Let’s talk about Charleston Boulevard. It is arguably the grandest of Las Vegas’ east-west drags. It begins in the rocks on the Valley’s east side and continues, straight as an arrow, clear across town to meet Blue Diamond Road in the west. It passes through some of the poorest areas of Las Vegas and through some of its most affluent parts. Sure, there are other roads that go the distance, but they’re not as single-minded in the crossing: Lake Mead Boulevard meanders a bit, and West Sahara Avenue spills out onto Desert Foothills Drive, which eventually merges with Charleston anyway.
Local artists Justin “Favy” Favela and Ras One consider Charleston Boulevard Las Vegas’ main thoroughfare—even if that title literally belongs to another.
“You can tell when a business takes pride in what they make, from Taco Bell to Tacos El Gordo.”—Justin Favela
“Fuck Las Vegas Boulevard,” Favy says. “I grew up at 28th Street and Charleston. I went to high school at Charleston and Nellis. To me, Charleston is Vegas’ main street. When I think of Las Vegas, I think of Charleston.”
When Favy and Ras think of Charleston, they think of East Charleston. And when they think of East Charleston, they think of tacos.
A lot of Latin restaurants congregate east of the Strip, and a good amount of Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants on the nearly five miles of Charleston stretching from Las Vegas to Nellis boulevards. Plus, there are fast food joints that serve Americanized Latin food, and an unpredictable number of outdoor carts that come out nights and weekends. The street is all but paved with tortillas.
Favy and Ras estimate that there were two dozen places on Charleston to get a taco, and they decided that they would set aside an evening and try them all.
Ras and Favy met while in line at one of East Charleston’s best Mexican spots, Tacos El Gordo. The two artists realized they had more in common than an appreciation for Mexican cuisine. Ras is a world-class street artist, whose work can be found on indoor and outdoor walls all over the Arts District; Favy is a multidisciplinary artist whose proud Latino heritage is front and center in his work, especially in his custom-made piñatas—some of which are the size (and shape) of cars.
Also, both men understand at a gut level that the appreciation of art doesn’t begin and end with how it looks. Art is social, political, tactile … and, occasionally, flavorful.
“To me, the taco represents a lot,” Favy says. “It’s a way for Americans to literally consume Mexican culture. Today, the taco doesn’t just represent Mexico; it represents America. It’s become an American food.”
“What’s the No. 1 condiment in America? Salsa,” Ras says. (I actually Googled this, and he’s not wrong—though some reports put mayonnaise ahead of salsa in total sales. These reports are evil and shouldn’t be trusted.)
It’s Sunday and Favy, Ras, photographer Krystal Ramirez, impartial observer Laura Herbert and myself meet up at Esmeralda’s Café, a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant at Charleston and 10th Street. This is their second attempt at what the contenders call the “East Charleston Taco Challenge.” Favy and Ras once before attempted to try every taco on East Charleston, but they dead-ended halfway through. “They started too late in the day. Plus, they were snacking on chips, drinking beers,” Ramirez says.
This time, they’ve got to be more strategic.
“Migration brings in flavor and culture. Who cares what’s authentic, as long as it’s good?”—Ras One
Favy orders two tacos from a server—en español—before we even reach the table. As he sits down and pushes the basket of chips over to me, he remarks that he has an ongoing project called Taco Takeover (see it here), in which he documents every single taco he enjoys from around the world.
“The last taco I ate was in Ireland,” he says.
“The culinary jam over there has taken a major jump,” Ras says. “They’ve got a lot of cats coming in, a lot of different flavors, different styles.”
“The [restaurant I went to] looked cool,” Favy says. “You know those Cholo line drawings? They had those on the walls. And it was so hipster in there … like when you walk into a place that’s like this (he gestures to an empty-ish Esmeralda’s) and they say, ‘Sorry, there’s no tables left.’ Anyway, I had fish tacos, California-style. The one thing they fucked up was they didn’t put the tortilla on the grill, so we got a raw tortilla. That’s how they treated us. I was like, ‘I lived in Mexico for two months. I know what I’m talking about. Heat up the fucking tortilla.’ Other than that, though, the flavors were on point.”
Ras nods in agreement, and then describes the tacos he had in Hawaii. He appreciated them, but they lacked a certain something he could only get at home: “One of the first things I did when I got off the plane … my friend took me right to El Gordo. I needed tacos. I’d been eating poke bowls for five months.”
