Del Rey’s vibrant Mexican community, which explains the neighborhood’s culinary scene, reaches back to the early years of the 20th century, when the district was predominantly farmland on the outskirts of the then-young city of Los Angeles. At the time, immigrant laborers from Mexico moved to Del Rey to work in the fields.
Following World War II, many Mexican-American families moved to the neighborhood to reside in the recently constructed Mar Vista Gardens affordable housing complex, which was built between 1949 and 1954, as the area started to urbanize. The opening of St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church in 1952, which has become a focal point for the predominantly Catholic Mexican community, testified to the well established presence of Mexican-Americans in the neighborhood.
In recent decades, a booming real estate market on the Westside has driven up property prices in Del Rey, making the neighborhood less affordable for long-time lower-income Mexican residents. Nevertheless, Del Rey’s Mexican community has continued to thrive, alongside a diverse number of ethnicities.
Special thanks to Enrique Fernandez, Community Services Committee co-chair on the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, for providing information on Del Rey’s history.
As with other restaurants in the area, Pepe’s Tacos’ name ignores the extent of dishes found on its menu. Pepe’s not only boasts tasty Carne Asada tacos (best ordered without cilantro, so that the spiciness does not overpower), but also filling burritos (the smaller size, ironically dubbed Supremo, is enough for a full meal), whose combination of salty meat, tangy sour cream and zesty guacamole makes for a flavor feast that is refreshing rather than overwhelming.
The stand-out here, however, is the Carne Asada fries, a fusion dish originating in Mexican restaurants in San Diego, that consists of Carne Asada-topped cheese fries smothered in guacamole and sour cream. Pepe’s own version (not listed on the main menu display) uses piquant meat, a delicately spicy guacamole, flaming jalapenos and crisp, fresh-cut fries, to produce an especially delectable creation. The ‘best in LA’ according to LA Weekly.
Pepe’s Tacos, 4582 Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA +1 310 391 8667
When you peer through the window of this family-owned restaurant from the outside, the first thing you will notice is the sight of workers kneading and shaping corn dough with their hands to make tortillas. This display speaks to Tacomiendo’s signature commitment to using the freshest and healthiest ingredients in its cooking. The difference can be discerned not only in the warm and springy corn tortillas, but also in the freshly grilled, tender Carne Asada, which comes to the table devoid of bone and gristle–as Tacomiendo uses only lean cuts of meat–and nicely seasoned.
Tacomiendo’s ‘Tacos Dorados’ (authentic Mexican hard tacos) are another standout item: the soft taco shells are fried after being filled, resulting in a product more similar to a crisp wonton than to an Ortega Taco Shell, and they taste especially good with a filling of (slightly spicy) mashed potato. For a more complete meal, the Chile Relleno, an egg-coated Chile pepper stuffed with cheese and the Birria (Goat Stew) are exceptionally delicious entrees.
Tacomiendo, 4502 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230 +1 310 915 0426
The cafeteria-style, counter-service restaurant El Abajeno has drawn crowds from throughout the city and even around the world for over 30 years, to try its Northern and Central-Mexican dishes.
El Abajeno’s popularity can be explained, in part, by menu items like the Carnitas Taquito, an extra-large soft taco — rather than the crunchy, cigar-shaped ‘roll‘ familiar to most Americans–which contains peppery pork carnitas doused in a topping of rich cheese and a delicate chile sauce that emphasizes the chile seasoning rather than the heat. The dish is hearty and flavorful, yet only mildly spicy. The El Abajeno Burrito is another draw: the burrito measures one foot in length and is packed full of vegetables, cheese, meat (beef, chicken or pork) and rice. Getting the burrito ‘wet’, or doused with the same mild chile sauce found in the taquito, adds to the goodness.
Finally, one should not forget the refried beans (served on the side with most entrees), which are brought to the table piping hot and perfectly seasoned, and contain a consistency that is loose and creamy rather than the usual thick and clumpy. The tile motifs on the walls, handcrafted in Tiajuana, portray scenes of generic Mexican churches, plazas and bullfights and convey the ambiance of a low-key mercado (Mexican marketplace), worlds away from Los Angeles.
El Abajeno, 4513 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230 +1 310 390 0755
Casa Sanchez//Carniceria Sanchez:
Owning a butcher shop, two taquerias and a formal restaurant, the Sanchez family has left an indelible mark on Del Rey’s Mexican dining scene. Casa Sanchez, housed in a building faintly resembling a Mexican Adobe house, offers a lively sit-down dining experience. Mariachi bands perform before diners on every evening of the week except Monday; Friday through Sunday the band performs in tandem with a Los Angeles-area Ballet Folklorico, or folk dancing troupe.
The food served here is not only suspiciously upscale for the neighborhood (think Chile Poblano doused in a brandy and rose cream sauce), but also pricey: entrees start at $19. Fortunately, you can watch the performances without splurging on a meal by sitting at the bar, which offers strong drinks, multiple brands of tequila (of two varieties– the purer ‘blanco’ and aged ‘reposado’) and free servings of chips, salsa and guacamole.
Situated about a half mile down Culver Blvd. from Casa Sanchez is the family’s Mexican-style butcher shop, Carniceria Sanchez. Here one can find a number of beef and pork cuts that would be often unobtainable at an American meat counter, including pork neck bone, pork shoulder and beef tripe, as well as ranchera, the bottom sirloin beef cut used in making Carne Asada.
The Sanchez store also sells a small selection of produce and groceries, as well as several cooked meat dishes, including Fajitas (chicken or beef cooked with bell pepper), Chicharrones (deep-fried pork skin), Carnitas (shredded pork) and Carne Asada (marinated and grilled beef). The Carne Asada, which is not only sold at the butcher counter but also stuffed in tacos at the adjoining taqueria, are the best we’ve tried.
Casa Sanchez, 4500 South Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90066 +1 310 397 9999
Carniceria Sanchez, 4525 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230 +1 310 391 3640
For a change of pace in your eating, head over to Mariscos Chente for Western Mexican seafood dishes. Most of the other restaurants on this list have a seafood dish or two on their menu, but Mariscos Chente is run by the Cossio family, the proprietor of Inglewood’s legendary Coni’Seafood (which has received the mark of approval from Jonathan Gold). And, like Coni’Seafood, it specializes in shrimp and fish dishes from the Nayarit region of Mexico.
The newcomer to this arena should start with an order of the shrimp ceviche, a mixture of shrimp, diced cucumber, onion and tomato marinated in lime and cilantro. The sharp and acidic flavor of the marinade is not the most soothing, but does warm up the taste buds for the main course. The fried fish taco — chopped with a chipotle mayonnaise that livens up the fish — will please in both price and taste, and the buttered rice served as an accompaniment to the shrimp and fish entrees is heavenly. Mariscos Chente’s difficult-to-find snook is the very same menu item that Jonathan Gold so poetically complemented at Coni’Seafood.
Mariscos Chente, 4532 Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90066 +1 310 390 9241