Tostada Road Trip: Following a taco trail from Detroit to Boyle Heights

All photos by Serena Maria Daniels

Often when I introduce myself as a food writer, the first question that comes up is “oh, so you’re on Instagram? Are you an influencer?” And the answer is always a definitive no. I mean, I have Instagram insofar as I post photos of my dog every now and then, but I barely have more than 1,000 followers. I don’t go out of my way to capture the perfect food shot. Sometimes I forget altogether to take a pic of my dish until it’s already resting comfortably in my tummy.

I’m happy with my station in life as a journalist. I’d always assumed that influencers are part of this competitive subculture, almost akin to sports fans, of mostly dudes out to prove out how manly they are by the quantity of food they can consume on any given day.

I hadn’t really considered that Instagrammers, TikTokers, or You Tubers could also be a force for good. That was until last weekend.

I was invited out to Los Angeles as one of my first orders of business as president of the International Taco Council by Jorge Reynaga, an Instagrammer who goes by Mexi Papa to sit on a panel of judges and eat carnitas for the inaugural Street Taco Wars in Santa Monica.

I came of age in Los Angeles County, in the San Fernando Valley, the epitome of suburbia. I left California in 2009 to pursue my journalism dreams. When I left, the most exposure I’d had to street vendor culture in LA were the bacon-wrapped hotdog stands that are set up outside of the club at closing time, or maybe the elote man who parked his cart on the corner outside of school. Or the fruit ladies who sold cups of cubed mango or cucumber or papaya dusted with chile powder and chamoy sauce. I go back home every year or so, but up until this weekend, I hadn’t really witnessed the magnitude of how much the street food scene has grown in the region over the years.

We started off Saturday bright and early and hit up Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights, where we visited Birrieria El Jalisciense, situated in a large open garage next to an industrial laundromat . We got there about 8 a.m. and there was already a line gathered with folks ready to pick up trays full of birria tatemada, aka birria al horno, all prepared by the Ramirez family.

Birria de chivo roasting in a propane-fueled oven at Birria El Jaliciense in Boyle Heights, CA.

This birria is nothing like what I had ever tried before. It’s steamed for several hours before it’s moved and roasted in a propane-fired oven, giving the goat meat a harmonious char, while still maintaining a fatty tenderness. We were joined by Mark Wiens, a YouTube influencer with more than 8 million followers, who lives with his wife and son in Thailand, and who was a fellow judge for the carnitas contest. The whole meal was an elaborate display of food showmanship: we grabbed piles of mouth-watering chivo with a steamy tortilla, dunked our tacos into the fiery red consomé, and took slow, savory bites all timed perfectly so Mark or another foodie could capture on video.

Serena Maria Daniels and Hector Ramirez in front of this monster oven at Birria El Jaliciense in Boyle Heights, CA, where the chivo is roasting.

We darted off to Bell Gardens in southeast LA County where we were met by Maria Irra, whose mother Maria Elena Lorenzo’s Afro-Mexican recipes at Tamales Elena Y Antojitos are the backbone of this tiny, yet charming restaurant. On this day, our host Jeffrey Merrihue was eager to get us to try their Guerrero-style fish tacos. Maria explained to us that in beach communities around Acapulco you’ll see ladies carting baskets filled with pescadillas. They’re nothing like the fish tacos typical of Baja California, known for their battered fried fish, a touch of cabbage, crema, and pico de gallo. No, these start off as more of guisado, Irra explains. Here, she blends together a mix of spices and garlic by hand with a molcajete, chops up some tomato, tosses the ingredients into a saute pan, and once the mixture is aromatic, throws in a couple of fillets of tilapia. As the fish stews with the other components, it naturally breaks down into small bites. She then folds the mixture into softened corn tortillas and gently eases them into a shallow frying pan, where they reach peak crispiness.

Maria Irra and Mark Wiens posing with a plate of Guerrero-style pescadillas at Tamales Elena Y Antojitos in Bell Gardens, CA.

Once we were done with our taco breakfast and brunch, we were off to the main event in downtown Santa Monica. It was an influencer’s dream with watermelon and charcoal agua frescas, unicorn elote, and mega micheladas, all surrounding the stars of the show: the carnitas vendors. They came from far and wide. Hundreds applied for a spot to compete, but only eight were selected in the end. Over the course of more than two hours, myself, along with Memo Torres of LA Taco, Mijune Pak of Top Chef Canada (among other titles), Alejandro Escalante, author of Tacopedia, and Chef Jaime Martín Del Campo of La Casita Mexicana in Bell, California came together to offer our culinary expertise.

Yes, we judged the dishes on presentation, tortilla quality, and toppings, but were most interested in the carnitas, taking special care to savor every cuerito, chicharron, costilla, and every morsel of pork shoulder. Was the meat too dry, the buche too gelatinous, chicharrones too soft? After much deliberation, we picked plate #2 (this was a blind taste test so we didn’t know who made what), which turned out to be Carnitas El Rey from Oxnard, California, a rural community about 90 minutes outside of Los Angeles. The entire family was on hand to compete and father and son both accepted the pig-topped trophy, while the rest of the contestants received medals for making it this far in the Street Taco Wars.

What impressed me more than the influencer status of my fellow panelists or the Insta-worthy eating shots was the sense of community created out of this experience. Many of the participants operate as street vendors, leaving them susceptible to harassment by police and exposure to the pandemic. Platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp, while they can also be problematic (don’t get it twisted), can also act as community connectors in ways that legacy media often has no access to (or interest in). Participants and guests alike not only treated Mexi Papa and Mark Wiens like celebrities, asking for photos and autographs but also celebrated in culture and community.

The winners, Juan and Daniel Zavala of Carnitas El Rey in Oxnard, CA, who took home the trophy for the inaugural Street Taco Wars carnitas contest in Santa Monica.

One of my favorite moments was at the end of the show. One of the contestants, Lupe, from Carnitas los Gabrieles came up to me and asked how I enjoyed her carnitas. She explained to me that she recently started working as a street vendor and would like to one day open her own brick-and-mortar. Her platter was expertly plated and us judges could tell that she had taken the time to make her tortillas by hand. That’s when it hit me just the kind of impact that social media can have on taqueros. In just a few months of operating in Boyle Heights, she was gaining exposure, both on social media and now in real life, exposure that would go on to help her provide for her family.

I still can’t claim the influencer title. I’ve yet to post any photos or stories to my Insta. But I am thrilled to see how food vendors, influencers, and journalists alike can use our respective skills to uplift the stories and cuisines of such culinary talents in my hometown.

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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