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Tacos 1986: From street cart to cult-favorite restaurant

With seven restaurants and counting, Tacos 1986 is bringing a new flavor of Tijuana-inspired food to the Los Angeles taco scene.

If there’s one West Coast culinary scene that’s tough to break into, it’s tacos. Los Angeles taco shops are a dime a dozen, so it takes a special brand to stand out from the crowd. Enter Tacos 1986, which started as a food cart in 2018 selling Tijuana-style tacos, gained a fair amount of media buzz and soon grew into a brick-and-mortar location that opened in 2019. After gaining a fanbase on the festival circuit, Tacos 1986 expanded into a burgeoning, seven-location chain slinging tacos and quesadillas to a dedicated cult following.

So what makes this quick-service brand stand out in the taco capital of the country? According to cofounders and taqueros Victor Delgado and Joey Alvarez, making corn tortillas every day in-house, offering mix-and-match varieties of freshly made salsas (25 combinations in total), and carving adobada pork meat from a rotating trompo or spit are some of the crucial ingredients of Taco 1986’s success.

“We have been told that we do three things differently: No. 1 was that that we have branding, which a lot of taco places don't, and No. 2 is that the food is consistently delicious every time,” Delgado said. “No. 3 is about the people behind it. I think that combination just exploded everywhere because we’re able to blend in with culinary high-ups … and I think that magic happens especially when we go to a food festival, and you see the way we engage with customers, neighbors, writers, and other businesses.”

Both Alvarez and Delgado are from Baja California in Mexico and wanted to bring the fresh, affordable culinary pleasures of their home state across the border. Tacos 1986 — with its simple menu of $3.50 tacos, $4.50 quesadillas, and $4.75 mulitas (a hybrid of the two) — gets sales equally from walk-up and delivery customers as it does from a growing catering business. The concept still hits the road often, doling out tacos to events and getting the brand in front of new customers all over the country.

Moving forward, Tacos 1986 wants to grow to new markets and locales, though the founders are not in a rush to provide specific expansion goals or timeline for a future franchising launch. For now, the team is in the middle of opening two new locations: one in Sherman Oaks and another in Santa Monica, Calif. 

“We think our concept is so fresh, delicious and healthy that it should be in every state in America, or maybe even in Japan one day,” Alvarez said. “It’s very cheap fast food. You can come to our restaurant, spend $4 and have a delicious bite. … The culture that we are establishing is a unique base for us to keep growing the company and getting our food into people’s homes and bellies.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

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