38 El Rey Tacos
August 2, 2010
1358 W Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90037
Sometimes you go to a taco shop because you think the tacos will be good. Sometimes you think the tacos will suck but you go for some other reason. I was attracted to El Rey Tacos because of its compelling architecture, or more specifically, its Googie rooftop architectural signage. The super-sized sign expertly brings together multiple Googie tropes – a triangular pylon upright of structural steel infilled with textured sheet metal; “El Rey” in a great script face on an elongated orange hourglass; “Drive-Thru” to express convenience and modernity; and “T A C O S” in a blocky letterface on five discrete rectangles supported by another triangle, a horizontal version of the upright, but this time in orange; a steel rod starburst crowns the pylon. The potent space-age imagery is at odds with the Missionizing architecture below of tile mansard and off-white stucco – perhaps the building suffered an unfortunate makeover at some point in its history.
The menu board claims El Rey has been operating here since 1961. Considering the short timeline of the taco in United States culture, 1961 is prehistoric. There are very few taco shops this old. Taco Bell dates to 1962 and Del Taco to 1964. Wikipedia traces hard shell tacos, likely the first type of taco encountered by average American gringos, only back to the late 1940s. El Rey was a pioneer, and perhaps it is due to nothing more than the unpredictability of history that Taco Bell grew ubiquitous while El Rey stayed true to its form, at the corner of Normandie and what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
El Rey did not look like a place that would even serve tacos of the corn tortilla-meat-onion-cilantro-salsa variety, and when I saw that they did serve them, I certainly didn’t expect them to be any good. The prominent legend “HOME OF THE GARBAGE BURRITO” was also not encouraging. With suitably lowered expectations, I ordered three tacos – one each carnitas, carne asada, and “regular”, and an horchata. Tacos were $1.39 each and served fairly quickly. I pulled them from their bag and unwrapped them for inspection.
First I ate the Regular – this taco had first priority, as I considered it to be my passport on this journey into taco history. The Regular, as the serveuse told me, featured ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and “mild sauce”. This taco was the lord of the old school – the shells are machine-made, and maybe they come from a supermarket or something, but seemed to have been recently re-fried for a fresh crispiness. The ground beef was rather watery, and tasted like McCormick taco seasoning. The “mild sauce” resembled the sweet condiment furnished with Jack in the Box or Burger King tacos. The overall impression of this taco is of what you might get if you tried to reproduce a regular Taco Bell taco at home – categorically like Taco Bell, but lacking the precision. I would recommend this taco to nobody, and yet, being a crunchy taco, it was still tasty and wonderful, although less so than what you can get at a Taco Bell.
The taco time machine did not really take me very far. I moved on next to the carnitas taco, which resembled a real taco except for being fitted with a pico de gallo-type salsa of tomato chunks rather than customary liquid salsa. The carnitas was quite serviceable, particularly in light of my low expectations – it was brown, and the texture had body, and it tasted like pork.
Next I ate the carne asada taco. The steak was reasonably good, competitive with the carnitas. Eating it with the pico de gallo reminded me of something one would eat at a Baja Fresh. I think I should have asked for some hot sauce to enhance the taco, but all told, both soft tacos were satisfying. El Rey Tacos gave me great architectural signage and a decent meal.