California Coast Taco Crawl

The best taquerias and restaurants from San Francisco down to Orange County.

2889 Mission St
There is no better way to begin the grand taco crawl down California’s coast than by visiting one of San Francisco’s most famed taquerias. If you ask a local, chances are that La Taqueria is going to be an honorable mention. Accolades hang on the wall above the grills and kitchen area, and the buzzing dining area is constantly crowded with customers enjoying their food. A regular told me to get a carnitas taco with cheese and avocado ($5.45), saying that it was the best thing on the menu. Not to pass on such a bold claim, I ordered one of those along with a chorizo taco. The carnitas taco consisted of a heaping portion of juicy, but crispy, carnitas with pinto beans, avocado, cheese, onions, and pico de gallo to top it off. The best part was the cheese that melted in the meat. The chorizo taco ($3.75) was good as well but didn’t quite hold up against the carnitas taco. My taco crawl partner had a chicken taco ($3.75), and she expressed a similar sentiment. The carnitas taco reigned supreme. May this be a pro tip for future La Taqueria patrons: The carnitas tacos are the fan favorites here so get those and make sure to add cheese and avocado. If you don’t like carnitas, add cheese and avocado to whatever you do get. Grab a couple of tacos with a horchata and take a seat on the communal tables and pass the hot sauce. 2889 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 285-7117
1999 Pescadero Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060, USA
Mercado & Taqueria de Amigos is located an hour south of San Francisco, not far from Pescadero Beach. This unassuming taco joint is actually within a gas station convenience store. The building is burnt orange and decorated with multi-colored lights, which might have been Christmas lights that they forgot to take down. But for some reason, after the initial sensory overload, my initial reservations about eating tacos in a gas station quickly dispelled. I ordered a taco lengua, cow tongue, which came complete with onions, cilantro and chunky salsa for $3.50. My TCB (Taco Crawl Buddy) ordered a “Taco Super” with carne asada, which came with lettuce, onions, cilantro, sour cream, and cheese for $2.15. Personally, cow tongue is not my favorite cut of beef but that aside, the food was freshly prepared and tasted clean. Free chips and salsa make it a complete meal, and for a small added cost, the rice is flavorful and plenty. If Pescadero is ever on your radar, it’s worth visiting given you have the time to wander around. With just one dirt road that houses a bar, a bakery, a coffee shop among other small businesses, it’s almost like you’ve taken a step back in time. We wanted to stay and visit the bakery, but we had other tasks to attend to (aka tacos to eat). 1999 Pescadero Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060, (650) 879-0232
Strawberry Rd, California 95076, USA
This food truck in Watsonville will not be at the address provided, but instead in the general area right off Highway 1, along Strawberry Road. I found the truck parked on a dirt patch right off the freeway—it will be hard to miss. Just a disclaimer: this is not your trendy, fusion, food truck that sells Indian/Korean/Italian burritos. Instead, this is serious Mexican food on wheels. Orders are not whipped out as quickly as possible but instead are made to order and prepared with care. My tripe taco ($1.90) was very good. The tripe was crispy and nicely seasoned, without being too salty as some of my previous experiences with tripe have been. The taco was nothing fancy, complete with just green salsa, cilantro and onions sprinkled on top, but often simplicity is key. The chicken taco ($1.75) was simple but flavorful as well. Top off the taco with some onions and extra salsa from the salsa bar for a spicy, traditional Mexican taco. 593 Strawberry Rd, Watsonville, CA 95076, (831) 763-1094
101 D St, Cayucos, CA 93430, USA
After eating several very traditional tacos, I was particularly excited for Ruddell’s Smokehouse. They make their own smoked products, including smoked albacore, salmon and seasonal oysters, which are also available pre-packaged to purchase. This small storefront right along the water at Cayucos Beach was the perfect location for a bite before continuing on the taco journey. The smoked albacore and smoked salmon tacos were topped with a salad with apple and celery, with the option to top it all off with locally made Cayucos Beach Hot Sauce. The hot sauce was slightly sweet, complementing the whole salad, fish, and flour tortilla combination. I really enjoyed the fluffy flour tortilla—I recall calling it “refreshing” after all of the corn tortillas I’d eaten by then. The smoked albacore taco was the standout between the two but both were pretty tasty. Ruddell’s Smokehouse is not to be missed—for $5.50 you get a unique taco and a great view of the beach. The smoked options change seasonally and some tacos depend on availability so be sure to try all that you can when you stop by. Personally I’ll make the trip back down to try the smoked oyster tacos and take home some smoked goods. 101 D Street, Cayucos, CA, 93430. (805) 995-5028
1273 Laurel Ln
