Big dreams and hard work make Tacos Listo a USC favorite

Javier Jimenez, Lola Martinez, Gerardo Rios, Benito Rios, Carmen Rios, and Roberto Jimenez (left to right) comprise the hard-working Tacos Listo team that sets up shop in a Vermont Avenue parking lot. Photo by Saul Rubin.

The savory aroma of cooked meat is not what you might expect to find while walking down Vermont Avenue. But on most late weeknights, that’s exactly what you’ll get if you pass by the AutoZone and Vermont Outlet True Value parking lot near campus. The smell comes from Tacos Listo, a taco stand that caters to students late at night.

Los Angeles has an historic love affair with taco trucks and stands, and USC is no exception. Known to students as Taco Zone (due to its proximity to the AutoZone) Tacos Listo has become a popular option for both students and locals craving delicious late night Mexican fare.

“We start at 11 a.m., and we cook the rice and prepare all the other ingredients for the tacos, and by 4, we have everything set up, and we only take two hours to rest, as a break,” said Benito Rios, who runs the stand with his family and friends.

By the time they’re ready, their folding table features three different salsas, cucumbers, pickled onions with habanero pepper, cilantro, chopped onions and limes. Rios and his team function like a professional crew at a NASCAR race, each with a prescribed role in preparing a customer’s meal.

Rios said he has worked at taco stands from a young age, and in the food industry for over 14 years. Four years ago, he decided to open an independent stand of his own.

Tacos Listo initially struggled, as few students would come to the somewhat hidden operation. However, word of mouth quickly spread, and students grew obsessed with the stand. A student-led Instagram account, @istacozoneopen is solely dedicated to telling students when the stand is open. It has amassed over 900 followers since it was created in April 2018. 

When it comes to the food, Rios said students typically prefer to eat quesadillas and quesa-burritos, which feature cheese fried on top of a plancha and put into a burrito. The quesa-burrito costs $7, making it more affordable than some of the foods offered on campus and at USC Village.

Tacos Listo offers a variety of meat choices, from carne asada and al pastor — pork typically marinated with pineapple, orange and multiple types of red peppers — to cabeza (cow head), lengua (cow tongue), buche (pork stomach), pollo and chorizo.

Tacos Listo also offers mulitas, essentially smaller quesadillas made with thicker tortillas. Rios said he would like to expand the stand’s menu by making tortas and asada fries to further appeal to students, who he said are Tacos Listo’s primary customer base.

It’s not uncommon to see families with young children rubbing shoulders with frat boys grabbing a bite to eat. The stand often becomes a melting pot of the local South L.A. community and young college students. 

“What I like about taco stands and [this one in particular] is that they’re such a good mix of local residents and students,” Grace Corsi, a recent USC graduate, said. “It makes for interesting conversation, especially if you speak Spanish. It’s nice to not be in an insular college bubble that I think a lot of people don’t really step out of.”

Rios said he enjoys working at the stand and wants to see it grow to other locations. 

“I’m just very happy to do what I’m doing and … I’m having a lot of success. I’m very proud of it,” Rios said. “One of my favorite things is to make the client feel as if they had the best meal they’ve had in a long time.”