The Northwest Pasadena Taco Survey, A Comprehensive Study

World and Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt eats a taco during a conference at the World Sport Congress in Mexico City, on November 14, 2009. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

I am obsessed with tacos. Over the last few years, I have devoted myself to a singular, some would say impossible, quest — to sample every taco in northwest Pasadena. Like Ahab chasing his white whale, I have pursued this mission with a single-minded ferocity. I have tasted tacos in humble carnicerias and massive supermarkets, in grungy liquor stores and all-night donut shops, in claustrophobic drive-throughs and cement driveways. In any given week, my neighborhood has about 30 different taco spots.

My personal "Taco District" — bounded by Washington Blvd. to the north, Lake Ave. to the east, the 210 to the south and Lincoln Blvd. to the west — is a one-square-mile swath with Garfield Heights, my quaint micro-hood, planted in the middle. The area isn't large but even within these modest geographic limits, to savor and study the taco is a life's work.

I intend to publish the fruits of my research, "The Northwest Pasadena Taco Survey," later this year. In the meantime, I invite LAist readers to savor the highlights.

Assorted tacos at Máquina Taco in Pasadena. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Máquina Taco

Opened in November 2018, Máquina Taco has established itself as one of the most cutting-edge taquerias in town. Chef Greg Lukasiewicz, after tinkering with his taco concepts at a pop-up, partnered with a local fruit cart (it's now stationed outside Máquina when not parked at the Rose Bowl). The standard menu features traditional asada, pollo and al pastor as well as pork belly mole, duck, lamb and octopus but the ambitious and imaginative specials are where it's at. They might include elk and bacon, sweetbreads, venison, lobster, wild boar, chicken heart, jackfruit mole and chapulines (grasshoppers) marinated with dried chile then flash-fried to a light crisp. You can request any of these in a burrito or a bowl but if you do, you'll miss out on the fabulous blue corn tortillas from Kernel of Truth Organics. Tacos cost $3 to $9 and lines have grown longer since the Los Angeles Times gave the place a glowing review. Thankfully, an addition to the dining room has expanded the restaurant's capacity. If you have to wait, sip a watermelon agua fresca, enjoy the jazz piping through the speakers and bask in the afternoon sun warming the annex.
1274 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena. 626-365-1893.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.

Barbacoa tacos at Mi Rinconcita Azteca in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

Mi Rinconcita Azteca

If you're a fan of the namesake offerings at Highland Park's El Huarache Aztecas — sandal-shaped slabs of fried masa topped with veggies, cheese and meat — you can now find them in another spot. In 2017, members of the Rodriguez family opened Mi Rinconcita Azteca near Orange Grove Blvd. and Raymond Ave. In addition to huaraches, the small, vibrant corner shop features an expanded menu of barbacoa, moles and a daily desayuno (breakfast), all prepared in "estilo D.F." for fans of Mexico City's fare. The lamb barbacoa, served only on weekends, is a thing of beauty. Marinated in the secret family recipe and slow-roasted, it's sold by the pound and served with a traditional cup of rich consommé. Vegetarians can opt for squash blossoms and huitlacoche, the savory mushroom-like corn fungus. Credit for all this goes to Alfredo Rodriguez; his wife, Mariela; and their son, Greg, who imbue the place with a welcoming vibe. Your check might come with a hand-written post-it offering thanks and bestowing blessings upon you.
687 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. 626-535-9595.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.

Fish tacos at Los Primos in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

Los Primos

Located at Orange Grove Blvd. and Fair Oaks Ave., Los Primos specializes in large Ensenada-style fish and shrimp tacos — battered and fried hunks of fish served on 6-inch tortillas heaped with shredded cabbage and drizzled with crema. (The Gobernador adds cheese and green pepper.) Choose basic cod ($5.25) or shrimp. If you want something less common, there's marlin. Although iceberg lettuce occasionally stands in for cabbage, the seafood is fresh and the batter fries to a light yet convincing crisp. Los Primos also offers street-style tacos with your choice of a dozen fillings including tripe, sesos (brains) and buche (the outer lining of a cow's stomach) for $1.75 apiece. The place gets busy at lunch but the dinner shift seems to elicit more attention from the chef.
951 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. 626-304-0538.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.

