When it comes to Mexican food, most would argue that San Diego reigns supreme – there’s just no place that compares when it comes to satisfying that post surf California burrito craving or lust for authentic street tacos. San Diego’s monopoly on the best Mexican food may have some swearing off the search up North, but in the name of research (and in the quest of kickass tacos for all) we headed up the coast to round up some of Orange County’s gems. Let’s get to it.
- El Torro Bravo Tortilleria
745th W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA
6 am – 9 pm
Should your journeys find you anywhere remotely near this East Side Costa Mesa hotspot, a pitstop here is an absolute must. This take-out spot is the real deal. They’ve been cranking out pure magic in the form of huge street tacos, authentic tamales, freshly ground tortillas, and cult-following carnitas for over 30 years. The line out the door at all hours is a true testament to this. Known as the OG of Mexican food in Orange County, El Torro Bravo Tortilleria is the definition of ‘hole in the wall’ but once inside you’ll want to pack your things, forward your mail, and move right in. You’ll have to share your space with the vat of boiling hominy – did we mention they make the masa dough (for their tortillas, tostadas, and chips) in-house? When they say fresh ground tortillas, they mean it. The owners, who can often be found working the front register, will happily walk first-timers through the menus ‘must trys’ and for those of us with rusty Spanish, order with total trust that anything you get will blow your mind. You’ll also find that since this place has such a following, you’ll stick out as a newcomer the second your eyes dart to their menu and the other hungry folk in line with you will excitedly give you their recommendations as well.
Now let’s talk tacos: $2.90 for a heaping portion of succulent, seasoned, slow roasted meat of your choosing ranging from the usual suspects (chicken, carnitas, barbacoa, carne asada) to birria (spicy goat), chicharrones (pork belly) and cueritos (pork skins). The meat is the star here, it’s fall of the bone tender. These bad boys come fully loaded with a double, soft tortilla wrapping, fresh, crisp white onion, tangy cilantro and salsa so good you’ll want to leave with a gallon full. While that isn’t an option just yet, rest assured that you can leave with enough hot tortillas to tide you over, at least for your drive home. Trust us, this place will haunt your dreams like an old lover who did you oh so right. You’ll be back.
- Los Primos Cantina
488 E 17th St, Suite A 106, Costa Mesa, CA
9 am – 9 pm
Finding a parking spot in this gem-packed center (featuring a lineup of Orange County foodie favorites like Bonzai Bowl and Poke Tiki) will be your biggest hurdle when it comes to getting your hands on their beloved carne asada taco. Once you’ve maneuvered your way in, take a deep inhale. Let the salty, sweet aroma of crispy on the outside, tender on the inside meat fill your entire being, then order away. Really let your taste buds guide you. Here, you can do no wrong. Carne asada is a fan favorite, but carnitas and pollo are as satisfying in their own, beautiful ways. Translucent squares of finely chopped white onion and fresh pico de gallo make the perfect toppings to accompany the generous scoops of crispy, mind-blowingly delicious meat.
A single taco will run you about $2.49, but we strongly recommend making it a combination so you too can experience their creamy, salted-to-perfection pinto beans (you can practically taste the hours spent laboring over them, with notes of onion, garlic, and fat) Don’t forget to load up at the salsa bar – so fresh that if you choose to dine in, you’ll see them continuously refill iced buckets of pico de gallo, salsas of every shade of red and pickled carrots. Hearty portions, fresh and fully stocked salsa bar, and a few seating options nestled inside make Los Primos Cantina an awesome spot to satisfy that taco craving.
- Wild Taco
407 31st St, Newport Beach, CA
11 am – 9pm
Handmade corn tortillas, the freshest fish in all of Orange County, and a substantial list of cold beers on tap – what else could you need? Well, for those of you interested in kicking things up a notch, Wild Taco has your back. The street tacos you know and love, featuring wild-caught fish, all-natural meats, and locally sourced ingredients. Come sink your teeth into freshly caught lobster tacos ($4.50 per) with hearty, pink chunks seasoned to absolute, undeniable perfection, nestled atop tangy crema, cabbage slaw, and pico.
