How Indigenous Taqueros From Oaxaca Made LA the Capital for CDMX-Style Al Pastor

You might not know it, but Los Angeles’s most frequented trompos, like the ones at Tacos Leo (aka Leo’s Taco Truck) and Tacos Tamix, are helmed by people of the mixe Indigenous group. Mixe are one of the many Indigenous peoples from Oaxaca who came to settle in Southern California, assembling what is colloquially called Oaxacalifornia. These groups, including zapotecos and mixtecos, continue to educate Angelenos about Mexico’s most culinarily diverse state.

Most of the prominent Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles, and in the U.S. in general, are owned by zapotecos, serving things from the Valles Centrales region like moles, tlayudas, mezcal, and quesillo. LA’s mixe restauranteurs aren’t often recognized alongside the many zapotecos in town — most media coverage revolves around just a few Oaxacan establishments. But mixe entrepreneurs dominate LA streets at night, with diners lining up for tacos de al pastor on street corners across the county. Fermin Martinez, another mixe taco vendor, has been serving some of the city’s best al pastor at his chainlet Tacos Los Palomos, cementing the notion that mixe people are a key element of LA’s street food scene. Martinez first opened a decade ago in South Central, naming his restaurants after the flock of doves that always gathered near his first stand.

Here in Canoga Park, a taquero tops each taco with somersaulting chunks of pineapple sliced off the top of the spit. Tacos get a finish of onions, cilantro, and salsa from an ample self-service bar. Martinez’s exceptional Mexico City-style al pastor brings a new level of quality to this part of western San Fernando Valley, keeping busy despite the many on-site dining restrictions that have been enacted by the state and county.

Taquero shaves al pastor from a trompo at Tacos Los Palomos.

Taquero shaves al pastor from a trompo at Tacos Los Palomos
Matthew Kang

“There are enough taqueros in LA, so three years ago we decided to go where others hadn’t gone,” says Martinez. LA’s game-changing al pastor moment came about 10 years ago when Leo’s brought their expertise to Los Angeles. Leo’s recruited seasoned taqueros from Mexico City’s storied spots like El Tizoncito, Charco de Las Ranas, El Huequito, and more to run its al pastor spit; the truck expanded to eight locations across LA, garnering mentions on numerous best-of lists while Los Palomos mostly stayed under the radar.

Still, one wonders why so many mixe taqueros trained to cook al pastor in Mexico City. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and CDMX’s taquerias have a low profit margin — at less than a dollar per taco — requiring skilled labor for low wages. Martinez and other mixes have used that training in CDMX to give Angelenos something they may not have been exposed to before: truly great Mexico City-style al pastor. Tacos Los Palomos carves beautiful trompos that taper nicely toward the base. The spits make for moist adobo-marinated pork that gets crisped by a flame searing the stratified rows of meat.

Los Palomos offers al pastor in tacos, tortas, mulitas, and alambres. But the stand also serves good tacos de fritanga, with cuts like suadero (beef belly), buche (hog maw), tripas (chitterlings), and other selections fried in a large aluminum cooking pan. The tiny tortillas used by LA taquerías, designed to allow street stands to charge around a buck, are unforgiving when it comes to roasted meats, exposing any dryness or bland flavors. At just around two bites, Los Palomos’s al pastor taco reveals a surprising amount of moisture in its medium cuts of adobo-flavored pork. The pork flavor is deepened with its char and light sweetness.

Trompo at Tacos Los Palomos in Canoga Park.

Trompo at Tacos Los Palomos in Canoga Park
Matthew Kang

Martinez’s workers come from the region of Sierra Mixe, where he was born and raised, from the town of Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo, also known as Quatro Palos. During the pandemic, these essential workers are mostly ineligible for government stimulus, which means they count on LA’s insatiable desire for affordable, delicious street food.

The recent restaurant shutdowns have severely impacted sales of street food vendors, however, with many businesses letting go of taqueros to stay viable (Palomos has already had to reduce its locations from seven to six). Despite the decriminalization of street vending in Los Angeles, vendors are still subject to police harassment. “The pandemic is affecting us a lot, because they [the police] won’t let us work, making us have to move every moment, even throwing us in jail and treating us like criminals,” says Martinez. Despite having a comparatively small presence on social media, Tacos Los Palomos draws a crowd that’s required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Some may take LA’s superior al pastor scene for granted thanks to intrepid vendors like Los Palomos, Leo’s, and Tamix, whose mixe operations have proliferated spinning trompos from South LA all the way up to the boundaries of the San Fernando Valley. The challenges of remaining operational in a year like 2020 are offset by the taqueros’ pride in bringing mixe culture to Los Angeles. “We’ve earned our clientele through our flavor,” says Martinez.

Tacos Los Palomos is open 5 p.m. to midnight (and until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday):

20505 Sherman Way, Canoga Park
10306 Sepulveda Bl., Mission Hills
851 Sepulveda Bl., Torrance
11911 Valley Bl., El Monte

Locations change weekly, so check Instagram to confirm where they’ll be serving.

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