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East LA's Tacos Quetzalcoatl Might Have the Best Vegetarian Tacos in the City

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Silky barbacoa and an awesome vegetarian taco.

Lucas Peterson

Should it have been that hard? We're in Los Angeles, after all, the city of Cafe Gratitude, Real Food Daily, Native Foods, and Vinh Loi Tofu. A community where the overriding civic vision is a tofurkey in every pot and a pilates place on every corner. And while Angelenos' health and fitness consciousness has been overplayed (somewhat) into an exaggerated national joke, the question remains: why isn't there a decent vegetarian taco in this town?

We've got carne asada for days; steaming, rotating al pastor spits that would stretch from here to the moon and back; buche, tripas, and every kind of offal. But even the most well-seasoned L.A. taco fanatics will be hard-pressed to recommend a genuinely good vegetarian option. Well, we may have a winner (or a finalist, at the very least). Max, the owner and operator of East L.A.'s Tacos Quetzalcoatl, has what the herbivore in all of us has been craving: a tasty, complex, meatless street taco.

Back to those vegetarian tacos in a minute. After all, they aren't the only thing that Tacos Quetzalcoatl does well. In fact, Max is most proud — and rightfully so — of the lamb barbacoa he makes. It's printed in bold, all-caps letters on a frayed business card he hands out: BARBACOA CON PENCAS DE MAGUEY.

Pencas de maguey are simply leaves from the agave plant; you probably see them around town everyday. Max slowly smokes his lamb barbacoa in these huge leaves, resulting in a tender, delicate meat that proffers almost no resistance when you bite into it. The meat is silky smooth, has a subtle smokiness, and a very mild heat. Max's barbacoa also lacks the gamey tang that can sometimes plague lamb or goat.

The natural accompaniment to a lamb barbacoa taco is a styrofoam cup of consommé. It's essentially lamb stock, with herbs and spices (or, sigh, for you bone broth people out there: it's lamb bone broth). There's a communal bucket of cooked rice and chickpeas on a table off to to one side of the truck: scoop some into your consommé and enjoy a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs lamb porridge.

Now, back to the vegetarian tacos: Max offers a couple of different options. One is the taco huauzontle, with cheese, spinach, amaranth (a red-streaked, leafy perennial that tastes like a more serious version of spinach), and stewed huazontles, a plant native to Mexico with small buds that resemble those of rapini. Your other vegetarian option is the outstanding (and interestingly named) taco omega-2. The omega-2 features spinach, sautéed mushrooms, diced squash, red peppers, all topped with a generous layer of fried cheese.

Other strong offerings from Tacos Quetzalcoatl are the cecina taco, with thinly pounded and marinated beef, and the chorizo, which a bit overly greasy but has a satisfyingly intense, spicy flavor.

Tacos Quetzalcoatl is located near the corner of E Olympic Blvd. and S Kern Ave. on weekends, approximately 4728 E Olympic Blvd. in East Los Angeles. On weekdays they are located near the corner of S Central Ave. and E 8th St. in Downtown. They are open from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. Phone: (323) 392-4444. Cash only.