Tacos have become ubiquitous in LA. The iconic Mexican food has become so popular locally that they rival sandwiches for supremacy in many neighborhoods. Chefs use corn and flour tortillas as canvases for more than Mexican cuisine, resulting in the taco-ization of most culinary traditions imaginable. Santa Monica restaurants are no exception and have enthusiastically embraced the taco. Learn where to find several unique and unexpected takes on tacos throughout Santa Monica. By Joshua Lurie
It’s always “taco time” at Azulé Taqueria, located in the Gallery Food Hall, along the Third Street Promenade. Their upstairs stall features a palapa-style roof, reclaimed wood counter and blue neon sign that depicts a hammock between palm trees. Cauliflower al pastor is a fun riff on marinated, spit-shaved pork, featuring roasted cauliflower and pineapple seasoned and stained red with guajillo chiles, cloves and achiote. Each soft corn tortilla also comes topped with a dollop of creamy avocado and mild house salsa crafted with tomatillo, chiles and garlic.
Blue Plate Taco
Jenny Morton founded tiny Blue Plate on Montana Avenue (RIP) and now runs two restaurants along Ocean Avenue: Blue Plate Oysterette and Blue Plate Taco at the base of boutique Shore Hotel. Glass, concrete and steel structure, light-strung patio with aqua cover and ocean views, dining room and bar with colorful tiles and basket globe chandeliers create the ambiance at this beachy restaurant. Lobster tacos feature sweet lobster meat folded with melted Jack cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, truffle oil and green onions in a crispy corn shell. It’s served with rice, pinto beans, slaw and lime. Ask for tangy tomatillo or spicy habanero salsas.
The Curious Palate
Mark Cannon and Elliot Rubin relocated The Curious Palate from The Market at Santa Monica Place to a stand-alone space on the third floor across from The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories. This eclectic spot is made unique with a covered patio with mottled grey walls and blackboard art of anthropomorphic animals and food, including a muffin with a face and blowtorch and a pig in a toque with a chef’s knife. Inside, art-lined yellow walls, a small bar and two big red cushioned booths. The Curious Palate changes their massive menu on a monthly basis, but they also serve spicy satay tacos (in trios or by the taco). Thai-marinated steak or chicken thighs are sautéed with house pickled peppers and harissa, topped with Japanese pickles, cucumbers, crispy leeks, shallots and carrots, served on a soft corn tortilla.
El Texate is a family-run Oaxacan restaurant from Michaelangelo Marcial that was located next to Vidiots since 1994, and outlasted the indie video store. Faded triptych over the entrance shows a woman making tortillas. There’s a trickling fountain with turtles and fish tank by the entrance, a patio with corrugated metal roof and cushioned burgundy booths, dining room and bar. El Texate apparently pours 182 different types of tequila, so tacos are a natural match. Taco de Tazajo features seared, thin-sliced steak rectangles cured with sea salt served with fresh pico de gallo, fresh roasted tomatillo salsa, fresh guacamole on soft double stacked corn tortillas. Add house-made tortillas for $1.
JINYA Ramen Bar
JINYA Ramen Bar founder, Tomonori Takahashi, opened a branch of his emerging chain along Santa Monica’s Main Street in 2015. The glass-fronted outpost features wood booths and counter stools indoors, and a sunny patio with cream-colored umbrellas and a communal table with central a fire pit. Their “mini tacos” consist of crispy wonton taco shells filled with a choice of salmon poke folded with crunchy raw onion; subtly sweet slow-braised pork chashu topped with punchy kimchi; and spicy tuna, crowned with cilantro and jalapeño. Each taco benefits from a squeeze of lime.
Kanpai Santa Monica
Shoji Hijiya and Miho Okamura already ran two Kanpai locations in Westchester before expanding to Santa Monica, across from Whole Foods. Glass front, pastel green, mottled grey and brick walls; curved black bar with 10 chairs and cushioned banquettes help set the vibe at Kanapai. Get the Spicy Tuna Tacos ($15), which consists of scoops of spicy tuna (ground bluefin folded with spicy Sriracha mayo) served over three round deep-fried wonton wrappers with avocado, diced tomato and mild tomato salsa, served atop mixed greens with a pitcher of spicy mayo.
Cocinas y Calaveras business partners Jesse Gomez and chef Jose Acevedo got started with Mercado one block from Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Most tacos come on griddled corn or flour tortillas, but they reserve round, fibrous, thin-shaved jicama “tortillas” for crispy, panko-coated shrimp, crunchy Mexican slaw with cabbage, sprouts, red peppers and spicy chile de arbol aioli.
Prima Cocina is a Baja-style restaurant on Montana Avenue. The space is airy, with pastel a blue and mauve color palette, wooden banquettes with colorful cushioned backs, high shelves with potted succulents and faux fish on the walls. Designer Greg Bleier of Studio Unltd partnered with Paul Pruitt (New School) and investor Nando Silvestri to create this mouth-watering spot. They hired chef Carlos Arciniega to oversee the food. Tacos come with a choice of flour, corn, or soft, sturdy handmade corn tortillas. Mushroom Barbacoa features meaty grilled maitake mushrooms, punchy pickled onions, salty crumbled cotija and cilantro pesto, served with mild guajillo chile salsa. Taco Plates come with cilantro rice folded with fresh corn and topped with cilantro pesto and earthy norteño beans (pinto beans sprinkled with cotija cheese).
Uplifters Kitchen owner, Elisabet Spaulding, named her Ocean Park Boulevard cafe and bakery across from Santa Monica Business Park for Uplifters Ranch, the former name of Rustic Canyon and her former home. Grey facade, glass front, bakery case, Stumptown coffee and blackboard menu are up front where the dining room has exposed wood beams, cushioned banquettes and rorschach-style mural. Austin-Style Breakfast Tacos feature soft scrambled eggs, crispy tortilla strips, heirloom tomatoes, fontina cheese, avocado, serrano chiles and pico de gallo on a soft flour tortilla (add crispy bacon or chunky house-made pork chorizo for $1). Swing by the salsa bar for more spice.