Short and sweet and spicy

Tacolicious doesn’t try to do many things, and that’s just fine

Bartender Kat Tung and Chef Maynor Boteo of Tacolicious. Photo by JP Cordero

As much as I like variety, sometimes I’m happy to see a restaurant with a short, well defined menu. It signals confidence, essentially saying, “We don’t serve much, but we’ll bet you’ll like what we offer enough to come back for it.” It’s a strategy reminiscent of the days when a culturally conservative population valued consistency over new experiences.

Tacolicious, which opened last year on Manhattan Avenue, takes that old cultural idea and wraps it in a self-consciously hipster vibe. The style is flashy, the menu modern Mexican, and from a glance at the place you might expect a menu of fancy regional specialties. Instead they mainly serve tacos, side items that go well with tacos, and drinks that go well with tacos. That’s pretty much it, except for rotisserie chickens that they serve only to go.

Tacolicious’s minimalist exterior on Manhattan Avenue. Photo by JP Cordero

On my first visit I dined outside on a kale salad and two tacos – guajillo-braised beef and pastrami with mustard aioli and caraway slaw. That last is easily the oddest item on the menu, but it’s generally successful. Merging the flavors of a pastrami sandwich and Mexican food isn’t a new idea – a food stand near LA City Hall called The Kosher Burrito began tossing pastrami in otherwise standard items in the early 1960s. The pastrami taco at Tacolicious is better in one way – the caraway slaw is a very good accompaniment to the pastrami – but it was less than totally successful. This was partly because the pastrami was decent but not premium quality stuff, and partly because the mustard aioli was applied with a heavy hand and overpowered the other flavors. If I order one of these again, I’ll ask for that on the side and use it sparingly.

The guajillo-braised beef, on the other hand, was a triumph. The tender shredded meat was in a spicy, smoky sauce with layers of flavor, and I think I could have eaten several of these. I didn’t because I also had the kale salad that also hit the spot. Mixing slightly bitter kale with sweeter ingredients like oranges and grains such as quinoa is an established idea because it works well. The almonds here added both sweetness and nutty flavors, and a cumin vinaigrette tied it all together with warm herbal flavors.

It was a pleasure to see made-to-order churros on the menu, and those were as good as I hoped, straight from the fryer and accompanied by dipping chocolate. I washed down dinner with a “Papi Hemmingway” cocktail that paired mezcal and rum with cherry liqueur, lime juice, and grapefruit bitters. It was a fine cross between a daiquiri and a margarita, and made me want to investigate the cocktail selection in greater detail.

I didn’t get around to doing that because my next experience with Tacolicious’s food was at home. I might have dined in instead, but I wanted to try something they only offer to go, their “MF chicken.” (They don’t say what these initials mean, for some reason. A search for common abbreviations revealed 128 options, including Mutual Fund, Maintenance Free, and the one you’re probably thinking of.) We had inside-the-pod family coming over for dinner, so I ordered a whole roast chicken dinner and a taco platter dinner, with one of their beet salads for good measure.

Tacolicious’s to-go-only MF Chicken, along with abeet salad and Marina Girl salad. Photo by Richard Foss

The Millennium Falcon chicken…Magnetic Flux chicken… Michael Flatley chicken… never mind, I’ll stop guessing, was a large, plump bird that came with Rancho Gordo beans, rice, tortillas, and one of their “Marina Girl” salads. The whole chicken is recommended as a meal for two to three, and if you have only two people attacking this spread, they’d better be hefty eaters. They can be picky ones too, because all the sides were very good. Rancho Gordo specializes in organic heirloom beans, and these had the creamier texture you get from fresh, high-quality legumes. The vegan broth had a nice shot of oregano and garlic that added more savory flavors, and if you’ve been thinking all beans are the same, try these for an education. As for the chicken, whatever the initials were it wasn’t Moisture Free, because it was very juicy with a flavorful, crisped skin that had a little gentle spice heat.

The salad was a nice side dish, little gem lettuce with avocado, cucumber, radish, pepitas, and cotija cheese. The jalapeno vinaigrette was well balanced, but I preferred the cumin vinaigrette that came with the kale salad and might ask for that on the side next time. At $39 for the whole package, this is a good deal for a good meal.

The taco meal offered the same sides and salad with your choice of two taco meats, and we decided on the beef again and their traditional carnitas. This was first rate, the meat slow-cooked for concentrated porkiness while also showing subtle hints of spice and caramelization on the exterior bits. The platter arrives with three salsas, avocado tomatillo, smoky red chipotle, and habanero. They range from medium to very spicy and all have layered flavors as well as heat.

Along with our meals we had a side of guacamole (decent but not exceptional), and the only dessert offered to go, a caramel crunch cookie that was average. The churros that I ordered when dining in aren’t sold to go, a decision I respect because they really are best when fresh.

Before wrapping up this review I should note two minuses about Tacolicious – they have no phone, so if you have gotten an order to go and there is a problem with it or question about it, the only thing to do is drive down there or send an email. This is compounded by the fact that their website does not list some items that are available for to-go only meals, and does list some that are not available for takeout. Since most people will go to the restaurant’s online menu to decide what they want, they should give as much information as possible there so that customers will know their range of options. They answered emails quickly when I tried it, but that was midday and they don’t say what hours somebody reads them.

The best thing that can be said of Tacolicious is that they have picked a thing people enjoy and have honed their craft at making it. Those who seek relentless creativity and items that take advantage of the best seasonal produce may find those virtues elsewhere, but if you just want some great tacos and sides, or cryptically named but good rotisserie chicken, this could be your dining destination.

 

Tacolicious is at 1129 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open at 11 a.m. daily, close 8 p.m. Su-Mo, 9 p.m. Tu-Thu, 10 p.m. Fr-Sa. Street parking, outdoor dining, to-go or delivery available. Cocktails served, wheelchair access good, outdoor dining. Menu (incomplete) at tacolicious.com. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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