If you’re anything like me, your first interaction with a taco came via those grocery store hard-shelled party packs, where predetermined amounts of "taco seasoning" could be tossed in with a lump of ground beef and, just like that, dinner would be served. Long a staple of the Midwestern midweek diet, those dusty, crunchy taco shells provided the first real foray into Mexican food, though it’s hard to argue they had any real semblance with the myriad high-quality regional taco varieties you’ll find across Los Angeles today.
No, those last century monstrosities exist in a realm all their own, and you’ll still experience versions of those hard-shelled, shredded orange cheese tacos at local cheap eats burger and burrito joints around the city — and that’s to say nothing of their prominence at international chains like Taco Bell. But even after all these years, few have honed the process, and the finished product, more than Taco Fiesta in Highland Park.
Far from the hip walking streets of Highland Park, Taco Fiesta sits instead in an odd corner plot attached to the parking lot of a Superior grocery store on the corner of Figueroa and Avenue 45. You might have peeked at it the last time you were in the neighborhood and needed to pick up some last minute pantry staples, but mostly the world passes by right behind Taco Fiesta, considering their only view is out to all the parked cars.
It only takes one visit to fall in love with the quirky and colorful walk-up window. Not only does Taco Fiesta wrap itself in glass under a whimsically dated signboard (more on that in a moment) so you can see what’s going on inside, they also keep a small communal sit down area just off to the left. It’s a space they technically share with a Yum Yum Donuts that’s also attached to the building, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone sitting in there.
It only takes one visit to fall in love with the quirky and colorful walk-up window
Instead, you’ll order up through the service window and consider also picking up a lotto ticket or a pack of cigarettes — Taco Fiesta sells both — then wait under the nearby shade for your order to be called. With that small window of time to yourself, you might even start to wonder about the history of such a place, attached as it is to a doughnut shop and with the look of a 1950’s taco chain gone kaput. And, well, you’re halfway there.
Decades ago there was indeed a small string of Taco Fiestas across Southern California, nearing 16 in total by the early 1970’s. The company was actually bought and owned by Denny’s for a time; it seems the diner franchise had plans to spin off Taco Fiestas everywhere, with attached Winchell’s Donuts — a brand also owned for a time by Denny’s — to act as a sort of all-day combination. Want breakfast? They’d have it. Lunch? Dinner? Late night? You could do it all.
Unfortunately the scheme was short-lived, as Denny’s eventually tossed off the Taco Fiesta rights, leaving the company with its single remaining outlet in Highland Park. They’d later slough off Winchell’s as well, with Yum Yum Donuts buying the Winchell’s name in 2004. So, in some ways, that singular dream of combining doughnuts and tacos came true after all, just on a much, much smaller scale.
In 1972, Thai native Sam Sirikulbut purchased the Highland Park branch of Taco Fiesta, and continues to operate it as the only remaining location today. He ran the shop for decades with his wife, but says she’s fallen ill in recent years, leaving him to man the place with the help of a few amiable Mexican gentlemen. Most days, you can still find the chatty Sirikulbut working the hard shelled station, administering layer after layer of meat, cheese, and toppings into crunchy shells for to go orders.
Soaked through with oil and seasoning, then generously topped with thin shards of melting cheese
Which brings us back to those impossibly simple tacos. Taco Fiesta has a full menu of favorites, from hot dogs to chili cheeseburgers to chicken teriyaki sandwiches, but the heart of the place rests in those tacos. Priced at two dollars apiece, they’re at once more satisfying than the Taco Bell variety (though twice as expensive) and more comforting than the box-top variety of our youth, made and served fresh — and meant to be eaten just as quickly.
Each fried yellow boat yields an impressive amount of medium-grade ground beef, soaked through with oil and seasoning, then generously topped with thin shards of melting cheese. There’s the ubiquitous toss of shredded lettuce and a single wide wedge of tomato. Order them two to a pair or by the bagful to share with some friends a Dodgers Stadium nearby (it’s a real pro move).
There are a handful of other classics beyond the tacos, like simple bean and cheese burritos. These lack a bit of the creamy richness that you’ll find at Al & Bea’s, but they're a solid lunchtime filler nonetheless. The burgers can be ho-hum unless really layered on with cheese or chili, but don’t skip the milkshakes as a sweet finish to your meal. Dense and satisfying, they’re a great takeaway option and, in their own way, harken back to the roadside burger and taco stands of decades ago.
Sirikulbut himself will be the first to tell you that business is slower than it could be these days, a fact he attributes to everyone’s faster pace of life and the growing, thriving neighborhoods that ring his little taco stand but seem to have left his patch of asphalt alone. Still, stand there waiting for your order long enough, and you’ll start to notice the regulars streaming through, picking up this or that favorite menu item before moving on to parts unknown. Maybe they’re chasing a quick lunch or looking for a taste of their childhood within every $2 taco. Or perhaps, like Sirikulbut, they’re just happy to show up at Taco Fiesta, a place that — despite the rest of the world — hasn’t changed a wink in half a century.