This is the first in a series of personal recollections of great, cheap bites around Los Angeles for Cheap Eats Week. First up, the ever-popular El Chato in Mid-City, by senior editor Farley Elliott.
With El Chato, the guessing games are over. I park, I walk up to the ordering window, and I know exactly what I’m going to get: the al pastor quesadilla, with griddled onions on the side. I’ve long ago traded the palm-sized $1 tacos for the $5 quesadilla, arguing with myself that I get more meat, more flavor — and more of that unstoppably smoky salsa — if I spring for the larger order. The thing is a beast to eat, and would by any reasonable health professional be deemed a threat to humanity’s arteries, but there is nothing so satisfying as those first few bites, shoulder-to-shoulder around the trunk of a car under the warm decadence of a flashy action franchise billboard.
That is El Chato. The hunkered-down eating over a trash can or a car hood, the messy parking lot, and the crowds that never seem to dip below 20 people anymore. To eat at El Chato is to experience a Los Angeles that isn’t trying to be anything else — more or less — than what it already is.
Forget true regional authenticity, or the search for a higher, GMO-free calling: this is L.A., where $1 tacos still reign supreme (like it or not), and most of the population doesn’t actively seek out a modifications-politely-declined sort of menu when they feel like eating well. Just line up under the glaring lights, bring cash, and wait for your number to be called.
Forget true regional authenticity, or the search for a higher, GMO-free calling: this is L.A.
Just to the south of the truck there are two mighty taco powerhouses, which on its face would seem to make El Chato’s Miracle Mile-adjacent location something akin to a rock and a hard place. Too far north up La Brea and you’ve got parking restrictions and high-end restaurants. South, where the demographics change and the city opens up a bit, the field is already crowded by Tacos Leo and, more recently, Tacos Tamix on Pico.
From there, tacos spread across Pico in all directions, up through Pico/Robertson’s Mexikosher to the west and into Downtown along the east, sliding through parts of Koreatown and Pico-Union along the way. It’s an offbeat location, far from the dense taco truck avenues of East and South LA, but El Chato never guessed on anywhere else. And ultimately, that’s been a very big part of what makes them so unfailingly popular with their neighbors, and the city at large.
Tacos Leo down at Venice and La Brea gets the lions share of area love for their thinly shaved al pastor, a version similar to Mexico City’s famed taqueros, who slice the marinated and spit-roasted pork to order, heaving ribbons straight into waiting tortillas and offering a slice of pineapple to top off the meal. But the truth is, it’s the commuters who pack Leo on the weekends; they're looking for the show, and they heard this is the place to be. Ask the Mid-City locals (or even just the cops who patrol this beat) where they get their tacos, and you’re more likely to hear the name El Chato than anything else.
Not that Chato has always had the fanbase they enjoy now. In 2006 and 2007, when Chato first arrived on the block, La Brea’s dining scene hadn’t exactly caught on. This was years before Top Round across the street, before République above Wilshire and even the revival of Mo Better Burgers. Umami Burger, the very first one just a block away from where Chato parks, was two years off, and just about the only actual dining experience within a stone’s throw either way was the now-defunct Ogamdo Café, an oddball Korean-Chinese restaurant with endlessly kitschy decor.
These were slim days for everyone — for me, making small money and trying to spend it all back on street food every night
Around that same time in 2007, I had just come into learning about, and loving, tacos. My first plate from a taco truck came off of a small trailer parked near the Mar Vista Bowl, and I was almost instantly hooked. At nights, after leaving my desk job in West Hollywood for my unpaid internship at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Franklin Village, I’d push my 1985 Honda 550 motorcycle through the streets, trying to catch last call at any truck that would have me. I lived in Mid-City, just south of Venice off La Brea, so my final meal of the night usually ended up coming from El Chato.
These were slim days for everyone — for me, making small money and trying to spend it all back on street food every night; for El Chato, which hadn’t exactly been embraced by the community yet. They were an outlier in a neighborhood where nobody walked to eat. One of those first Christmases, my roommate and I were so convinced that Chato was going to leave for lack of business, we bought holiday cards and stuffed them with some cash. We begged, and paid, for them to stay just a little bit longer.
We begged, and paid, for them to stay just a little bit longer.
By 2008, Kogi had arrived, and with it a newfound sense that anything was possible with street food. On Thursday nights, Choi and his team would pull up along Wilshire to throngs of waiting crowds, hungry for a type of taco they probably hadn’t ever experienced before. The lines grew, and the comfort with eating from a truck expanded, and soon customers sick of waiting in those hour-long lines began filtering down La Brea to give El Chato a shot. The al pastor was thick back then, outright charred in spots and put on with a heavy hand — the sort of meaty, cheap meals that win over repeat customers.
Jonathan Gold and Susan Feniger stopped by somewhere along the way and gave the trailer a whiff of legitimacy in some interviews, adding to the growing commotion on the corner of Olympic and La Brea. By 2011, when I began chronicling tacos every week for Serious Eats as a freelance writer, El Chato was firmly established. I gushed then over their "murderers’ row of $1 can’t-miss basics," and I still feel exactly the same way today, though I’ve dropped out of the dollar taco movement for that all-inclusive $5 quesadilla.
In the years since, El Chato has continued to be a marker for me, at once a geographic beacon that calls out to me whenever I’m within three miles of the place, and a signifier of how my own life has changed, expanded, grown. The night I got engaged, last summer, my fiancée and I left the surprise announcement party and headed straight for El Chato. There, over the trunk of a friends car, we filthied our hands with plates of food, waving through the glass at the front of the truck to those same faces we’ve seen a hundred times before. That night, my fiancee and I split an al pastor quesadilla, with griddled onions on the side — the perfect date night food, if you ask me.