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.