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What Makes A Perfect Taco? Favorites from a Taco Madness Judge

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Tacos, in their most basic form (dry griddled corn tortilla, grilled protein of some kind, salsa, cilantro, onion, lime) are a perfect food. Both nutritionally and taste-wise. Think about it: whole grain carbohydrate? Check. Lean protein? Check. Plant-based flavorful fixings that add texture and flavor? Check. Enough regional variations to eat a different style every day for the rest of your life and not get bored? Check.

There was an entire food festival devoted to tacos this last Saturday. Taco Madness took place at L.A.'s Grand Park. It was organized by L.A. Taco, a DIY culture, art and food website solely devoted to "celebrating the taco lifestyle." Over 3,500 of their dedicated young, hip, creative taco-lifestyle followers showed up and waited upwards of an hour under the California sun just to taste a couple of tacos.

For the second year in a row, I was asked to be a judge. During these rigorous judging sessions that require carefully tasting up to 10 different tacos in a span of couple of hours, I've noted a few things prevalent among the winning tacos, or better yet, the crowd favorites. Here are those common traits and those tacos.

1) Tortilla
50% of any taco will always be a tortilla. Therefore, tortillas should be just as enjoyable as everything on top of it, and not just a vehicle for stuff. Handmade is always superior to machine-pressed. For starters, handmade tortillas will most likely be made from a nixtamal base, meaning that the masa used to make it will be freshly processed with lime and water that same day, the same way it was done in the early 1500s. Most, if not all machine made tortillas in Los Angeles are made with rehydrated corn flour that have metallic tasting additives and preservatives added to them to extend shelf life. Sure, you can drench it in oil or meat drippings and make it pleasurable to eat, but sooner or later, as your taco palate develops, you'll eventually learn to prefer handmade tortillas.

Tacos Punta Cabras in Santa Monica showed up with 80 pounds of fresh masa and three employees whose only job was to make handmade tortillas all day. The owner seasons his masa with a secret combination of aromatic ingredients that makes them good enough to eat on their own, like warm bread out of an oven. They are tender, toasty, and extremely flavorful. When used for fish tacos, topped with tempura mahi-mahi strips, it makes for an unforgettable taco experience.

2) Protein
Whether it is carne asada, nopales, or al pastor, protein quality is usually the most easily detectable factor of a good taco. If it's carne asada, the meat should be somewhat smokey or charred, juicy, and well seasoned. Nopales should always be meaty like a grilled mushroom, bright in flavor like the fresh vegetable that it is, and not slimy at all. Lastly, if ordering al pastor -- the Mexican descendant of shawarma -- the meat should be directly shaved from the flaming spit onto your warmed tortilla, no searing on the plancha underneath allowed.

Carnitas El Momo won the judges choice at Taco Madness for their meltingly tender, caramelized braised pork carnitas. It is a family owned business that sells Guanajuato-style carnitas out of a food truck in East Hollywood and also in South Los Angeles (weekends only). You could immediately tell that they take their taco meat game seriously since they were the only ones that brought a huge oversized Mexican copper cazo pot to cook their carnitas in. Rumor has it that there is Coca-Cola in the marinade; whatever it is, it is magical.

3) Salsa
Taco salsas are divided into two categories: red and green. If you're lucky enough, there might be a runny taqueria-style guacamole too (yes, it is watery on purpose to better dress your tacos; also better for taquero food costs). Red salsas are essentially cooked tomatoes -- sometimes charred -- mixed with toasted dried Mexican chiles. Los Angeles-style red taco salsas tend to involve lots of chipotle peppers. On the other hand, green salsa is a a mixture of all fresh ingredients: fresh tomatillos; cilantro; green fresh jalapeño or serrano chile. A winning green salsa should be refreshingly tart and thick and rich in texture.

Regardless of the color, the success factor relies on the emulsification of the salsas. At the festival, Mexicali Taco & Co. had a beautifully emulsified creamy salsa made with ghost peppers that everybody was talking about. Sure it was fiery, and made you cry if you ate more than a tablespoon, but it was so creamy and attractively opaque in color that you didn't care.

4) Toppings
Standard toppings for tacos are onion, cilantro, and lime. A good taqueria should have finely minced onion and chopped non-wilted cilantro, unless you like biting on a huge chunk of raw onion and soggy greens. If eating fish tacos, toppings should be finely minced crisp cabbage. These chopped vegetables and fresh herbs are here for textural crunch and for their fat-cutting vegetal qualities.

Guerrilla Tacos had one of the biggest lines and have been standing out from the rest of taqueros in Los Angeles since their first day of business. This is largely due to their unique take on salsas, ranging from things like an "almond salsa" with chopped toasted almonds mixed with Mexican chiles, or a simple charred scallion. Disregarding the fanciness of toppings, they should always benefit the taco, not just be a handful of unnecessary roughage that you push to the side of your paper plate.

5) The Regional Edge
The Los Angeles taco game is the best in the United States because you can eat a taco representing almost every state of Mexico. You can taste a Sinaloa-style shrimp and cheese Taco Gobernador, and cross the street to a Oaxacan restaurant for a hyper-regional Enmolada (like an enchilada but made with mole instead of red chile) variation. Not even in Mexico can you find this diversity so close together.

Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla food truck had a consistently long line for their extremely unique Tacos Árabes. The tortilla is a wheat flatbread of sorts, like a cross between a handmade flour tortilla and a filling pita bread. It is topped with spit-roasted pork that is not al pastor, unpasteurized Puebla-style briny string cheese, sliced ripe avocado and a squirt of a thick peppery red salsa. It is rustic and super alluring.

6) Alternative Factor
Vegan? Jain? Paleo? Gluten free? There is a taco for you! Los Angeles has innovated a few unique fillings for tacos, like soyrizo, a textured soy-based chorizo that originated here. There are Korean-style tofu tacos here, fried potato tacos, corn fungus tacos, grass-fed beef tacos, free-range chicken tacos and many more variations. Whatever the alternative factor is, it attracts people and inspires cults to said tacos.

Plant Food For People was the only strictly vegan taco vendor at Taco Madness and they were a show favorite for both omnivores and vegans alike. It's a daily staple in Southeast Asia and used in stir-fries for its meaty qualities. The texture is eerily similar to pulled tender pork or lamb barbacoa. Plant Food For People realized this and switched out the fish sauce, curry spices and coconut with dried chiles, and Mexican spices instead, and for that, we thank them.

Tacos Puntas Cabras
2311 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA.

Carnitas El Momo (truck)
Melrose Ave. and Vermont Ave.
(323) 488-0642
Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Carnitas El Momo (stand)
E. 61 st. and Avalon Blvd.,
South Park
(323) 488-0642

Mexicali Taco & Co.
702 N Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, CA

Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla
Olympic Blvd. and Esperanza Street
Boyle Heights
Open Friday through Sunday nights 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Follow them on Twitter to see their complete schedule.

Plant Food for People
Roaming, their schedule varies.
Check out their Facebook page to see their complete schedule.

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