A short time later, the tacos arrive. The artists don’t say a whole lot while they eat. But when the question of authenticity comes up, they put the tacos down and get serious:
“I like to stray away from what is ‘authentic’,” Favy says. “It’s easier to say what’s good. Even in Mexico, an enchilada is different in the north than the south.”
“Yeah, you could have a more Indio influence in the community, which brings a certain flavor,” Ras says. “Or you could go into certain areas that have a more Arab influence.”
“The Arab taco is a huge thing in southern Mexico,” Favy says.
“Migration brings in flavor and culture,” Ras says. “Who cares what’s authentic, as long as it’s good?”
“This is where my grandma taught me never to order a taco with everything on it,” Favy says as we step up to the counter at Tacos Mexico. “Stick with sauce, onion and cilantro, because if you order a taco without stuff, they put more meat on it. Then you just use the toppings bar to fill it out.
“These tacos … not the best,” he adds. “But for nostalgic purposes, it’s like going to Vickie’s Diner. It’s not that great, but it scratches the itch.”
“This place is a staple—the late-night, greasy taco,” Ras says. “We have so many memories of this place. Back in the day, it was one of the few places near the Huntridge Theater for quick tacos. Not like it is today; we’re spoiled today. But that’s also a reflection of street food expanding, from Portland to Houston. Vegas has stepped it up in the past 20 years.”
We exit Tacos Mexico and notice a Mexican restaurant we’ve never seen before, Mariscos Playa Escondida, hidden behind the venerable taco stand. We go in and order fish tacos.
“It’s a little fishy on the intro, but nice on the out,” Ras says.
“That’s a good smoky taste,” Favy says. “I like places like this, places that do different kinds of tortillas for different kinds of proteins.”
So what makes a good taco stand out?
“You can tell when a business takes pride in what they make, from Taco Bell to Tacos El Gordo,” Favy says.
For Ras: “It’s love.”
Favy and Ras’ greatest challenge arrives early on, as we park in front of Los Tacos. Several Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants cluster near Los Tacos including Oloculita, Macayo and Tacos El Gordo, as well as Del Taco, a food counter inside the Bonanza Swap Meet called Lopez Restaurant and the family restaurant Blue Skillet, which has tacos on its menu. Before we return our cars and drive on, they will have eaten seven tacos in addition to three they’ve already had.
They attack Los Tacos with gusto.
“Anything you get here, from oysters on the half shell to those seafood cocktails you can get on a hot summer day … everything here is among the best you can get in town,” Ras says.
Favy agrees. “I don’t think I’ve ever ordered tacos here without all the stuff on them, and these are still good. I could eat these all day.”
(As they eat, Ras’ phone rings: “Yeah, I’m doing the East Charleston Taco Challenge right now. I’ll call you back in a little bit.” He hangs up. “That’s the problem with people from Hawaii. They don’t understand the struggle.”)
We jaywalk across Charleston to Blue Skillet and Macayo, where Favy already placed phone orders. Macayo’s tacos are just all right. “This place is huge in the Mormon community—it’s the pinnacle of Mexi-Mormon cuisine,” Favy says. But Blue Skillet’s tacos are the tour’s first dud.
“These are so bad that they’re memorable,” Favy says.
Next is Del Taco, which they prefer to Blue Skillet; Oloculita, where the staff was none too happy to see them (“They were throwing us a lot of shade, because why would you go to a pupusas place and order tacos?” Favy says); Lopez, whose tacos are good but a little fatty; and Tacos El Gordo, the place that inspired the tour in the first place.
The artists eat in silence at El Gordo. They don’t say much about the place, and they don’t have to. El Gordo’s long lines and giant rotisserie of roasting meats speak for themselves. As soon as they finish eating, Favy lets on that he’s beginning to feel the effects.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words right now,” he says. “I’m concentrating on breathing.”
Our next few stops got high marks from Favy and Ras. Thanks to handmade tortillas, they dub La Pupusa Loka a game changer.
“They make tortillas in the classic Central American style,” Favy says. “It’s almost like an arepa, but thinner. My mom’s from Guatemala, and this is how she makes tortillas. I just got a hit of nostalgia there.”
Ras nods, and calls out the little baggie of salsa they were given, “This is total street food-style presentation. Old school. You just take the corner, rip it open and pour it. … That’s how you do it on the beach. The tortillas are just so fluffy.”
We then hit two mariscos joints in quick succession, Mariscos El Dorado and Mariscos 7 Mares. Both restaurants occupy spaces that used to house Chinese restaurants (El Dorado is in the former Fong’s Garden), which Ras offers as proof that our town’s demographics have changed. “Back in the day, there were a lot of Asian restaurants along this street.”
