The allure of the food truck or the taco stand is that it’s simple. There are no reservations needed. The service is quick. It’s cheap. It holds the convenience of fast food without the corporate stamp and the mass production.
And that’s what makes Mexicali Taco & Co.’s move from a late-night taco stand to a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar restaurant on Figueroa Street all the more interesting.
The popular taco joint had previously been stationed amid a parking lot on First Street and Beaudry Avenue, just a couple blocks west of its current location. There was one grill, a couple tables and a canopy to shield patrons from the occasional late-night L.A. rain.
It was well-liked, sure, but it was also limited: only open four days a week from Wednesday through Saturday from 8 p.m. to midnight, largely catering to a handful of commuters coming to and from work just north of Downtown.
Mexicali, which is owned by Javier Fregoso, Esdras Ochoa and Paul Yoo, opened at its new spot mid-February, and is now open six days a week for lunch and dinner.
“It was our dream,” Ochoa said about the decision to transform his taco stand into a full-blown restaurant.
But the move also caused some to wonder whether it could capture its old outdoor charm and simplistic feel.
Rest assured, the new place doesn’t miss much.
At its core, it still feels like an ordinary food stand. Within the confines, there are five bright red picnic tables. The walls are modestly adorned with a handful of photographs — a few shots of Downtown Los Angeles and a map of Baja California. The space’s wood accents give it a sort of temporary, makeshift feel. You order and pick up food at the counter. Maybe most importantly, Mexicali’s menu features items that range from $2.25 to $5.75.
There is something simple, but not ordinary, about Mexicali tacos — winners of L.A. Taco’s third annual Taco Madness last April — that proves comforting, making you want to come back for more.
The Mexicali taco, which comes with the choice of carne asada, pollo or chorizo, is not cluttered with excess cheese, sauces or onions. It’s tender, but it doesn’t crumble into pieces after each bite.
There is something to be said for food that isn’t draped in myriad sauces and cheeses. Sometimes, simplicity can suffice. It’s evident here and in its other favorites like the Vampiro, a crispy quesadilla infused with cheese, meat and garlic sauce, as well as with the Cachetada — a tostada that combines chorizo, Mexican cheese and a house-made, savory chipotle sauce.
Neither will run up your tab more than $4.
But where Mexicali’s traditional options excel, its new offerings miss the mark slightly.
There have been some recent additions following the relocation. Mexicali now boasts a vegetarian option as a substitute for one of its three meats. It has also added nachos, dripping in cheese, avocado salsa and pico de gallo.
But it’s a bit too much.
What makes Mexicali stand out, almost oxymoronically, is its simplicity. Its tacos and tostada-like Cachetadas offer just enough to keep you more than satisfied with each savoring bite, but not too much where it becomes overwhelming.
Conversely, its nachos, wrapped in a variety of cheeses among other side items, carry a processed feel — it’s the kind of cluttered dish you could find just about anywhere in Southern California. And while Mexicali’s Zuperman — with a combination of carne asada, chicken and chorizo, topped with a mixture of cheeses — has been around for years, it too feels a bit over the top. And at $5, you’d probably be better off just ordering an extra taco.
But combine that taco or two with an horchata — one of Mexicali’s three available aguas frescas — that’s perfectly refreshing and subtly sweet, and it becomes quite the stop.
With each bite, it’s as if you’re in your own little neighborhood.
And even with the move away from its old parking lot, you can still taste Mexicali Taco & Co.’s late-night charm.
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Mexicali Taco & Co. is located at 702 N. Figueroa Street.