Occupying a narrow, white brick storefront in Boyle Heights, Street Tacos and Grill is a spot to look out for, just down the street from the Mariachi Plaza metro station. The grill takes center stage at this cozy taqueria, where any seat in the house gives you a good view of the cooking action behind the counter. The sizzling sounds and scents lure you in, much like stumbling upon an outdoor street food vendor.
“People will come up to the counter, and they’ll watch the tacos being made the whole time that they’re waiting for their food. That’s part of the experience,” said Arturo Aguilar, who opened the Tijuana-style taco joint with his brother Leo just over a year ago in their hometown. “We’re trying to merge the street taco experience with a restaurant feel.”
Street Tacos and Grill exudes a youthful modern attitude, yet doesn’t interfere with tradition when it comes to food. Edgy local art paintings hang on exposed brick walls, and hip-hop pulses through the speakers. But the food is a deep dive into the past, recreating the tacos the Aguilar brothers enjoyed as kids and on trips to visit family in Tijuana.
“Us being Mexican Americans, we love the tacos our parents used to make. So now we want to continue that,” Arturo said.
Their parents used to cater parties on the weekends for extra income, allowing Arturo and Leo to pitch in and learn their cooking styles firsthand. When their parents retired, the brothers were well prepared to take over the catering gigs. They successfully booked every weekend for several years before deciding to tackle it as a full-time business and set up Street Tacos and Grill. As Arturo remembers, “I told my brother if we’re going to do it, we’re going to go all the way.”
The restaurant’s Tijuana-style dishes feature mounds of marinated diced meats that are generously coated with avocado sauce (aguacate salsa), garnished with cilantro, and served on handmade corn tortillas. While the overhead menu board lists simplistic descriptions of each dish, a taste of any item reveals the complexity underlying its preparation.
A small team devotes energy behind the scenes to make nearly everything from scratch, with kitchen and prep duties shared between the Aguilars and their staff cook, Blanca de la Cruz. Arturo and Leo apply their mother’s marinade recipes to each of the meats, infusing distinctive flavors into the asada, carnitas, chicken, al pastor, barbacoa, and shrimp. Leo makes most of the salsas himself, roasting the tomatoes and tomatillos in-house.
To make the tortillas, the Aguilars recruited Elia Martinez, a native of Oaxaca who extends her expertise to several restaurants in Boyle Heights. Elia works her alchemy to mix the masa with the right consistency to create soft yet hardy tortillas that bring out the flavor of the corn.
“People love the handmade tortillas. It just sets us apart from other taco spots,” Arturo beamed.
The mulitas give you a double dose of those fragrant handmade tortillas. Mulitas are a classic Tijuana street food that look like a taco sandwich. Your choice of meat is layered with onions, cilantro, avocado sauce, and Oaxacan cheese, all packed between two thick tortillas and slapped onto the grill. Sopes are another variation of the taco in which the masa takes a thicker, puck-shaped form with the ingredients piled on top.
Another specialty of the house is the chicharron taco, which soaks fried pork rinds in a spicy salsa verde to achieve a soft, meaty chew. The tangy lassos of pickled red onion on top add a contrasting splash of color, perhaps to distract you from the heat of the salsa.
“Our chicharrones in salsa verde are super, super spicy. We warn everybody who orders it,” said Arturo. “There are some people who come just for the super spicy chicharrones.”
Oaxacan cheese is a frequent ingredient for Street Tacos and Grill, imparting authentic Mexican flavor and texture, whether crumbled into savory bits or melted to stretch in gooey strings. It also takes shape as a unique option on the secret menu: a layer is melted and grilled to a crisp to form a cheesy shell for your choice of taco, sans tortilla.
The same marinated meats and housemade salsas that make the tacos are also wrapped in the burritos, or can be served in a bowl with rice. The meat choices for tortas include pork, chicken, or beef, sandwiched in locally made buns. And a mix of grilled vegetables is available as a vegetarian alternative for any dish.
Off to the side on the menu is an extra item that’s often less familiar to younger generations who visit Street Tacos and Grill. Carne en su jugo is a version of beef stew that’s prepared by Blanca. She simmers thin cuts of flank steak in tomatillos and the beef’s own broth, mixing in Mexican onions, jalapenos, beans, and chopped bacon. Served with a side of tortillas, it’s a comforting, hearty dish that sells best in the winter but is surprisingly appealing in the summer to those who grew up with it.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, but people like mom and my dad, they like to eat it when it’s hot outside. They say they’re fighting fire with fire,” Arturo explained.
For more refreshing choices, check out the housemade beverages. The selection of bebidas includes horchata, jamaica, and kale, which is a healthy mix of kale, pineapple, cucumber, lemon, and chia seeds.
The handmade authenticity and traditional Mexican flavors at Street Tacos and Grill have not gone unnoticed by local food enthusiasts. Jose Vazquez, a Boyle Heights native who co-owns East Side Eats LA catering, appreciates that the Aguilars have upheld the old school tastes of street food. “What stood out to me the most is how simple but yet absolutely full of flavor their food is, from their aguas to their tacos,” Jose commented. “They’re just insanely good.”
Having grown up in East Los Angeles, Arturo and Leo want to keep Street Tacos and Grill ingrained in the community, not only by meeting local tastes but by showcasing local talent. Inside, the restaurant walls feature Eastside Chicano art on a rotating basis, currently displaying paintings from Lincoln Heights artist Fernando Barragan. Outside, the Aguilars commissioned LA graffiti artist KEO to paint a tall, narrow mural along the side of the restaurant: an iconic portrait of the Mexican comedic film legend Cantinflas, leaning against a street sign pole with a taco in hand (instead of a cigarette). For Arturo and Leo, it evokes the nostalgia of watching movies with their father, while also recognizing the historic artistry and culture of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, known for its vibrant Chicano murals since the 1970s.
“The older generation of my mom and my dad concentrated on the food, they concentrated on being practical and efficient. But now, it’s more than that. It’s the atmosphere,” Arturo said. “When people come in and see the art, they want to hang out and chill.”