The 29 Best Tacos in O.C.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t like tacos? Our bottomless appetite for them shatters all barriers of income, tradition, and innovation. So after months of tasting those that reverently play by the rules and others that gleefully break them, we offer this diverse lineup of marvels. Each is either a model of its type—say, taco al pastor—or stretches our notions in a provocative way. The ranking is capricious, as some fabulous tacos fell off our list for reasons of inconsistency. Our basic guideline: If we could only have one right now, which would it be? Any one of these, day or night.

#29.  La Vida cantina
Sit beneath the huge palapas, order Tacos de Camarons, and enjoy a sunset—in the hues of your meal! The reds of the paprika‑ and chili‑pepper‑dusted shrimp and diced‑tomato salsa fresca, the orange of the chipotle cream, the yellow of the corn kernels, and, like stratus clouds, streaks of purple shredded cabbage and white cotija cheese—a fine way to start an evening. 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 949‑612‑2349,

#28. Tacos Sinaloa
At this booth-lined, photo‑festooned former Busy Bee, the chorizo taco’s filling is crisped, its russet‑hued juices staining the tortillas. The meat is topped with onions and a refined guacamole, and garnished with a blistered serrano chile. Interesting salsas include a toothsome creamy jalapeno. A Vienna‑style Victoria, Mexico’s oldest beer brand, arrives in a frosty Tajin‑rimmed glass. 1430 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, 714‑543‑2300.

#27. Red O
The short-rib taco makes a persuasive case for crispy shells. This crispness and tiny heirloom‑potato chips provide textural foils for the juicy meat, laced with roasted tomato‑serrano sauce and topped with shredlets of Monterey Jack. The gorgeous Moroccan‑inflected decor doesn’t hurt. And the very hot, peach‑colored habanero salsa set out with the chips is in a class by itself. 143 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949‑718‑0300,

Urbana's Gobernator Taco
Urbana’s Gobernator Taco

#26. TLT Food
The crispy tofu tacos at these fast‑casual spots born of the Lime Truck are beguiling morsels with a trio of tasty toppings–lime sambal, mango‑black bean pico, and chimichurri. The Mr. Potato taco also is vegetarian, but pork belly nachos should placate carnivorous companions. 1332 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, 949‑873‑5332; 705 Spectrum Center Drive, irvine, 949‑727‑1414;

#25.  VIP Tacos
During peak hours, the phone rings constantly for to‑go orders at this teensy spot. But tacos in made‑to‑order tortillas taste best right from the taquero, so grab a seat and dive into a surprisingly worthy chicken taco—possibly due to the vibrant salsa bar and truly hot sauces talking. Beware of a shady $1 credit‑card fee. 2790 E. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, 657‑230‑9222

#24. Durango Mexican Grill
The scarcity of chile verde tacos on Taco Tuesday lured us here once, but the tender braised pork with a firm spine of green heat begged for a return trip for the full‑size version. To better enjoy the friendly staff, spotless digs, and prodigious salsa bar, avoid the lunch and Tuesday hordes. 730 E. Imperial Highway, Brea, 714‑255‑5660

#23. Seabirds Kitchen
That gorgeous chunk of fried avocado alone makes a texture party of the Beer‑Battered Avo Taco at this vegan spot. Add cabbage, red onion, lime, and a mildly spicy cilantro dressing and you’ve got a winner; add the house‑made habanero sauce and it’s off the charts. The seasonal Jack Asada Taco is also remarkable: Jackfruit is marinated and grilled until it becomes something deep and earthy that hums with a slow burn. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714‑549‑2584,

#22. Mariscos Mocorit0
Smoked marlin taco is the crucial offering here, so take a pass if you don’t love assertive flavor in your fin fish. The fatty, faintly smoky pescado is anointed with a trickle of crema and a bit of slaw and folded into a single freshly griddled tortilla for a simple but heartfelt homage to Sinaloa. 320 E. Katella Ave., Orange, 714‑771‑0050,

#21. Urbana
This very cool spot, an Anaheim Packing House standout, offers more than half a dozen tacos, but the star is the Gobernador, with shrimp, serrano chiles, onion, and lots of melted Oaxacan cheese in a crispy corn tortilla. The Pistolero cocktail of mescal, bourbon, piloncillo, chocolate, and aromatic bitters complements the mesmerizing murals featuring Day of the Dead designs. 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 714‑502‑0255,

