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The secret ingredient in these meaty tacos makes Whittier your next taqueria destination

A vampiro mixto with a healthy dollop of guacamole, one of the standout tacos José Morales's Tacos La Carreta in Whittier
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)
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Peering over the counter at Tacos La Carreta in Whittier, I watch the cook in front of the comal assemble chorreadas — one of the specialties that defines José Manuel Morales Bernal’s quickly growing enterprise of Sinaloa-style taquerias.

He starts by crisping corn tortillas over the heat and sprinkling on cheese. The defining addition is asiento, a rendered paste made from the remnants of frying chicharrones and sometimes carnitas. Its taste crosses the nutty, caramelized purity of homemade ghee with the unmistakable whomp of pork. The cook dribbles asiento over the melting queso, using the end of a tong to swirl them together, and leaves them for a minute or two. I notice the tortillas’ edges seize into a gentle waving pattern and the asiento begin to bubble over top.

Time for sensational Sinaloa-style tacos

To finish them, the cook takes handfuls of chopped carne asada, cooked over mesquite on the grill next to the comal, and smacks them onto each surface so the meat holds fast to the cheese. Then come layers of finely minced cabbage, chopped onion and a ladle of warm, thin tomato-based salsa. At the condiment bar I add a chunkier fresh salsa and a more-than-healthy splotch of silky guacamole.

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The smoky sirloin, the bite of the raw vegetables, the soprano-alto duet of the salsas and the cooling avocado: They would be enough on their own, a fact proven when a customer orders a vampiro, which is nearly the same assemblage minus the asiento. But the paste that makes the chorreada adds its own intrigue and keeps the gustatory cortex on high, happy alert.

They are specific, exquisite, destination tacos.

And it’s not as if they’re a secret, even if plenty of Angelenos have yet to find their way to Morales’ two locations: the truck he’s operated in Long Beach since 2020, and the strip-mall taqueria he opened on Washington Boulevard in Whittier at the beginning of the year.

The view of the ordering counter and open kitchen of Tacos La Carreta in Whittier
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Esparza wrote about the first iteration of Tacos La Carreta, a cart operated in Compton by Morales’ father, also named José, who learned to craft chorreadas growing up in a town called El Verde not far from coastal Mazatlán in Sinaloa. The son began helping his father when he was 13, often to pitch in with catering events and when his dad sold tacos from the house. In his 20s, Morales was a driver at a linen company, and he also sometimes delivered for a meat company.

“I knew people used to seek my dad out for our Sinaloa-style tacos, and I thought about it too,” he said in an interview this week. “I used to go into restaurant kitchens for deliveries, and I always used to say, man, am I doing what I want? I was scared to leave the job. But that’s when the pandemic came in.”

As a ripple effect to the decimation across the restaurant industry, the linen company laid off Morales in April 2020, and by late summer he had secured a food truck to work for himself. He parked in the northern cusp of Long Beach, not far from Paramount, the city where he lives and which maintains prohibitive ordinances for food trucks.

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In Los Angeles County, tacos with this measure of quality, precision and regionality tend to find a fast audience. Javier Cabral wrote about the truck for L.A. Taco in early 2022, and the following year Morales snared an award at the publication’s annual Taco Madness event. That’s where I first tried his cooking, which led to Taco La Carreta’s truck landing on the current 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles guide.

The menu at Whittier largely mirrors what Morales and his team continue to serve in Long Beach.

Order both a chorreada and a vampiro to appreciate the chorus of textures and the contrasts with and without asiento. The Sinaloan pellizcada is a medium-large round of masa, thicker than the average tortilla but thinner than a sope. Its plushness, dressed like a taco and loaded with carne asada — or delicious chewy-soft tripe, or nubbly, chile-stained adobada, or a combination — arguably calls for a knife and fork. Morales drives to Tijuana weekly to pick up pellizcadas made by a vendor in Mazatlán. The number he needs to order, he said, keeps growing and growing.

Pellizcada is one of the Sinaloa-style specialities on the menu at Tacos La Carreta in Whittier.
Pellizcada, made from a masa base with a consistency between a tortilla and a sope at Tacos La Carreta.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

He buys corn tortillas from Diana’s in El Monte and purchases his flour tortillas from La Chapalita Tortilleria in South El Monte; he tried many products from many companies and says these taste most like home to him. Their finest use: for toritos, flour tortillas enfolding a roasted Anaheim chile that’s split to cradle cheese and one of the aforementioned three meats. What’s that porky-buttery-pecan-rich pheromone among the cabbage and salsa? Yes, a little asiento.

One always worries when a chef who’s creating something special rushes to expand, but there is no missing the surge of ambition in Morales’s voice. He mentioned that, though he admittedly finds it easier to work inside the taqueria than in a mobile kitchen, he’s recently secured a second food truck for a third location. He’s stressing about which area of the metro area to settle next, he says. Maybe the San Fernando Valley?

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Morales says we’ll likely find out by late July.

Tacos La Carreta: 11402 Washington Blvd., Whittier, (562) 842-3132, also at 3480 E. 69th St., Long Beach, (562) 377-2819, instagram.com/tacos_lacarreta

An Unflinching Look at the State of Restaurants

This week a story by Stephanie Breijo takes a deep, holistic look at the many costs of running L.A.-area restaurants in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. She breaks down afflictions for business owners and workers at every tier of the industry. Chefs and restaurant operators detail some of the major challenges: exorbitant price increases in ingredients; shifts in consumer spending; the way lingering malaise in the entertainment industry following last year’s twin strikes have affected business; and a spate of new state and local legislation that often leads to confusion over new requirements.

The increasing minimum wage for fast-food chain workers is also discussed. Among the interviewed was Ada Brice?o, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents more than 32,000 restaurant and bar professionals, hotel workers and more.

“L.A. is the center for the working poor,” Brice?o said. “Many people in the low-wage industry are one paycheck away from homelessness, or already couch-surfing or already live in their cars.”

It’s a critical, timely read. To expand on the topic, Heather Sperling reveals where every cent of $1 goes at her Silver Lake restaurant Botanica.

Heather Platt writes about the importance of Regarding Her, the nonprofit that provides educational and financial programming to help female chefs, leaders and entrepreneurs.

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In a time when most of us feel the sting of economic realities, Danielle Dorsey has a guide to 15 wonderful and affordable meals in Los Angeles. In the same vein, Kelly Dobkin names 20 of the best happy hour deals in Los Angeles.

Have a question?

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This week’s review, and more

  • Since the Mercado González opened in Costa Mesa in November, I’ve visited a half-dozen times in 2024 to wrap my stomach and brain around its 70,000 square feet of culinary possibilities. It’s worth visiting as a freshly minted seat of culture that feels quickly chosen by the community. I name 10 favorites from among its many puestos — tacos, tortas, Sinaloa-style sushi and, yes, churros with cold brew — to help you wade in.

  • Jenn Harris, our resident fried chicken maven, finds her latest obsession: J&G Fried Chicken restaurant in Hacienda Heights, the first U.S. location of the popular Taiwanese chain. Beware the lines, Jenn warns.
  • “Graduation season is upon Los Angeles,” Sonja Stott writes. “This year, due to nationwide pro-Palestine protests on college campuses, some of those annual celebrations look a little different.” She has 10 standout suggestions for restaurants where celebrants and families can gather and honor commencement.
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