A fish taco at Vero's Restaurant in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

Vero's Restaurant

A fixture on the corner of Lincoln Ave. and Orange Grove Blvd. for more than two decades, Vero's Restaurant is a shrine to Pancho Villa. The walls of the dimly lit dining room are festooned with images of the revolutionary hero alongside plaques explaining his legacy. As for their tacos, Vero's puts its best foot forward with conventional fillings such as carnitas, pollo and lengua ($1.75 each). Look for deals on Wednesdays, when you might score grilled or fried shrimp tacos that typically cost $2.50 for as low as $1. Portions are generous. The battered and fried filet in your fish taco will likely dwarf your tortillas and the crema drizzled on the iceberg lettuce is spiked with chili powder. Plus, fresh chips and salsa come with every order.
654 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena. 626-796-5459.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.

Carnitas tacos at La Estrella #1 in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

La Estrella

Like stars in the sky, we are blessed with many La Estrellas, all of which loosely belong to the same family. In fact, there are two on Garfield Ave. across from each other (the result of a divorce settlement). Some specialize in Baja-style fish tacos. Others offer a standard menu of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. Still others focus on soups and stews. Head to La Estrella #2 on Fair Oaks Ave for an OG taco — two small corn or flour tortillas topped with your choice of eight fillings (al pastor, carnitas, asada, cabeza, buche, etc.) and finished with chopped white onions and cilantro — that costs a mere $1.75. With its prime location just north of the 210 Freeway, this La Estrella is the busiest of the local three. A straight-up, no-nonsense taco stand, it stays open until 2 a.m. and has ample parking in back. There's no indoor seating but the patio has four small tables. In addition to the standard menu options, you might notice something called "fried guts," chopped innards of indeterminate provenance. If you've got 'em, get 'em.
La Estrella #1: 320 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. 626-304-2752.
Cards accepted. No alcohol.

La Estrella #2: 502 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. 626-792-8559.
Cards accepted. No alcohol.

La Estrella Restaurant: 330 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. 626-304-2613.
Cards accepted. No alcohol.

Quesa tacos at Vallarta Supermarkets in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

Vallarta Supermarkets

This location of growing grocery chain Vallarta Supermarkets supplanted a desultory Von's, expanding the space and giving it a much needed facelift. The only drawback is the manic parking lot. You may be familiar with the Vallarta brand but this location is exceptional. The only comparison is the enormous Whole Foods on Arroyo Parkway, a mile and a half south, except Vallarta has a larger and better selection of fresh produce and far lower prices. Enter at the north end of the store and you'll find yourself at a sushi bar and taqueria. (Tortillas are made in-house, in an impressive glassed-in tortilleria on the other side of the store.) In addition to the usual choices (asada, carnitas, al pastor, pollo, lengua, cabeza), which are all reliably tasty, Vallarta offers occasional variations. You might find tacos made with super-hot Ghost Pepper salsa or "quesa tacos," which have a layer of cheese lining the tortilla. Counter service can be slow but once you have your plate, make a pit stop at the generous salsa and condiment bar then head to the small dining area or the outdoor tables. As a bonus, you'll find an eclectic assortment of fresh ceviches, a juice bar, a fully appointed salad bar, a steam table of hot entrees and an assortment of housemade tamales.
655 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. 626-204-6960
Credit cards accepted. Alcohol available for purchase.

Assorted tacos at El Taquito Mexicano in Pasadena. (Frier McCollister for LAist)

El Taquito Mexicano

Reliable and unpretentious, El Taquito Mexicano serves straightforward tacos, burritos and quesadillas. Despite its name, they don't offer taquitos but they do make sopes, huaraches and nachos. At this small but popular spot, most of the action happens at the back counter where a long, glassed-in steam table allows you to watch as your taco is assembled. El Taquito Mexicano does a brisk weekday lunch business. Although the line sometimes stretches to the door, the service is swift and friendly. I prefer the chicken, carnitas and al pastor tacos but you have several options including cabeza and lengua. Served on paper plates, these small, street-style tacos cost $2 or less.
490 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena. 626-356-9411.
Credit cards accepted. 4% discount for using cash. No alcohol.

Street Vendors

On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from approximately 6 to 10 p.m., an entrepreneurial chef sometimes slings tacos, burritos and burgers out of his driveway. The offerings vary from week to week but carne asada and grilled chicken are fixtures and the excellent tacos cost a mere $1. I've even seen a cactus paddle on the grill for nopales, if you're looking for a plant-based option. Still, most patrons of this bootleg operation come for the burger, which features a grilled and quartered hotdog piled onto the patty. Given its popularity (expect a wait) and presumed lack of permitting and inspection, I'm only going to say that the operation is near Orange Grove Blvd.