#20. Wild Taco
Vegetarians get a lot of love at this peninsula shanty by Bear Flag Fish Co. Feta‑kale or potato‑black bean make fine fillings, but don’t miss the well‑seasoned Mexi‑Cauli, with fresh corn salsa mixed into the florets of fleshy cauliflower. An array of hot sauces tempt your inner mad scientist. 407 31st St., Newport Beach, 949‑673‑9453,

#19. Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen
Alas, the sumptuous Duck Carnitas Taco, complete with a crunchy piece of skin, is spendy here ($17) thanks to the upscale trappings. Bits of fresh fruit, crisp radish, and fresh herbs make for a balanced, beautiful effort that, oddly, comes with house‑made flour tortillas. 141 S. Glassell Ave., Orange, 714‑633‑3038,

#18. SeaLegs Wine Bar
Red wine with tacos? Perfect, if you’re having the Chianti Chicken Taco at SeaLegs. Dark‑meat chicken, braised until it resembles carnitas, is enhanced with habanero‑laced Chianti sauce and highlighted by pickled onion, radish, micro cilantro, and mango guacamole. It’s as pretty as it is delicious. Optional beverage: the Beergarita, with tequila, muddled ginger, and ginger‑lemon beer. 21022 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, 714‑536‑5700,

#17. Dos Chinos
As the name suggests, Asian and Latin sensibilities mix and mingle throughout the menu, but one taco in particular, the Irvine Shrimp, succeeds with hybrid vigor. Spicy and sweet shrimp overflow two tortillas with drizzled dulce de leche mayo caramel, minced chile‑lime‑roasted walnuts, shredded cabbage, plus the obligatory onions and cilantro. It’s a showstopper. 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714‑383‑0414,

#16. Bonefish Grill
This seafooder’s top‑selling fried crustacean tastes even better when folded into a soft corn tortilla and labeled Bang Bang Shrimp Taco. A toss in creamy, sweet‑hot dressing flatters the batter‑fried shrimp’s plump goodness and delicate crunch. Tart Asian slaw is the ideal side choice. 3040 El Camino Real, Tustin, 714-368‑7613,

Taco Asylum's PB & J Taco.
Taco Asylum’s PB & J Taco.

#15. Q Tortas
Pliant corn tortillas bulging with salty, juicy, grill‑edged chopped pork make carnitas tacos the enduring favorite at this funky old‑school dive for all things pig since 1980. The drive‑thru’s speaker died years ago, but fans just roll up to the window, order, turn off the engine, and wait—tortured by the wafting aroma of sizzling pork. 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, 714‑993‑3270

#14. Taco Asylum
This spot’s unabashed taco eclecticism finds its apex in the popular Bacon PB&J, a riot of texture, color, and flavor. Consider the red of the pickled Fresno chile, the orange of the carrot‑ginger jam, and the green of the cilantro. Add roasted peanut butter and sweet‑and‑spicy bacon and you have a taste party cradled in a light flour tortilla with fresh grill marks. 2937 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714‑922‑6010,

#13. Tempo Urban Kitchen
The Short-Rib Mole Taco lures you to a delicious dark side, pairing a deeply earthy sauce of chocolate and coffee‑inflected Modern Times beer with tortillas made with Abuelita chocolate and Guinness Stout. Adding brightness and balance: lime crema, pickled cauliflower, and tiny, crisped carrots. Even better with the Cueva the Killer cocktail, with mescal, tequila, Ancho Reyes liqueur, and malt salt. 1060 Imperial Highway, Brea, 714‑529‑2900,

#12. AnQi
Viet fusion is the An family’s forte, revealed by Spicy Beef Tacos, three two‑bite tacos in crunchy wonton shells. Diced pickled beets and fresh radish are so simpatico with the chopped ruby-pink beef, you might not notice that it’s silky lengua. 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714‑557‑5679,

#11. Ayutla Oaxaca
Wait until dark for these $1 gems from a friendly truck with a line of patient and diverse fans who might or might not have been to Mexico’s culinary magnet, Oaxaca. We’re calling a tie between the properly spit‑roasted al pastor and the perfectly crisp‑chewy lengua. Say si to grilled onions and those soulful salsas, especially the red, with its sneaky heat. Cash only, kids. Closed Mondays. 2773 S. Main St., Santa Ana, 323‑503‑5732

