The taco has become LA’s official dish thanks to our proximity to Mexico and population of residents with Mexican heritage. But over the years, something evil happened: the beloved taco became the tah-co. Now you can’t travel a block without passing someone’s gentrified take on Mexico’s culinary gift. I’m sure Rebecca Horowitz means well, but TravelCoterie wants people visiting Los Angeles to try something other than a $9 kale, beet and fig stir-fry mash inside a flour mission tortilla shell.
What originally made tacos popular in Southern California was their simplicity and affordability. And while you can still find a decent al pastor for under $2, the search is becoming increasingly complicated. Thankfully, the City of Angels has plenty of other dishes from Latin America being served from kitchens, trucks, and stalls from East LA to Santa Monica; dishes that rival or in some cases surpass the wonders of the taco. And dishes that have yet to be … how shall we phrase this … white-washed. Here are a few of those items:
1. Papusa (Honduras, El Salvador)
There’s nothing elegant about a papusa. It, like most things that please the soul going down, is greasy, fattening, messy and a gastrointestinal nightmare. Hondurans and El Salvadorians dispute the item’s birthplace but all can agree it originates from Central America. A thick corn tortilla stuffed with any combination of cheese, beans and meat, the papusa is usually topped with a slaw and tomato salsa. One of the OG stalls still standing inside Grand Central Market, Sarita’s Pupuseria, is a great place to give this dish a try.
2. Ropa Vieja (Colombia, Cuba)
This pulled beef stew is the national dish of Cuba and can be found throughout Puerto Rico, Colombia and Panama. Cooked with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and spices, the pulled beef and veggies are served over rice with a side of plantains and frijoles. The most popular place to try this dish in Los Angeles is Versailles Cuban restaurant.
3. Empanadas (Argentina-ish)
The Philippines. Italy. Cape Verde. Variations of the empanada have managed to popup all over the world although most recognize them as an Argentinian appetizer. The empanada is a baked pastry stuffed with a combination of meat, egg, cheese or vegetables. In Belize, they’re fried instead of baked but the ingredients are more or less the same. Unlike some of the other dishes on this list with disputed origins, we know the empanada is Spanish. It first appeared in a cookbook by Robert de Nola some 500 years ago. For those of you interested in scarfing down a few, World Empanadas is as good a place as any to give it a go. And they even have vegan options for the quinoa and lentil tree huggers out there.
Similar to the papusa, an arepa is a Colombian/Venezuelan dish comprised of ground maize dough which makes a corn cake. The difference between Central American’s papusa and South America’s arepa is that the latter can be stuffed or split into halves with meat, cheese or beans sandwiched between slices. Masarepa is also often an essential ingredient in the shell’s preparation. The dishes are still extremely similar so save the emails correcting me. Cafe Alba in Downtown Los Angeles serves a decent arepa if you fancy trying one.
5. Cubano (Florida)
A ham and cheese sandwich in a tux, the Cubano was birthed in Key West, Florida as a quick and easy meal for Cuban laborers. The dish includes roasted pork, Swiss cheese, ham, mustard and a pickle on Cuban bread. The bread is key here. This prepared with the same ingredients between two slices of Wonder Bread would be blasphemous. But those same ingredients between a Cuban roll is a ticket to frolicking at heaven’s gate: wipe your chin before entering. Try this at the Crispy Cuban food truck.
6. Churrasco (Brazil, Argentina)
A man that shares my namesake would once, if left to his own devices, happily bathe in the pork grease impressed upon his dinner plate. Psychedelics can change a person so that man has retired from the realm of carnivores. But I’m told that he does occasionally remember how the former Eric Berry would rejoice upon entering a churrascaria. These restaurants are designed with meat lovers in mind. Inside, waiters dance from table to table with skewers of meat, slicing pieces onto customer’s plates. ALL YOU CAN EAT. Pork. Lamb. Beef. Different cuts. All meat. All the time. These sort of restaurants are popular in Brazil and LA has several places where you can experience true gluttony, Fogo de Chão leading the way.
7. Ceviche (Peru)
Ceviche is the national dish of Peru, so let’s assume for the sake of this article that it originates from the South American country. Ceviche is typically made by curing raw seafood in lemon or lime juice. Recipes vary, but typically include some, if not all of these ingredients: onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado, chili peppers, green pepper and celery.
You can find ceviche throughout Latin America and at numerous restaurants throughout Los Angeles. The best being La Cevicheria located here: