner.
“It was my fourth time there,” said Vickers, “but at any given point in time, there’s a list in my wallet, probably with eight to 10 places I want to go but haven’t yet.”
He pulled out the list, then cited three that he’d been to, and sure enough, eight he hadn’t--yet.
“I’ve been to 13 so far, and have four favorites,” Vickers added.
Mondo Taco was one of them.
“A relatively new spot, it has many of your traditional favorites but also mash-ups of various other cuisines built into a taco,” Vickers informed. His favorites, from the Crawls list include “French Kiss” (“slow-cooked pork with mushroom Dijon sauce”) and “Angry Chicken (“white meat chicken with buffalo sauce and creamy blue cheese dressing”).
“They also have over eight vegetarian options,” he added, here naming “Garlic Bomb,” consisting of mushrooms and garlic, “slow-cooked into a delicious concoction that just tastes great on a taco,” as his top Grows category pick.
Mondo Taco also has a Swims set of tacos, and Vickers likes to choose one from each of the three headings per sitting.
“Like many of the establishments I’ve located, they also serve agua fresca, a Mexican fruit drink utilizing various melons and fruits. Their watermelon agua fresca is truly refreshing!”
Merlis praised the Mondo Taco menu for its “artisinal tacos.”
“They’re not mass-produced, but very unexpected,” he said. “There’s the French one, and a Moroccan/Argentine hybrid, so it was not the ordinary, predictable taco, though they still have the regular ethnic bill-of-fare--but it transcends that and is very high quality.”
Merlis also noted that the Mondo Taco employees are “hip—but not hipsters. They’re not arch, but earnest.” The Taco Hunt itself, he said, “catalyzes the kind of exploration you wouldn’t otherwise do: We used to go to the same place every Saturday and broke out of it, and as a result, have visited parts of the city we’ve never been to before: the City of Bell, Sylmar and other places in South and East L.A.”
The Taco Hunt is “not just random,” stated Vickers. Rather, “I try to research where we’re going: You can discuss favorite tacos like favorite records!”
Echoing Merlis, Vickers concedes. that he patronized Yuca’s taco stand near Los Feliz for “too long without venturing out.”
“For over 30 years my Saturday ritual was to go to Yuca’s on Hillhurst Ave.,” he said. “It’s renowned for the carne asada burrito, and they even won a James Beard award for dishing up some of the best street Mexican food in L.A. But a little over three years ago I decided to lessen my intake of red meat. Hence, Yuca’s carne asada suddenly became a dietary no-no.”
In an effort to eat more fish, Vickers “switched [taco] allegiances” to Ricky’s Fish Taco stand just down the street from Yuca’s. “However, when my good friend Bob Merlis noted that I was trading in red meat for deep fat fried-in-lard fish, the dietary tradeoff was negligible,” he soon realized.
Then, some three months ago, the esteemed Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold wrote an article about the 14 best Mexican food locations in Southern California.
“I had tried four of them,” computed Vickers. “This lit a fire under me to explore more of this fine cuisine!”
Every Saturday from that point on Vickers enlisted various friends to join him everywhere from taco stands to sit-down restaurants and trucks scattered throughout the Los Angeles region.
“Many incredible spots were discovered,” he said, “some through good articles, some through Web searches and sites such as L.A. Taco, Chowhound and Yelp. Through them I discovered a whole ‘nother level of taco experience that has captivated my--how do I say?--love of Mexican cuisine and culture.”
And besides Mondo Taco, what are Vickers’ other three current taco faves?
“Chichen Itza--located in the Mexican Cultural Center near USC, has incredibly delicious food in a great setting, and is one of my new favorite go-to spots,” he reported. “La Casita Mexicana, in the City of Bell, is beyond great: not a sit-down taco stand but a full-fledged restaurant with an incredible gift shop attached. It serves up traditional Mexican regional recipes, both veg- and meat-centric--all delicious. Their moles are absolutely fantastic as is their signature dish, the Chile en Nogada.”
As for Mariscos Jalisco, a taco truck located in Boyle Heights, their specialty, related Vickers, is a crispy tortilla stuffed with shrimp, deepfried and covered with ceviche and avocado. Also noteworthy, “a lone mariachi singer regales you with guitar and songs while you eat your crispy shrimp taco on a sidewalk bench.”
But Vickers stresses that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of taco places to choose from in Southern California, and Melenie Caldwell, Merlis’s longtime assistant, noted that “obviously, they haven’t gone to Highland Park”--clearly a hotbed of taco activity.
Perhaps next week Vickers will explore Highland Park, as he admitted “I have only begun my Taco Quest.”
But he did come back to his table at Mondo Taco, refill of his watermelon agua fresca in hand, with “the big news”: a new Mondo Taco “on Sunset Strip near the Whisky” is in the offing.
He was obviously satisfied at the original store, as he was overheard murmuring “mondo” as he walked out.
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