How Tacos 1986 Became L.A.’s Hottest Street-Food Sensation
The city’s most charismatic taquero is the hero Los Angeles needs in 2019.
The Joy is real, and you can feel it and see it and hear it and taste it.
Jorge Alvarez-Tostado, the strikingly charismatic taquero who goes by Joy, is carving adobada off a trompo. The marinated pork shoulder from the vertical spit is then put on a freshly made corn tortilla. Joy carefully calibrates the amount of salsa, guacamole, onion, and cilantro on each adobada taco. He also expertly puts together carne asada, chicken, and mushroom tacos.
He’s dancing while he lovingly taps the trompo with a knife. He’s mugging and making kissing sounds for pictures and videos. He’s shouting catchphrases as he encourages guests to photograph the action at Tacos 1986, which has quickly become L.A.’s hottest street-food sensation with its Tijuana-style tacos and exuberant frontman.
“We live in an Internet/Instagram/Snapchat/Facebook era, where people like hearing things like ‘I am the greatest’ or ‘No. 1 pound-for-pound,’" says Joy, who once thought about becoming a boxer when he was at a professional crossroads.
He’s here to bring swagger to the L.A. taco game. His preferred hashtag is #taqueromillonario. He knows that his persona is the best marketing for his on-the-rise small business. Let’s be clear: Joy is having a lot of fun, but he’s also a serious operator who’s grabbing tickets and expediting, who’s making sure every order is correct at Tacos 1986. He’s asking customers if they want their tacos “con todo” and then rapidly putting all the toppings on the tacos and handing them over.
“There has to be a dialogue between the taquero and the customer,” says Tacos 1986 founder Victor Delgado. “It’s the most important part. Nobody understands this better than Joy.”
Even in Los Angeles, where serving street food can turn you into a superstar, the rise of Tacos 1986 is astounding. Tacos 1986 started with a stand in Hollywood last November. Co-owners Delgado and Joy are still working toward their first restaurant, which they hope to open at a to-be-determined location this summer. But even without a restaurant, they got a glowing Los Angeles Times review in February that called the mustachioed Joy the Freddie Mercury of taqueros. Later this month, Tacos 1986 will be serving at Coachella’s Main VIP area during both weekends of the festival. It’s a fitting setting for such an attention-getting frontman.
Joy knows he’s playing a role. He wants to make the job of being a taquero as glamorous and respected as being a celebrity chef, chart-topping musician, or pro athlete. So he purposefully slicks his hair back. His fitness regime includes workouts with Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, at Hollywood’s Wild Card Boxing Club. Joy treats making tacos like a daily competition. He wants taqueros to earn more, to get more tips, to live better.
Delgado and Joy, who were both born in San Diego and grew up in Tijuana, are taking a little break from the stands they’ve had around L.A. They’re focusing on opening a brick-and-mortar spot. In the meantime, they’ve started a virtual CloudKitchens restaurant that’s fulfilling orders via Postmates, Doordash, UberEats, and GrubHub.
They’ve spent the last few months dealing with the vagaries of selling food on the streets, and they want something permanent.
“The next chapter will be like, ‘open forever, never close again,’” Joy says.
Before we get into what the future might hold, let’s start at the beginning.
Delgado moved to L.A. about ten years ago. He craved the kind of tacos he ate in Tijuana, but he struggled to find anything similar in L.A.. He went around the city and saw a lot of meat cooked on griddles instead of open fire. He saw bags of premade tortillas. He saw tacos where the cheese was drizzled on instead of melted. This wasn’t anything like Tijuana.
Yes, he eventually went to Tire Shop Taqueria and ate Tijuana-style tacos there, but that was in South Central, which wasn’t close to where he lived or worked. There was no place to get his daily taco fix. The idea for Tacos 1986 (1986 is the year Delgado was born) started as simply as this: He wanted to eat the food of his youth all the time. There was a problem, though. Delgado wasn’t a taquero or chef of any kind.
His cousin Frankie, an L.A. nightlife veteran, had gotten him a job as a busboy at West Hollywood nightclub Voyeur. Delgado learned a lot about hospitality from Voyeur’s general manager, Mike Kassar, and chef, Micah Wexler, who both had fine-dining experience and now run Wexler’s Deli. He also worked as a busboy at Mezze, a restaurant Kassar and Wexler opened. But this was really the extent of Delgado’s hospitality experience.
So last year, he sent a Facebook message to Joy, whom he had known since they were teenagers. They used to go to the same parties in Tijuana, and Delgado remembered his style.
