I may not be able to read an NCAA college basketball bracket, but I definitely came to understand the opinionated obsessiveness of March Madness when I began following the first-annual Taco Madness, a fast-paced contest fashioned after the annual basketball event. In this single-elimination online tournament, currently being staged by a graffiti-and-food website (really) called LA Taco, 16 popular Los Angeles eateries that specialize in tacos were divided into two draws of eight seeds, making for four rounds of head-to-head taco competition. Winners are determined by fans who (using their own criteria) submit votes to the website.
Even at first glance, it’s easy to tell that the entrants would stir up controversy. In Southern California, tacos are available everywhere—from high-end restaurants to corner stands (often nothing more than folding card tables). But many people feel that pushcarts, street vendors, and catering trucks are the most reliable places for drippingly tasty, authentic tacos prepared in styles from all regions of Mexico and filled with almost dizzyingly different combinations of ingredients. So amongst the well-trafficked brick-and-mortar places like El Taurino and Tacos Por Favor are a few of the vehicle-based kind—mainstays like La Estrella, Tacos El Korita, Taco Zone, and KoGi BBQ (home of the much-publicized Korean tacos). Needless to say, everyone has favorite trucks, street vendors, and other hole-in-the-wall joints they feel were unjustly omitted. (LA Taco amiably acknowledges that its methodology has sparked uproar.)
Some of the pairings seem unfair from a sheer numbers standpoint: What kind of match-up is it when urban east-sider King Taco, which is famous for its al pastor tacos and tangy clove-flecked salsa verde and has 20 locations, gets to face off against a modest two-store operation like Tacomiendo? And when it comes to Tito’s Tacos, I am on the side of the commenters who wonder how the (admittedly popular) 50-year-old West Los Angeles landmark—which traffics in greasy hard shells, salty shredded beef, and orange cheese—ended up in the Final Four.
As it turns out, selecting which establishments to compete was a team effort—contributors to LA Taco were polled, as were writers of taco-centric food blogs—and the preference toward the less obscure places was on purpose. “In terms of tacos, often times the best can be in a nameless place on the side of the street that will only be there for a few hours. But we wanted to choose places that people would know, debate about,” said Hadley Tomicki, one of website’s founders and its resident taco fanatic. “We wanted to get the whole city involved.” Tomicki also promises that next year Taco Madness will expand to 32 entries, which will make room for more Cinderella snackdowns.
The next round runs through midnight Wednesday. The final taco-à-taco matchup concludes on Monday. Note to Ruth Reichl: If you don’t want your beloved family-owned Yuca’s to lose to media darling Kogi BBQ, it’s time to sign on and start voting.