Locals swear their calamari tacos ($4.25) are the best in the business, and it seems those who know can’t even let you whisper the words Wild Taco without insisting you try the tri-tip tacos ($3.75). Served a la carte style, their play on the traditional street taco is served on handmade tortillas of your choosing or a lettuce wrap for those who are more carb conscious. Their menu has something for everyone, even vegetarians. Their Mexi-Cauli taco ($3.50) with it’s crispy sweet corn, creamy melted cheese, black beans and garlicky roasted cauliflower will take your taste buds on a journey. A journey that will leave you wide-eyed, wanting – no needing – more.
With ample seating, an expansive drink list, and awesome customer service, this place is a win for Orange County. Brought to us by the same incredible family team behind Bear Flag – a local community favorite known for their fresh, sustainable seafood – it’s no surprise that their spin on the street taco is just as outrageous.
- Taco Mesa
647 W 19th Street, Costa Mesa, CA
8 am – 11 pm
This authentic, late-night haunt is a staple in the OC community and has been since 1991. Fan favorite seems to be a toss-up between the al pastor and carnitas, but one bite into the “Best of the West” ($3.75) featuring crispy battered wild fish, chipotle sauce good enough to drink on its own, cabbage relish, crema and queso had me ready to take on anyone who said a better taco was out there.
Then, came the Alambre ($3.50): layers of tender steak, sizzling bacon, sweet peppers, onions and melted cheese. It was love at first bite, and picking a favorite would be too painful. Add rice and beans for $2, or enjoy a la carte. If your trip up North happens to be on a Tuesday don’t hesitate to head over to Taco Mesa for $2 margaritas and $1 street tacos. With both indoor and outdoor seating, weekly deals and flowing margaritas, Taco Mesa has got to be on your list.
- La Sirena Grill
347 Mermaid Street, Laguna Beach, CA
8 am – 9 pm
This beach community favorite is so in demand it has three locations, each spot serving up fresh Mexican food with a self-proclaimed “MexECO spin” – the owners are committed to strong, environmental ideals and timeless, family recipes. The original location reigns in the heart of Laguna and has been a hotspot for years. In fact, when we set out on our quest for a taco roundup in the area, La Sirena was on nearly everyone’s list! One bite of the blackened, tender calamari taco (think handmade corn tortilla, cabbage, and salsa with just enough kick) and you’ll see why ($4.25). Should you want to stick with a more traditional protein, the carne asada is grass fed and grilled to pure perfection and the carnitas is as tender as it is flavorful. From tortas to quesadillas, equal parts zesty to creamy avocado lime salads and authentic street tacos with a health-conscious spin, La Sirena Grill is an awesome post surf option.
- El Cholo
3520 E. Coast Hwy, Corona Del Mar, CA
11:30 – 9 pm
As legend goes, in 1922 Alejandro Borquez told his wife – post meal – that her food deserved a restaurant of its own. Well, fast forward a few decades and her recipes are proudly served in over 6 locations ranging from downtown LA to coastal Corona Del Mar. Turns out, Alejandro was onto something. Should you find yourself driving up the coast, El Cholo is a no-brainer, and is as historic as it is ridiculously delicious. I mean, we’re talking stick to your ribs servings piled high, authentic, time-tested recipes and combinations so good you’ll find all conversation at the table stops when food is served. The flavorful journey your mouth will go on, in addition to the fishbowl-sized margaritas will have you singing El Cholo’s praises (quite literally, in many cases). We’re talking grilled mahi-mahi, Angus steak, roasted pork, marinated top sirloin, chunks of seasoned chicken – this place is what taco dreams are made of. While many of their tacos stray from the traditional street variety and are served with a crispy shell, shredded lettuce, salsa and cheese, you’ll be stoked with whatever you order. A full drink menu, both indoor and outdoor seating, a prime PCH location and killer Mexican food makes El Cholo a seriously heavy hitter in the OC.
We have to be honest guys, Orange County has thrown down in a big way. Each taco brought us to the brink of a full-blown mouthgasm, multiple times. From the traditional, authentic, real deal tacos that had us literally pulling U-turns to come back for more, to the elevated, sustainable and even vegetarian options – it’s safe to say that the OC has plenty to offer when it comes to Mexican food. We have a feeling our love affair here is just beginning, so be sure to drop a comment with the name of your favorite spot if it didn’t make the list. You tell us what and where we’ll tell you what we think. Hey, someone’s gotta do it, right?