[R&K's Plates of the Union series features great dishes and storytelling from around America. Other dispatches in the series: technicolor tacos at Tito's in LA, In-and-Out's Double-Double Animal Style, or chicken liver in Louisville. Those and more on our Plates of the Union page.]
It happens almost every time I drive down Ford to the corner of East 3rd St in East Los Angeles, headed for King Taco: the part of my brain in charge of useless information presents me with a vision of Vicente Fernandez, in full charro underneath a hat the size of Jalisco, belting out the chorus of El Rey:
I don’t have a throne or a queen
Or anyone who understands me
But I’ll always be the king
It’s a near-perfect ranchera song, full of bombast and humor and the kind of deprecation that befits an oil-rich cultural powerhouse of a country with a talent for self-harm. And it’s a fine anthem for the humble taqueria that started out in Cypress Park almost forty years ago and now has almost two dozen locations and a large chunk of real estate in my lizard brain.
There has to be humor behind the whole idea of King Taco, with its logo of a fat white king carrying a cleaver. Tacos are, of course, not a royal food. It’s street food, offered here at street prices. My two tacos, bought as a sort of second dinner for takeout, cost $1.29 each. One was al pastor, the ultimate late-night protein, and the other was cabeza, the little savory bits cut from roasted beef head.
Don’t look for aristocracy among the gathered hungry, either. In the shadow of where the Pomona Highway and Long Beach Freeway intersect, the Third Street King Taco crowd is more a meeting of different tattoos: baroque Virgin Marys and cursive script on the cholas, geometric shapes and sad girls on the hipsters who have drifted south from Silver Lake.
But make no mistake: these are regal tacos. It starts with the corn tortillas, warm and soft. Then the meat, which arrives from behind a series of stainless steel counters but carries the char and fat of grills and roasting spits. And finally, it’s all topped sublimely with a mixture of fresh onion and cilantro, diced small, in even proportion.
It’s not a condiment, it’s a crown. And this, even late at night, even below the freeway, is kingly food.