Bill Esparza tells the stories behind LA's favorite tacos.
All photos by the author.
It's 8:30 on a Sunday morning and Tacos el Palomas in Compton, California is already packed. The place looks more like a party catered in someone's backyard than a restaurant, as we are sitting at plastic tables in someone's backyard. There is no sign out front differentiating this home from any other in the suburban neighborhood. I'm with Bill Esparza, a James Beard award-winning journalist best known for covering LA Mexican food. He orders us some coffee and a round of tacos.
"This is beef head, tacos de cabeza, so we're getting cheeks, eyes, tongue, and just regular head meat," Esparza tells me. "These guys are from Sinaloa, from specifically Mazatlán. You ever had eye before?"
The coffee hits the table first and the server brings us a jug of 2% milk, then a consomme made with the meat drippings. Carlos, the owner, beams when he sees Esparza. He tells us that he's had more customers from Beverly Hills come because of Esparza's writing.
After studying music at the University of the Pacific in his hometown of Stockton, California, Esparza pursued a career as a saxophone player. He toured the world with bands, and always took time to explore food on the road. Most of his bandmates couldn't have cared less about local cuisine, so Esparza hit the streets alone, asking everyone for recommendations wherever he went.
When his music career started to taper down, his writing career was winding up. His passion for food had lead him to starting his own blog: Street Gourmet LA. In 2009, he took 20 other bloggers down to Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe for a culinary tour with the regional tourism board.
"That tour put so much information on the internet that when Bizarre Foods was researching Mexico—they were going to go to Mexico City—every time they did a search, Baja came up," Esparza recalls. "And then every time they read a blog post, my name came up."
The show's producers asked him why they should go to Tijuana and he recommended a chicken neck taco place perfect for the program. They hired Esparza to guide them through southern Baja, and a friendship with Zimmern was born.
In 2010, Esparza went from blogging on his own to reporting for outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine. By 2016, he earned a James Beard award for his food coverage. This year, Esparza authored L.A. Mexicano, a cookbook he hopes will help humanize immigrants.
"I am trying to sell this book because I think it's a really important story to tell given what's going on in the United States. Mexicans, we're in a bad place," says Esparza. "When a white person kills somebody, it's just a murder case and we say what a horrible person. If I look on the news and see it's a Mexican person, I'm like oh no. Now it's all of us. And the president proved that when he launched his campaign. He said we're all rapists and drug dealers. It's just every day it's an assault on the Mexican community from Trump and his administration."
Esparza wants his writing to portray the Latino community in a more representative light, not to mention help him deal with his political frustrations.
"For me, writing about small businesses, writing about family businesses, and writing about the Latino culture, my culture, has helped me channel that energy into something positive. I want people to see these people as vendors and get to know them, and understand they're human beings and they're affected by these things," Esparza says.
"My job has been to enlighten people about the regional cuisines and the special foods, and really that these are equal cuisines to any cuisines in the world. And that's it, they're equal. They're not better, they might taste better sometimes, but they're equal and deserve the same amount of respect."
We leave Tacos el Palomas and head to East Los Angeles where we stop at Tacos Quetzalcoatl. Esparza cracks jokes with the owner, Max, who takes us over to get some palate-cleansing lime nieve from a new vendor on the block. A woman selling tamales from a shopping cart sees my camera and hurries across the street anxiously. No one is resting easy in the era of Trump.
"If you're undocumented, you're in a worse place. If you're like me, born here, you're still in a bad place with ICE running around and doing what they're doing, they don't care who we are," Esparza says. "Violence and just angry people shouting at you on the street is increasing. If you speak Spanish somewhere you have to be careful that someone listening is't going to start saying something."
Although overt racism comes up more frequently since Trump took office, it's something Esparza has known all of his life.
"We grew up with people making beaner jokes, people saying racist things with a little chuckle at the end and you end up shrugging it off because you're part of this group, you're accepted. But my grandparents both had green cards, and I'm thinking I'm so glad they aren't here to deal with this right now," Esparza says. "Now it's like, how can it get worse in my lifetime?"
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Our last stop is a place Esparza wants to keep off the radar, another homestaurant that you'd never find unless you knew the address. It's the best place in town for birria, Esparza tells me. We linger for more than a half hour for a table in the owner's living room, and the meaty, tomato-sauced stew with fresh made tortillas is well worth the wait. Esparza strikes up a conversation with the two teenagers sitting across from us, swapping favorite food spots. This is his element.
"This was the angry left guy from in his 20s to the adult who's trying to do something to promote places that people aren't talking about, regions people aren't talking about, cultures that people aren't talking about. It's fun for me. I would be doing it anyway, I would want to seek that out for my own experience. I want to interact with different people," he says.
"I love being somewhere by myself sitting down with some vendor, hearing about their story, not even always to write about it. I love that interaction, it's very special to me. It's for my own education as a human being."