Tacos are one of the most ubiquitous and beloved foods in Los Angeles. Everyone has an opinion on where the best ones can be found, based on varying degrees of freshness, authenticity or innovation. Most modest taquerias have no license to sell alcohol; if they do, the selection is limited to macro Mexican beers. Plenty of restaurants feature daily taco specials, including “Taco Tuesday.” But deals on this glorious, handheld street food extend beyond the one day of the week that allows for alliteration. A great taco happy hour must offer a variety of discounted tacos, but just as important as the comida is the cerveza and cocteles — we want ice-cold beer and strong margaritas. Other bonuses were required to make our cut: a pile of chips and salsa, handmade tortillas, sustainable ingredients or unbeatable ambiance.
This is not a definitive list of the best tacos in town. Best taco happy hour is meant to situate you with a taco in one hand and an adult beverage in the other, for less than $10 — una auténtica hora feliz.
Border Grill, Santa Monica
Established in Santa Monica in 1990, Border Grill was one of the early restaurants to orient Los Angeles toward the high-quality street food that now defines it. Border Grill’s founders, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, committed their menu to ethically sourced, seasonal cooking long before it was popular. To this day, the fare is fresh and flavorful. When you visit Santa Monica or the downtown location for happy hour in the afternoon or late night, try one of eight available tacos, all of which come on a handmade corn tortilla. For a taste of the classics, go with the grilled fish and taco Ensenada, both made with sustainable seafood. The al pastor taco with chicken, pork and grilled pineapple is also a great choice, each at $3.50. Try a Baja ceviche shot and wash it down with a margarita or beer for $5 during happy hour. The interior decor feels a little dated, but let it serve as a reminder that without the visions of restaurateurs like Feniger and Milliken, the most exotic dishes in L.A. would still be quiche Lorraine and Chinese chicken salad. Happy hour Mon.-Fri., 4-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9-11 p.m.; Sun., all day. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-1655, bordergrill.com.
Pink Taco, Century City
The best reason to dine at the Pink Taco in the Westfield Century City mall is happy hour. You would be wise to strategically time your shopping and movie watching so that you can take advantage of the daily, four-hour slot when margaritas and beer are completely reasonably priced at $5 and $3, respectively, and the complimentary chips and salsa just keep coming. You also can order sangria for $5, great for sipping outside in the summer. Pink tacos, the crassly named signature item, are available in pairs for $7.50, (it’s the pickled red onion that makes them pink), as are portobello mushroom tacos. For more substantial snacking, order the nachos without meat for $8 or guacamole for $7.50. The tricked-out neon Mexican skull art is a little visually exhausting by day, but it makes for a fun atmosphere by night. Check out the Sunset Strip location for late-night hours, and keep a lookout for new locations as the chain grows in L.A. Happy hour daily, 3-7 p.m., extended happy-hour menu 4 p.m.-close Tue. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 789-1000, pinktaco.com.
Mercado, Hollywood Hills
Modern Mexican is a perfect genre for Los Angeles dining. Combine upcycled fixtures that satisfy our attraction to pretty, shiny things with a bustling atmosphere that indulges our desire to see and be seen, and throw in updated traditional dishes that reflect the cultural makeup of the city. It’s everything we want. Jesse Gomez is nailing this combination with his Mercado restaurants, and he loves happy hour just as much as we do. The most recent outpost, with its dimensional Dia de los Muertos mural, in the Hollywood Hills across the 101 freeway from Universal Studios, brings much-needed upscale dining to the neighborhood. Visit during happy hour and order two tacos de carnitas with slow-cooked pork and guacamole for $6, or the unconventional tacos de papa with mashed potatoes, cabbage, queso frescoand crema fresca. Dos Gringas tacos with spit-roasted pastor on flour tortillas also are a hit. Margaritas are $6-$8 (try the hibiscus) and beer is $4. Although it’s not on the happy hour menu, it would be a mistake to walk out without trying the flan. To Senor Gomez and his Mercado restaurants, we can only say: Keep ‘em coming. Happy hour Mon.-Fri., 5-7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 4-6 p.m. 3413 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Hollywood Hills; (323) 512-2500, mercadorestaurant.com.
El Arco Iris, Highland Park
If you want old-school authenticity in a taco happy hour, go to El Arco Iris (“the rainbow” en español) on York Boulevard. This Highland Park restaurant has been in business since 1964, when it started offering traditional Mexican fare to locals who were hungry for a taste of home. Original owner Irene Montes passed on her love of hospitality and food to her grandson, rising L.A. restaurateur Jesse Gomez (owner of Yxta and Mercado). Many of the dishes at his upscale Mexican eateries have a foundation that originates at El Arco Iris. However, you will find El Arco Iris’ menu is a little less expensive and its atmosphere more relaxed. Tacos are offered in hard or soft shell and contents include classic ingredients such as barbacoa, chicken and carnitas. Order a pair of tacos for $4 and a round of $5 guacamole to go with. You’ll need something to wash it down, so reach for a house margarita for $4, or make it a pitcher for $13. Taco joints are legion in Highland Park, but for good drinks, good prices and that throwback restaurant vibe, follow el arco iris. Mon.-Fri., 3-6 p.m. 5684 York Blvd., Highland Park; (323) 254-3401, elarcoiris.net.
At last, something you’ve been dreaming of your whole L.A. life — $1 tacos and easy-drinking cocktails. On days that are inhospitably hot and glaringly bright (so … pretty much every day), the cool, dark ambiance of Cinco’s Oaxacan-themed restaurant is a relief. Inside, clean industrial meets traditional Mexican furnishings all wrapped up in a late-midcentury building. The drink list reflects a stronger south-of-the-border influence. If only Cormac McCarthy were available to guide us through the encyclopedic list of mezcals and tequilas. Dollar tacos are straightforward (al pastor, asada, pollo, carnitas, soya) and come with onion, cilantro and salsa on a double-layered, 3-inch corn tortilla. These are two- to three-bite affairs so order with abandon. Of the five cocktails you can order for $6, highlights are the Elderflower Spritz (sparkling wine, St. Germain, club soda, lemon) and the Army/Navy (gin, lemon, orgeat, Angostura bitters). Did we mention the beer? This is the best draft list in the greater LAX vicinity, and a few of them are featured during happy hour for $5. Salud. Happy hour Mon.-Fri., 3-7 p.m. 7241 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester; (310) 910-0895, cincola.com.
Taco Surf, Long Beach
Sure, the place is a little kitschy and cluttered with commercial beer merchandise, but it has been around for about a million years (since 1988). After you’ve dropped a Benjamin at some of the spendier restaurants in the area, it’s nice to know you can stay grounded and still order draft beers for $2.50 and a smattering of tacos for $1.50 each (chicken, fish, pork, ground beef, shredded beef, al pastor). At $2.50, the shrimp, asada and fish of the day tacos are a bit better. There is no end to the chips and salsa, which effectively keep you thirsty and ordering more pints. What Taco Surf lacks in flavor and authenticity, it makes up for in beer — cheap, cold, plentiful beer. Really, this is the taco happy hour to take your former college roommate to — he won’t balk at prices and will enjoy walking around the Belmont Shore neighborhood. Taco Surf makes it feel as if the college parties never ended, except now you can hold your drink … or can you? Happy hour Mon.-Thu., 2-6 p.m.; Fri., 2-5 p.m. 5316½ E. Second St., Long Beach; (562) 434-8646, tacosurf.com.