Ras likes the fish tacos at El Dorado (“The fish was very buttery, very nice and soft, not overcooked”) and the green chile garnish on the tacos of 7 Mares (“It hits you right off the bat.”) Favy eats mostly in silence, nodding—and then, before anyone knows it, we are in line at Pepe’s Tacos, the point where their last attempt at this challenge ended in defeat.
Favy and Ras order chicken and carne asada tacos, respectively, and pose for silly pictures as photographer Ramirez snaps away. The tacos aren’t great. “It’s luck of the draw here, as far as how long the meat’s been sitting out,” Ras said.
However, their spirits are good, and they even joke a bit as they brace themselves for at least six or seven more tacos. Favy discards his second tortilla for the third time.
“It’s a strategy now,” he says. “Less carbs.”
A live band plays in the middle of El Diamante Restaurant’s dining room. It’s boisterous and fun—“a great first date tester,” according to Favy—and its tacos are freaking huge.
“As soon as Favy opened up the to-go container, he looked at me and we both started laughing, because it was like, ‘Oh, shit,’” Ras says.
The amount of food weighs on their taste buds.
“People think the taco is just a simple food, but one wrong thing can fuck up the entire experience for you.”—Ras One
“I think the flavors were all on point,” Ras says. “I just can’t appreciate them because I can’t breathe.
“My kidneys might shut down,” he says.
“Punch ’em awake,” I suggest.
“No, no! I’ll die.”
Then comes Cemitas Poblanas Mi Chula Puebla, an outdoor stand in front of La Flor De Michoacan ice cream shop (which is itself well worth a visit). Their tacos are only $1.50, are a good size and, according to the artists, have an absolutely outstanding taste. “I’m gonna come back here,” Favy says.
Next, we’re off to Playa de Cancun, another Salvadoran restaurant whose specialty is tortas and Mexican-style hamburgers. They serve Favy and Ras the first tacos they have to eat with a fork.
“This has to be very regional,” Favy says. “Steamed tacos, that’s what these are.”
But it’s El Pollo Loco and Jack in the Box that jolt Favy and Ras awake and get them talking like they did at the beginning of the tour. As soon as we sit down at Salvadoran restaurant El Triunfo—our 20th stop of the East Charleston Taco Challenge, and, as it turns out, our second-to-last—the artists launch into a full-fledged fast food dialectic.
“El Pollo Loco’s rotisserie is usually OK,” Ras says, “but not tonight.”
“All we were getting was the scraps,” Favy says. “The tortilla wasn’t heated; they just didn’t try. I’ve had a good taco there before. Not today.”
“That’s a corporate taco for you,” Ras says.
“You can taste the greed,” Favy says.
But they are more sanguine about the Jack in the Box taco, which Favy lauds as “a consistent guilty pleasure.”
“It’s one of the smartest-designed tacos,” he says. “It’s deep-fried, the whole thing. It’s a multisensory experience: You get this hot taco, you bite into it and that crunch is so loud, so it’s good for you auditory learners, you kinesthetic learners. Then they add cold lettuce, a little tomato and a little cheese. They fuck with you, temperature-wise. It’s fried, with cold lettuce on the inside.”
“And you can only get it with beef,” Ras says. “Ground-up tendons and shit.”
“People pay a lot of money for that in Mexico,” Favy says. “To eat a cow’s foot in Mexico is almost a delicacy.”
Their El Triunfo tacos arrive shortly after, and Favy regards his warmly, almost as he would an old friend.
“This was my spot for years,” he says. “My family would come here. They have the best pupusas in town, and the mojarra frita here is the bomb. I used to live in this neighborhood when I was in high school, so this was my spot. But we’d come here for the pupusas. I’ve never eaten a taco here.”
He takes a bite, smiles. “Not bad.”
It’s at our last stop, Taqueria El Buen Pastor, that Favy and Ras explain why they wanted to do the East Charleston Taco Challenge in the first place. It all comes back around to what they do when they’re not eating tacos: art.
“Every ingredient in a taco is important,” Favy says. “For example, at El Pollo Loco, the tortilla was just … they might as well have put the taco on paper, because they did not treat the tortilla as an ingredient.”
“People think the taco is just a simple food, but one wrong thing can fuck up the entire experience for you,” Ras says. “We’ve had some tortillas today that were mushy or wet from the ingredients on top of them. But then, you find places where everything is locked in. And all of a sudden, you’re having a new experience in texture and taste.”
