Compton’s Tacos Don’t Want to Be Authentically Mexican
The Compton taco isn't a taco in the purist's sense. One standout star of this scene is Keith Garrett, owner of the “Americanized” taco and quesadilla street stand All Flavor No Grease, which fuses common ingredients with a maximalist approach.
South Central Los Angeles first found itself on the international cultural map by producing the world's first gangster rap stars, perhaps most notably when NWA named their album Straight Outta Compton. More than 25 years later, rappers Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar continue the tradition.
But this historically black part of Los Angeles is changing. Since rap's early 90s heyday, the area has seen a massive influx of Latinos, who now outnumber blacks nearly two to one. A recent local campaign to rename it South Central "SOLA" reflects the city's never-ending effort to clean up the neighborhood's rough past.
The food here is changing, too—an evolving cuisine that is neither entirely black nor entirely Latino, but a mixture of the two. One standout star of this scene is Keith Garrett, owner of the "Americanized" quesadilla street stand All Flavor No Grease.
Now, these quesadillas violate every basic rule of decent Mexican food: the tortilla is cheap and store-bought; the cheese is a pre-mixed cheddar blend; the sauce options include only Sriracha and something simply called "green." Nothing about Garrett's food could be perceived as "authentic," at least to the arbiters of quesadilla purity. Nothing about All Flavor No Grease is organic, locally sourced, farm-to-table, or any buzzworthy quality of the California food scene.
But as the throng of people that line up daily for a taste of his quesadillas suggests, there's no shortage of demand.
This is, after all, is the type of food that Garrett has eaten his entire life. The same could be said for many of his customers, considering that this area is 98 percent black and Latino.
"I'm not gonna do the authentic Hispanic taco," Garrett tells me. "I'm gonna use cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, ketchup, and hot sauce. They're gonna like that 'cause I like that. You feel me?"
Like any good cook, Garrett makes what tastes good to him. "Every quesadilla I make, it's like, I will eat it!" Garrett laughs, a natural showman.
Mexican-influenced soul food is no stranger to south LA. (Nor is fusion. After all, this is the city that gave the world Roy Choi and the ubiquitous Korean taco.) The "Compton taco," as it's popularly known, often relies on proteins like BBQ chicken, brisket, and deep-fried turkey. Garrett's competitors—such as Hambone's and Loreto's Fried Turkey—have been dishing rib-sticking potato, egg, and turkey tacos for over a decade.
While Choi and his culinary school progeny brought LA street food to the broader food world, there has always been something that felt less-than-street about their approach.
But Garrett's operation—literally located on his driveway–is street food born from the streets. As such, his food is true home cooking. He has no training or restaurant experience. He uses cheapish ingredients (not counting the mango, cilantro, and lime zest that's usually lacking in his competitors' deep-fried, gut-bomb Compton tacos). His service is as slow as molasses.
And yet he's managed to attract customers from all over LA to a neighborhood that even most locals are hesitant to visit. He's also racked up 14,500 followers on his Instagram account to boot.
Garrett started as small as you can. After deciding to quit selling drugs, he bought $150 worth of food stamps off a friend. He used the stamps to buy loads of candy, which he began selling out of the barred window of his home under the name "Juicy the Candyman." Then, on the advice of a friend, Garrett decided to expand into selling tacos, just like his mom made. Soon, he obtained a small grill—in reality, sheet pans on Sterno cans—and started dishing out tacos alongside his homemade "Kool-Aid gummy" candies.
"I made 50 bucks my first day," he says. "And I thought, This is like any other hustle. You gotta grind. You gotta start somewhere."
He quickly decided that he had no interest in traditional tacos, which he became familiar with as an adult. "[It was just] cilantro, onion. I thought, Damn, where's everything at? And 50 cents extra for cheese? No sour cream? No hot sauce?" he says, incredulous. "You prepare a taco yourself and it's just meat and a shell? That's not a taco to me."
His Americanized, maximalist approach to tacos was a big hit in Watts. At first, his popularity spread by word of mouth. Then Garrett got an Instagram account, on which he promised to only post about three things: God, positivity, and his food.
Soon, cooking became a full-time job. He'd run the stand during the day—prepping at 7 AM, opening at 2, serving until 8 or 9 at night—while catering rapper's parties on weekends.
For help, he took on two friends—CC and Trey—and started what he calls his "Phil Jackson Triangle Offense." "I tried to create a team that's flamboyant and jolly," he says.
After expanding the team, he also expanded his menu, adding his quesadilla and the occasional gumbo, BBQ, or other soul food mainstay.
But the quesadillas became the star. The tacos might have come from mom, but the quesadillas were his alone. "This is pure inspiration," Garrett says. "The taste. The texture. The [split-open] look. I want it to be a one-of-a-kind experience every time you go to All Flavor No Grease."
He has has bigger plans beyond quesadillas, too. He dreams of owning a food truck, and then a fleet of trucks carving up the South. Years down the road, he wants storefronts further north, maybe near Crenshaw and La Brea. But he aims to always have his home base in his driveway in Watts.
Garrett deeply understands what it's like to build something out of nothing. And it's working well for him so far. "I like becoming one with the people," he says. "I don't care where you're from. I just like interacting with people."