Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself: An ode to late-night LA taco stands

Adriana Sanchez | Daily Trojan

It’s 3 a.m. and dozens of people are talking loudly in a gas station parking lot.

It’s a colorful array of people: a group of girls in nice dresses and heels, a pack of grisly middle-aged bikers, a couple of college kids sniffling in their sweatshirts. People chatter, and each raised voice is a desperate attempt to float above the others in a neat line ahead of them, all staring at a glorious spit of roasting pork.

Under the glare of floodlights, half of a fraternity shovels in 55 tacos on a portable black table. A mother and daughter stare at the boys while filling a plastic produce bag full of onions, salsa and limes.

In all my life, at every cheap and casual restaurant I’ve ever been to, I’ve never seen a crowd of diners as diverse as that at Leo’s Tacos.

I step up to the cashier and order three tacos al pastor. Anything on the menu is probably good, but I wouldn’t know — nor would many of its patrons, because Leo’s has the absolute best, readily available al pastor in Los Angeles. The cashier nods and I hand over a $5 bill. The average price per taco at Leo’s Tacos is $1.25.

Leo’s Tacos (or Tacos Leo depending on who you ask) has only been around for a few years, but it has cemented itself not only as a late-night destination, but also as one of the best taco trucks in the city.

No truck or stand quite matches the enthusiasm and legacy of Leo’s Tacos (sorry Tacozone — the affectionately named taco stand operating out of Vermont Avenue’s Autozone near USC). Every night, after the bars and clubs close, people flock to the orange-and-yellow painted trucks across the city. Leo’s Tacos has six trucks at regular locations, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see several more join the fleet in the coming years.

Cars rip in and out of the gas station parking lot as time goes on. People are driving to Leo’s Tacos in its closing minutes, desperate for a late-night snack, lured by the irresistible whisper of sizzling pork. Some come from 20, 30, 40 minutes away. The trip is worth it to them.

Leo’s Tacos is iconic. It feels authentic to Mexico, or at least authentic to Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles. It feels like a light cast on the dark, empty part of Los Angeles — it buffers the brutality of a 2 a.m. bar close. It feels honest.

Al pastor, a Mexican food truck staple, began as a borrowed food from another country.

In the late 19th century, Lebanese immigrants flooded Mexico, to escape the control of the Ottoman Empire. As they settled in Mexico, the Lebanese brought their traditions, including the döner kebab. Traditional Lebanese döner kebab consists of seasoned meat, typically mutton, stacked in an upside-down cone and grilled on a rotating spit next to an open flame.

When the Lebanese recreated this dish in Mexico, they used mutton, a meat from sheep. As it

became popular with Mexicans, it got the name “al pastor,” which means “shepard style.” As time progressed, pork, the much more popular protein in Mexico substituted lamb. Mexican spices were added, and a pineapple was placed on top of the spit.

A man cuts razor-thin slices of al pastor from the spit next to the truck and lays them out on three corn tortillas. He does the same with the pineapple on top, crowning each taco with a slice of yellow fruit. I take a first, unadorned bite and stifle a grin as I’m greeted with impossibly tender pork cradled in a warm tortilla. Pineapple juice seeps into some of the al pastor, adding a refreshing sweetness that cuts through the fat and spice.

Leo’s Tacos feels true to Los Angeles. Al pastor feels true to Mexico.

The Lebanese döner kebab has spread across the globe, and is replicated in countries across Europe and the Middle East. But Mexican al pastor still feels special.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, I’m sure there’s a gyro place that feels true to the heart of Greece as Leo’s Tacos is to Los Angeles. In Germany, it’s probably a döner kebab place. Across the Middle East, it might be a shawarma and kebab spot.

In a way, the variety and prevalence of döner kebab feels like a universal mirror held against the diverse crowd waiting in line at Leo’s Tacos. Every person and group has had a different night, with different tones and feelings. But all gather for the same purpose.

Meat on a spit has an international power. It has a power to unite people, despite all differences, through the mutual goal of consuming tender, roasted meat next to a flame. Perhaps this commonality could bring people closer together, not only across the city of Los Angeles but across the entire planet. Or, perhaps, I’m just really enjoying these al pastor tacos.

Christina Tiber is a junior majoring in psychology. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.