My fearless taco-eating companion and I finally made it to San Louis Obispo, and the fatigue was starting to plague us. While we yearned for nourishment in the form of anything that was not a taco, we were devoted to this mission, and ordered several tacos pollo asado. The restaurant itself was spacious, with plenty of seating inside. There were a few tables outside that I imagine are packed with patrons on a warm afternoon. Grab a seat outside and enjoy your tacos with in the warm breeze. The seasoned chicken was topped with a delicious sauce, which was the most memorable part about the taco. It had a smoky flavor to it, making it stand out from the other Baja-style tacos consumed thus far. In addition to the guacamole, which was more of an avocado salsa, salsa verde, cilantro, cheese, and onions, the flavors were good—typical of your traditional Mexican fare. The menu is vast, and a part of me wanted to have a burrito, which is what everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be enjoying, but we were on a strict taco-only diet. And with that, we continued on. 1273 Laurel Lane, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, (805) 784-0539
201 W Carrillo St
Santa Barbara has no shortage of good Mexican food and for quick, savory street-style tacos, Taqueria Cuernavaca is a good option. The murals on the dining room walls will try to remind you that you’re eating authentic Mexican fare and the hustle and bustle of the restaurant will reassure you that the food is good. The main patrons seemed to be families on this particular evening, and many people seemed to be enjoying the plates that included tacos or enchiladas with rice and beans. Things move fast--listen out for your number initially in Spanish (which will then be repeated in English if you miss it) and stay in the smaller room in the front to make sure you get your food while it’s still hot. Get a few salsas from the salsa bar but beware, they are spicy. As far as the tacos go: they are classic, double corn tortilla-ed, and without frills. The chicken and carne asada tacos went for $1.90 each, while a fancier shrimp and queso taco was $2.50. The shrimp was succulent and seasoned nicely, making that taco my favorite out of the three. For tacos that are as delicious as they are affordable, Taqueria Cuernavaca did not disappoint. Santa Barbara locals love this place for the vegetarian options and quick service. Tip: the parking lot out front is small and crowded. Park on De la Vina Street, the cross street, for ample street parking. The restaurant is also closed on Tuesdays. 201 W Carrillo St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, (805) 564-1414
1406 Olympic Blvd
Located in Santa Monica, Tacos Por Favor caters to the most eclectic group of people I have seen so far on my taco crawl. A huge, packed seating area plus the interesting combination of patrons (families, elderly persons, hipsters, etc.) suggested to me that the food must be good. There is a lengthy menu including quite a few creative burritos (the famed California burrito, a carne asada burrito with fries, sour cream and guacamole, is a best seller), quesadillas, sopes, tortas and last but not least, tacos. I ordered a mahi mahi taco ($3.50), and a chorizo cheese taco ($2.60), which is supposed to be the best soft taco on the menu. The mahi mahi taco came loaded with lettuce and toppings, most notably some roasted peppers. I added spicy salsa from the vast salsa bar and decided that though the fish was great (tender and flavorful), the taco as a whole was just okay. Thankfully, the chorizo cheese taco was as delicious as I hoped. It was crispy and salty, just the way a cheesy and meaty taco should be. The soft taco shell was slightly crunchy, which was great for a taco that had just onions and cilantro on top. LA, home to some of the best Mexican food in America, can do no wrong and Tacos Por Favor was officially one of our favorite stops. Parking tip (this is unheard of in LA): snag a spot on 14th Street to avoid parking on Olympic Boulevard. 1408 Olympic Blvd, Santa Monica, CA, 90404. (310) 392-5768
2313 S El Camino Real
My taco crawl down the coast of California culminated in San Clemente, not far from where I grew up. Famous for their fish tacos, and potato, bean, and cheese burritos, Pedro’s is a hometown favorite of mine. Fortunately, my return to Pedro’s resulted in satisfaction and not just a fond memory. Their “Famous Fish Taco” is still a delicious mélange of battered and fried cod, cabbage, salsa and dressing, just as I remember it. A little bit of spicy hot sauce will make this fish taco a standout. The cabbage is plentiful, making the taco crunchy and substantial. For the meat lovers—the carne asada taco is a good alternative. But, Pedro’s purists will claim that the fish taco is your best bet. Forget any reservations about the packets of hot sauce—they are not by any means authentic Mexican salsa, but they are just enough vinegar and spice to enhance your food. Pedro’s is strictly cash only, has a drive through, and a walk up window. There is one bench that provides limited seating. Otherwise, it’s an order to go or enjoy in the car type of joint. You’ll see plenty of SUVs with surfboards racked on top stopping by for some late-afternoon grub. Don’t be concerned if the line looks long—service is fast. The Famous Fish, carne asada, and grilled chicken tacos all go for $2.59 each. 2313 S El Camino Real, San Clemente, CA 92672. (949) 498-5904
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