For many curious taco lovers in Los Angeles, the site GreatTacoHunt has been a bastion of knowledge and insight into the untold number of trucks, tables, stands and storefronts that dot the city. Run by a shadowy figure known only as El Bandini, Great Taco Hunt was a home for focused discussions about neighborhood tacos, including a proprietary taco ranking system, photos from the front lines and dispatches from across the internet that always helped to fill in the blanks.
The site began in 2005, with the simple mission of documenting as many L.A. tacos as possible. Since then, El Bandini has reviewed, mapped and photographed hundreds of locations, plus helped to put together the influential yearly Taco Madness tournament. Now, after seven years of tasting and talking about tacos, El Bandini is calling it quits. KCET got in touch with the mysterious eater to discuss his decision to pull out of the taco game after all this time, and to look back on his own influence in the food blogging culture that has pervaded this city.
Farley: You've always been known as El Bandini online. Are you comfortable giving us a little bit of information about the man behind the taco blog?
El Bandini: I'm Andy O'Neill and I'm a recovering taco-holic. And I'm almost 40. But I've never lived in a van down by the river.
What led you to start chronicling your taco experience in the first place?
At the time no one was doing it. I don't remember when the idea came to me but once I realized no one was doing it, I figured it was worth a shot. I didn't expect to actually get readers.
There wasn't much information on the Internet about tacos in L.A. at the time. This was before Yelp and social media and our whole photo tagging culture. Only dorks took pictures of their food and showed their friends in 2005. I remember I would take out my camera at a taco truck and the people working there would ask if I was from "the newspaper." I would say no, that I was from the Internet.
You officially started Great Taco Hunt in 2005 with a mission statement that read: "I'm on a mission to find the perfect taco." In the seven and a half years that you operated the site, do you think you ever found it?
I'm not sure if I was ever really in search of the perfect taco. I think I just needed an excuse to get out of the house and explore the city. The al pastor at Tacos Leo is probably as good as it gets though. Before I started the blog I had never tried al pastor. And for the first five years or so what I thought was good al pastor wasn't really that good. The popularity of Tacos Leo led to an al pastor arms race. Other trucks near Tacos Leo started serving up al pastor shaved from the trompo.
Your first ever Best Of list, back in 2005, had some familiar names on it: the El Matador truck in Hollywood, El Parian in Pico-Union and Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica. Are tacos just another example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Yeah, I think so. I was at El Matador the other night and I think it's my favorite taco truck in L.A. I'm a fiend for that salsa roja. So much so that I don't mind sitting in some of L.A.'s worst traffic to get there. Tacos Por Favor is still the answer if the question is where can one get good tacos on the Westside. I'm not sure if El Parian is still considered to have the best carne asada. I haven't been there in years.
In your final post, you say that the L.A. taco scene is changing too fast to keep up any more. What are the biggest changes happening right now?
I think the biggest change has been the gourmet taco. There are a lot of taquerias popping up serving tacos with higher quality ingredients. But to me the taco is best enjoyed on the side of the road, with a cold bottle of Mexican coke, and the sun in my face. Or, best enjoyed at night, with a cup of horchata, and all the energy from the city. When you're eating tacos on the street you're eating with all your senses. The gourmet taco inside some fancy taqueria doesn't make me feel anything.
As far as I know, you've never really profited from the site. Instead, it's more of a pure resource tool for a city with a paralyzing number of taco options. Was there ever any thought to becoming a full time food writer?
I've never really considered myself a food writer. I'm not a foodie. I don't think I could pass myself off as one. My goal with the blog was to try to document as many taco trucks as I could and to find the best ones. I think it took me a while to find my voice. I knew my limitations though. I was never going to pontificate on the finer points of Mexican cuisine.
Late last year, you began officially branching out into burritos with your All Your Burritos Are Belong to Me tumblr. Do you have plans to continue chowing down and reporting back on the great burritos you eat?
It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I might go back to it. One reason I've retired from taco blogging is that I've pretty much tapped myself out when it comes to writing about tacos. Over the last few months I've tried to blog about tacos and I haven't been able to. With the burrito blog some of my posts are just really simple and to the point. I'll just write "Oh, what a burrito!" and I think the readers get the idea.
So what's next for El Bandini? Do you have any further plans to launch a different website that will keep Los Angeles anxious to hear about your every meal?
El Bandini is el finito. No mas.