#10. Pour Vida Latin Flavor
Jimmy Martinez went from cooking high‑end steaks in L.A. to creative tacos in Anaheim, and at least one of the latter is a memory‑maker. To his pineapple skirt steak taco with fruit-marinated meat, he adds ginger, soy, green onion, pickled napa cabbage, and queso fresco for a taste‑bud party. The mango pork taco is a winner, too. The seafood tacos are made with squid‑ink tortillas and the vegetarian with spinach tortillas. 185 W. Center Street Promenade, Anaheim, 657‑208‑3889,

#9. Las Brisas
Now’s the tourist‑free time to take back the coveted ocean view and sample the all‑new patio menu starring Ahi Tuna Tacos, a voluptuous trio of poke‑stuffed rice paper shells, fried to translucent fragility, with cilantro leaves trapped inside for a stained-glass effect. Gorgeous, but not too pretty to eat. 361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, 949‑497‑5434,

Taco Maria's Jadineros Taco.
Taco Maria’s Jadineros Taco.

#8. Taqueria El Zamorano
Tortillas hecho a mano elevate every taco at this humble stand with a treacherously small parking lot (hey, Uber!). Crispy potato tacos get lots of press here, but the lush taco al pastor triumphs, abundant with pineapple bits and a doting soak in a marinade of chiles, garlic, and pineapple juice. Spicy, vinegary house hot sauce detonates this flavor bomb. 925 W. Warner Ave., Santa Ana, 714‑884‑4073

#7. Anepalco
Chef Danny Godinez names his Calabazita Taco for its diced Mexican squash. Never mind that the oyster mushrooms and delicately charred corn deserve equal billing. The real highlights are the epazote leaves on top—dried, fried, and musky—and the unabashedly green, epazote‑infused tortillas beneath. Finishing touches: sour-cream‑like jocoque and a cup of super‑tasty guajillo chile sauce—pour it on! Of note: Godinez opened his long-awaited El Mercado in Santa Ana in September. We’re thrilled it’s open but sad it missed our tasting cutoff. ALO Hotel, 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑456‑9642,

#6. Solita
Flavor bomb! This Chorizo, Bacon, and Sweet‑Potato Taco from Deborah Schneider starts with a taste‑bud trifecta oozing spice‑laced sweet-potato goodness, then adds caramelized onions and a bed of Monterey Jack and menonita cheese (aka queso Chihuahua). Spoon on the avocado salsa taquero, and you’ll be sopping up every stray dribble on your plate. 7631 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, 714‑894‑2792,

#5. SOL Cocina
Executive chef Deborah Schneider wrote the cookbooks that launched a million tacos, but her luscious, layered Taco Vampiro is a master class in balance, freshness, and bodacious flavors. Oozy cheese, fiery serrano chiles, sizzling hot asada, cool guacamole, and creamy aioli make each bite a fiesta. 251 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949‑675‑9800,

#4. Arc
Another class act from wood-fire innovator Noah Blom. His Duck Taco is a wonder of shredded meat with a bit of crisp skin, a dribble of Romesco, and a topper of red cabbage that alchemize into mouthfuls of pleasure. House-made tortillas seared in duck fat are this taco’s superpower. 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949‑500‑5561,

#3. Chelas Mexican Grill
¡SCORE! for South County. Mexican especiales crafted with pride and care snare  ’burban locals, but we’re in long‑distance lust with the signature Ribeye Taco. Shaved ribeye steak is the savory upgrade that stands up to queso fresco, chipotle cream, tart pickled onions, and Mexican lime slaw. 29975 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Niguel, 949‑542‑4606,

#2.   Lola Gaspar
This hip, dark, and cozy spot’s regular tacos are draw enough—but even its wild mushroom and potato tacos with black‑garlic chimichurri and feta are eclipsed by the Wednesday special, pastrami tacos. Like luscious little Mexican Reubens with exquisite cilantro flowers, they’re pricey—four for $25—but worth it. Start with a Mas Fuerte cocktail, made with mescal, rye, pineapple gomme syrup, and mole bitters. 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, 714‑972‑1172,

#1. Taco María
Carlos Salgado, a 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist for the West’s best chef, focuses on his restaurant’s namesake dish at lunch. Runaway favorite? The Jardineros, a deeply earthy shiitake mushroom “chorizo” jam deftly laced with guajillo chiles, plus perfectly crisped potato, pickled onions, and queso fundido, all atop pliant house‑made blue tortillas that seem to nourish the soul. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714‑538‑8444,

Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi

Facebook Comments