“Joy always had Converse, blue Dickies, and either Quiksilver, Billabong, or The Hundreds,” Delgado says.
Delgado knew that Joy had served Tijuana-style tacos in New York City at Chelsea Market’s Los Tacos No. 1.
Joy, who had moved back to San Diego and started a family, agreed to help Delgado with recipes. But Joy had no desire to be part of the business beyond that. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He had spent some time in Nicaragua making tacos and ceviches on the beach at the Rancho Santana resort/residential community. He thought about how nice it was to avoid the grind of a big city. He also thought about ditching his cooking career altogether.
“I give Victor all the credit,” Joy says. “It was his initiative to reach out and motivate me when I was very, very not in the mood to be motivated.”
The first tasting
Delgado and Joy first met to discuss working together in February 2018. They didn’t see each other again until May. Joy took a train to L.A., and Delgado picked him up at Union Station. They went straight to a store and bought ingredients. Then they went to a friend’s kitchen. That evening, Joy served Delgado some carne asada and chicken tacos.
“He did it all himself,” Delgado says. “He had all these different salsas. I took a bite and I’m like, ‘Dude, this is it.’”
Delgado wanted to offer a vegetarian taco. He thought maybe it would be a cactus taco. He thought he might have this listed as “veggie taco” on the menu. Joy had something else in mind.
“He was like, ‘No, no, no,’” Delgado says. “He’s like, ‘Hold on, I got you.’ An hour later, he gives me the mushroom taco.”
Tacos 1986’s mushrooms, tossed in a salsa-macha vinaigrette with five different toasted chiles, olive oil, and black and white sesame seeds, are a pleasantly spicy, umami, meaty option without any actual meat. They’re what L.A. Times critic Bill Addison singled out as his favorite taco filling at Tacos 1986. Joy didn’t have any recipe in mind during his single hour of R&D for the mushroom taco. He just started cooking.
Joy had previously cooked around the world (including Mexico, Norway, Argentina, and San Francisco) and spent a lot of time reading cookbooks and studying the work of chefs like Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, and Marco Pierre White. He traveled a lot because he was inspired by Anthony Bourdain. Ignacio Mattos was Joy’s mentor at Isa in Brooklyn, and they’re still in touch.
Joy says he used to stupidly think that making tacos was beneath him. He once thought about going back to Tijuana and showing the people there how accomplished and worldly of a chef he had become.
“I thought I could sous vide or make paella or serve small plates or whatever,” he says. “It wasn’t until New York [and Los Tacos No. 1] that I realized that the taco is the best small plate on Earth. And I don’t have to reinvent anything. I could just follow the structure of how I grew up eating.”
But, as Delgado points out, people in Tijuana don’t eat chicken tacos or mushroom tacos. Those options exist at Tacos 1986 because Joy is cooking in L.A. Joy knows his food can evolve here. He believes that a tortilla can be a canvas for anything.
“I’ve always dreamed of doing it with chanterelles or black trumpet mushrooms or matsutakes,” Joy says of his mushroom taco. “Maybe we’ll shave some truffles. We’ll get there. In this case, it’s just a regular white mushroom.”
A regular mushroom, with a touch of extraordinary Joy.
The turning point
In September, Tacos 1986 set up a tasting with the goal of impressing potential restaurant investors. Former Los Angeles Dodgers star Adrián González came by. Delgado also invited Smorgasburg general manager Zach Brooks in hopes that Tacos 1986 would be selected as a vendor for the downtown L.A. food market.
Gonzalez and Brooks showed up, and Delgado told them to walk over to the taquero and place their orders. That was a vital part of the experience. Delgado watched Joy grooving and posing and running things like an orchestra conductor. He couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. This was crazy, Delgado remembers thinking. The food was great, but the Joy show was just as memorable.
“I’ve always had this energy,” Joy says. “I’ve always loved attention.” But until this moment, he had never been able to showcase his personality like this. Before this night, Joy had no intention of helping out Delgado long-term. Then something clicked at the tasting, and it hasn’t stopped clicking.
“We have a great night, friends love the food, people crushed the mushroom tacos,” Delgado says. “That’s when Joy was like, ‘Homie, I’m not going anywhere. I want to be part of this.’ When he said that, I was just like, ‘Yes! Fuck yeah! That’s exactly what I wanted this whole time.’”
“That’s exactly how it happened,” Joy says. “It just woke up this little thing I was missing. It’s service. That’s it. It’s serving the people. I saw that this concept has potential, and there’s a lot of commitment from Victor. Why not get involved? Why not shoot for greatness?”