“The most successful paintings are those where the artist thinks about what they’re painting on,” Favy says. “The canvas isn’t just a canvas; it’s part of the painting. That’s why Mark Rothko is the shit. He knows it’s about the size of the painting, about that canvas; it’s all one thing. It’s not just paint on canvas. … And a taco isn’t just meat on a tortilla. The whole thing has to have flavor. It has to be the right temperature. It all counts.”
The men finish their tacos and pose for a few more pictures. Everyone exchanges high fives and handshakes, and then—honest truth—we go back to La Flor de Michoacan for paletas. Charleston Boulevard, I tell you. It’s got everything.
1. Esmeralda’s Café,
2. Los Tacos,
3. Playa de Cancun,
a nice twist on a traditional dish.
4. La Pupusa Loka,
5. Cemitas Poblanas Mi Chula Puebla.
It has huge tortas, too.
And I will totally go back to the mariscos spots: El Dorado, etc. The quality and quantity is not to be slept on at all.
Best overall: Al Pastor Taco from Tacos El Gordo de Tijuana B.C.
The tortillas are on point, the sauce is correct, the meat is perfectly cooked and the taco is just the right size.
Hot tip: If you are going on the weekends, go in the morning to avoid the long al pastor line. I called it going to church, because I’d go every Sunday morning when I lived Downtown. Halleloo!
Best meat: Los Tacos
I recommend the cabeza or lengua tacos. Their tacos may seem expensive, but the size and quality of meat more than make up for it. Get two tacos and you’ll be more than full. And get a side of rice and beans—they’re the bomb.
Best tortilla: Tie between Mariscos Playa Escondida and La Pupusa Loka
As far as traditional Mexican tortillas, I was really impressed by the handmade tortillas at Mariscos Playa Escondida, because the size and ingredients differ depending on the type of meat or fish you order.
I was pleasantly surprised by La Pupusa Loka, where our carne asada tacos were served on a traditional thicker corn tortilla, common in El Salvador and Guatemala. The tortilla was handmade on the spot, still steaming from the grill. Just like Mama used to make.
Freshest taco: Mariscos El Dorado
I had a fish taco there with great flavor. The light batter, smoky salsa and cabbage medley were as tasty and fresh as the fish.
Hot tip: If you want to sing karaoke or hear live music on the weekends, hit up any of the mariscos spots on East Charleston. It’s a real party.
The best deal: Two tacos for 99 cents at Jack in the Box
I can already hear my people saying that those aren’t even tacos. But a taco is a taco, even if it’s only good at 4 a.m. after a night of partying and you just need something to fill that void in your life.
1000 E. Charleston Blvd. #101 (702) 388-1404 Facebook.com/EsmeraldasCafeLV
1205 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 444-1738 TacosMexico.com
Mariscos Playa Escondida
1203 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 906-1124 Facebook.com/ MariscosPlayaEscondida
1710 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 471-7447 LosTacosLV.com
Blue Skillet Family Restaurant
1723 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 382-3330
1741 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 382-5605 Macayo.com
1802 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 366-1878 DelTaco.com
1756 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 383-6909
(at Bonanza Indoor Swap Meet) 1720 E. Charleston Blvd., Suite 13 (702) 366-1590
Tacos El Gordo de Tijuana B.C.
1724 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 251-8226 TacosElGordoBC.com
La Pupusa Loka
1956 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 360-5652
Mariscos El Dorado
2021 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 868-2970
Mariscos 7 Mares
2000 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 473-5522 7MaresMexicanRestaurant LasVegas.com/
2490 Fremont St. (702) 360-5200 PepesTacosLV.com
El Diamante Restaurant
2830 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 307-9891
Cemitas Poblanas Mi Chula Puebla
3021 E. Charleston Blvd. Unit B (702) 688-9765
Playa de Cancun
3513 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 432-0034
El Pollo Loco
4011 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 459-0987 ElPolloLoco.com
Jack in the Box
4345 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 440-8181 JackInTheBox.com
El Triunfo Restaurant
4450 E. Charleston Blvd. Suite 3 (702) 453-4147
Taqueria El Buen Pastor
4777 E. Charleston Blvd. Suite 217 (702) 912-0775 TaqueriaElBuenPastor.com
La Flor de Michoacan Ice Cream
3021 E. Charleston Blvd. (702) 366-1447