Think there aren't any restaurants open late in L.A.? Residents who work late beg to differ. Ron Babcock, a stand-up comedian and freelance TV editor, took us to his favorite taqueria.
It is a seldom disputed fact that Los Angeles has some of the best Mexican food in the country. Shredded beef, braised carnitas and grilled chicken grace many a Latin dish, and none is more emblematic of Mexico itself than the taco -- of which there are plenty in L.A. What makes one establishment serving the tortilla-wrapped delicacies more deserving of accolades than another is completely subjective, though comedian Ron Babcock seems to think there's no contest. We caught up with him after a set one night at Cactus Tacos -- a Hollywood spot he considers to be the best in Los Angeles -- and talked with our mouths open about everything from growing up with soda and candy to his self-inflicted taco intervention.
Marcos: How often do you stop here at Cactus Tacos?
Ron: Probably two to three times a week. I'm not proud of that, but it's the truth.
Marcos: A regular. Nice. What do you get when you come here?
Ron: Well, if it's been a bad day, I get anywhere from four to five tacos. A normal visit usually consists of just three. Sometimes if I'm feeling dandy I'll get a burrito or the super nachos, but that's rare.
Marcos: You got four tacos tonight. Anything bad happen today you want to talk about? I'm a good listener and give great advice.
Ron: I actually had a good day today. All I did was play video games, listen to audio books and watch Netflix. This is more because I haven't cooked anything for myself, so I haven't eaten all day.
Marcos: Tell me what your favorite thing on the menu is.
Ron: Hands down, the chorizo tacos. It's this greasy Mexican sausage, which is terrible for you, but tastes so good. I also like the chicharrón taco, which is a sort of slimy pork skin. Finally, I love the lengua, which is cow tongue. If you had told me a year ago that someday it would be one of my favorite meats I would have vehemently disagreed with you.
Marcos: What is it you do during the day that keeps you from having dinner at a decent hour?
Ron: I'm a freelance editor and I do stand-up, which makes it hard to eat healthy, but I really try. My mom is a nutritionist, so all we do is talk about fat kids --that's it. It definitely motivates me. I make a smoothie every morning, so I'm good on that front. Then for lunch, I always have a salad. It's after work that makes it difficult because I go out and perform and on the way home I always pick something up that's not so great for me. I've definitely fallen in love with the various taco dispensaries in Los Angeles, like Cactus. I eat here way too often, and what's worse, I usually eat whatever I get right before bed. It's like, 12:30 a.m. and I'm shoveling tacos in my mouth, washing them down with a horchata. That usually puts me into a food coma I don't wake up from until the next morning.
Marcos: What was it like growing up with a mom who is a nutritionist? Have you brought her here?
Ron: My mom hasn't made it out to Los Angeles yet, but when she does come, I'll definitely bring her here. The weird thing about being the youngest of five is that my mom was stricter about eating healthy with them than she was with me. Apparently they never used to have soda or candy in the house, but by the time I came along, I think my parents were so tired they kind of phoned it in and relaxed all those rules. We still ate healthy, but I always remember having soda and candy around.
Marcos: Did you siblings ever begrudge you for that?
Ron: All the time! They still won't let me live it down. I always remind them that they had all left by then, and the same amount of chores had to be done, so I was the one doing it all. My childhood was basically indentured servitude.
Marcos: So, you're saying it was like a North Korean labor camp, but with soda and candy?
Ron: Well I wouldn't say it was as bad as that. I mean, I had a computer.
Marcos: Where are you from originally? Can you get a taco there?
Ron: I'm from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania -- which you might know because it's the sister city of Scranton. The only place to get Mexican food there is Taco Bell. It's mostly known for perogies, holushki, kielbasa -- basically anything that's Eastern European and contains pasta, meat and/or cheese. We've got that covered. Anything else, forget about it.
Marcos: Ever go to Taco Bell in L.A. when you miss home?
Ron: Funny you should ask that, because I used to be the kind of guy who ate way too much fast food. I would go to Del Taco or Taco Bell all the time. Then about two years ago, I started stopping off at the taco trucks and the burrito stands and those little pop-up carts that magically appear on the streets. I had no idea the food was so good. Whenever anybody comes to town to visit, I always take them out to those places and it's by far one of their favorite meals here. New York may have pizza, but we have tacos, and I for one prefer tacos to pizza. I don't even taste pizza when I eat it.
Marcos: There's no chewing and savoring with pizza. It's all shoving.
Ron: Drunken mashing in your face.
Marcos: So how many tacos have you eaten in one sitting?
Ron: I think it was around seven. Not a wise choice, but it felt so good when it happened. There was a time I was eating here so often I had to put myself on a ten taco maximum. Around that time, there were weeks when I was eating into the twenties. Now I'm down to about five or six a week, which is pretty good for me.
Marcos: Do you have any specific dietary preferences or restrictions?
Ron: I don't like beets. The color really creeps me out. They're just so red ... like blood. Other than that, I don't. I'm actually really stoked I don't have any food allergies or anything because my favorite thing to do while traveling is try whatever food is available. That's the best way of navigating through a culture, so I like the fact that there's nothing standing in the way of me doing that.
Marcos: So you're not allergic to anything?
Ron: Nope. I'm like a superhuman. I don't wear glasses and I'm not allergic to anything. Also, my body is pretty amazing...I'm not gonna lie.
Marcos: What's the weirdest, strangest or grossest thing you've eaten because you were so hungry and it was the only thing around because you got out of work so late?
Ron: When I was a kid, I used to make this pasta that I still make and love to this day. I didn't know how to make tomato sauce at the time, so I started out by mixed together all these spices that were in my cupboard like oregano, parsley and basil. Then I'd combine those with this taco seasoning that's been in my fridge now for probably twenty years. It's still in there. Seriously, it's old enough to vote. Anyway, I'd pour all this over pasta, and then I'd douse it with Parmesan cheese. There was no butter on it or anything -- just dry pasta and dry seasoning. I know it probably sounds really gross, but it reminds me of my childhood and I love it.
Marcos: Do you have a name for it?
Ron: Pasta à la Ron.
Marcos: What, if anything, do you do to combat the fact that eating so late at night is hard on your metabolism?
Ron: Besides self-loath, I try and go hiking every morning. I figure if I do that, then I can do whatever I want at night ... because it isn't just the tacos. Tacos and booze are really close friends, so those two usually go hand-in-hand. It's a matter of defeating them both.
Marcos: What do you always crave when you get out of work or finish a show that you can never get because it's never open late at night?
Ron: Wings. I love wings. The good thing about that is--well, it's kind of a double edged sword -- the wings out here are so bad that I never end up getting them. I mean, occasionally I'll go to Hot Wings Café or Big Wangs, but the wings at those places aren't amazing. I'll still eat them though. Wings are a lot like pizza in that you'll still eat them if they're crappy. I would love it if there were a late night place where I could get some amazing wings. That would be the best. Until then, I'm going to have chorizo tacos all the time.
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Los Angeles, CA 90038
Photos by Shane Redsar.
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