The tasting was enough to convince Brooks that Tacos 1986 should have a Smorgasburg stand, but nobody offered to invest in a restaurant. Delgado and Joy stood outside on the corner of Highland and Lexington in Hollywood. Joy pointed at the ground. Why, he asked, don’t we just set up there? After all, they had grown up eating on the streets in Tijuana.
Delgado wasn’t into that idea at first, but he quickly realized how determined his new partner was. They rented the parking lot of a coffee shop. Tacos 1986 started serving there in November, about 10 days after Joy moved to L.A.
The grind and the fame
Because of Delgado’s hustle and relationships that he and his cousin have with celebrities and Instagram influencers, Tacos 1986 has catered a lot of private parties. There was a movie-premiere event at the iconic Sheats-Goldstein Residence on the first Friday night of December. Joy set up a trompo under the basketball court after rolling carts up a long driveway. Another caterer who was supposed to be there never made it, so Tacos 1986 got slammed at a party with hundreds of hungry guests.
Joy made tacos until 3 a.m. and then had to move all his equipment out. He got home around 6:30 a.m. He took a quick nap and woke up around 7 a.m. because Tacos 1986 had agreed to do a one-day Smorgasburg pop-up at the Santa Monica Pier that morning. He drove everything to Santa Monica. The pop-up ended at 4:30 p.m. Then it was time for Tacos 1986 to get ready for a busy Saturday night at its Hollywood stand.
Tacos 1986 was operating on pure adrenaline at this point. Joy doesn’t remember much about that evening or how he got through it. That was the night Eater L.A.’s Bill Esparza and Matthew Kang came by. Esparza, L.A.’s foremost taco expert, soon wrote a piece about the greatness of Tacos 1986.
Everything got busier and crazier from there. Lots of other media showed up. So did chefs like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, as well as celebrities like Benny Blanco and other assorted VIPs. There were Lamborghinis, Maybachs, and Bentleys parked by the stand.
An issue with the landlord of the Hollywood location made Tacos 1986 temporarily relocate to Koreatown. In Koreatown, a friend had a bar with a kitchen and offered Tacos 1986 a home there. Instead, Joy saw a nook outside and convinced Delgado they should set up there.
L.A. food-truck pioneer Roy Choi (who will have his own KogiTown section at Coachella) quietly walked up one night in Koreatown and paid for his order before Delgado noticed him. Choi sat and quietly ate his tacos. Then he went back to the trompo to say hello.
“Welcome to Koreatown,” Choi said. “Thank you for being here.”
At Smorgasburg one Sunday, global taco king Esdras Ochoa, who started off serving tacos at a downtown L.A. parking lot, visited Tacos 1986. He took one bite of an adobada taco, smiled, and said, “This tastes like home.”
Delgado and Joy’s roving taco stand, which has also popped up in front of Wanderlust Creamery’s Venice location, is on hold at the moment, but they’re still doing private events. Tacos 1986 is at Smorgasburg every Sunday and will be there even when Joy is cooking at Coachella.
Joy will be at Coachella one day after serving tacos at a charity gala alongside L.A. restaurants including Wexler’s Deli, Republique, Jon & Vinny’s, Badmaash, and Here’s Looking at You. Joy laughs when he thinks about how he might wear a tuxedo to the gala and then drive to the desert that same night.
Delgado wonders whether it will make sense to go to Coachella and set up on Wednesday, return to L.A. on Thursday, and then head right back to Coachella. These tireless entrepreneurs know that every high-profile event they’re at is a chance to attract media attention and potential investors. There will be time to rest later.
For now, Joy is fine with having days where he slices 250 pounds of meat for a trompo himself. Delgado, meanwhile, brings his laptop everywhere, so he can catch up on things whenever he has a few minutes between appointments. He showed up early to our meeting and did exactly that.
Joy, who has a 3-year-old, and Delgado, who has an 18-month-old and a newborn, want to stay open so they can raise their children in L.A. while feeding them Tijuana-style tacos. They also want Tacos 1986 to feed families all over the city. Joy says he’d love nothing more than to hear people talk, maybe 10 or 20 years from now, about this L.A. taqueria they used to visit when they were children. He hopes they’ll say that the food was great and that the taquero had a lot of personality.
Joy and Delgado are in this together long-term. They both humbly take turns giving each other credit for the growth of Tacos 1986 during our 90-minute conversation. They know they need each other.
“I feel very secure here,” Joy says. “I don’t want to go on by myself and fuck shit up, you know.”
He was a little lost when Delgado reached out a year ago, but his life has been completely transformed. He sees the path now. He wants to give L.A. everlasting Joy.