If my tenure as dining columnist ever ends, if our editor in chief ever pries this role from my overly indulged fingers, the experience my time will be remembered for is introducing the greater Pasadena community to Maquina Taco.
By every metric, Maquina has the best tacos and burritos in Pasadena.
Maquina Taco caught my interest during my Yelp research as reviewers spoke about how it was located in the back of a convenience store and featured a menu with items like steak and lobster tacos and duck egg breakfast burritos.
The entire Maquina menu warrants critical acclaim. Even with high-quality and unique meat options, the prices remain at or below $10 for most menu items.
By the time I had an opportunity to check out Maquina, they had moved out of their two-month-long pilot testing period in a local liquor store and set up shop in their very own storefront on Lake Avenue, near Washington Boulevard.
When I visited the restaurant, patriarch Greg Lukasiewicz was busy running the kitchen while his daughter Devon took orders. If either of those names sound familiar it is because before stepping into the world of tacos, Greg was the owner of Monrovia’s Restaurant Devon, named in honor of his eldest daughter, and Pasadena’s Restaurant Halie, named for his youngest.
A trained painter and chef who learned on the go, Lukasiewicz is a modern-day Renaissance man. Born and raised in Pasadena, he fell in love with tacos in his teen years, riding his skateboard to downtown LA taco stands.
In fairness, Maquina is not Lukasiewicz’s first foray into tacos. He ran the über-hip Bull Taco restaurants across beach cities that served “non-authentic Mexican food.” The restaurant and the concept were featured on national television, foodie blogs and had its own celebrity following.
After spreading the idea too thin, and shuttering all of the locations, Lukasiewicz decided to come back to Pasadena and open Maquina Taco with the possibility of opening a second in South Pasadena.
Lukasiewicz said the idea behind Maquina is conducting a food experiment on Southern California street food with an obsession for quality. He hopes to have ramen alongside tacos on his menu in the near future.
The entire operation is a family affair. Both Greg’s brother Steve and their father can be seen running the register or working the grill. They hope to keep the operation small enough that they will not need to hire employees. With how amazing these tacos are and the cult-following that every Greg Lukasiewicz restaurant seems to have, I am going to bet they will need to start hiring people or calling in the second and third cousins.
The ribeye and lobster taco ($9, or $19 as a burrito or torta), is otherworldly. The marbled fat in the chunks of ribeye with the lightly buttered lobster is an ethereal experience that momentarily transported me to the beaches of Mexico.
Tacos with meats you never imagined are what Lukasiewicz is known for, so while you are there try the duck taco ($6) or at least the rich and tender oxtail and lengua, or cow tongue, with onion and cilantro ($5).
The lamb mint taco with onion, cilantro, tomato, cabbage, and cucumber yogurt stood out in terms of flavor profiles that you would not expect to experience with a traditional taco. But, in the context of the “California food experiment” that Maquina embodies, it makes sense.
All tacos are also available in burrito, bowl and torta form. While unique meats are signature items on Maquina’s menu, vegans fret not; there are several options. The veggie mix, cauliflower, and rosemary potato with cheddar are all under $3 as tacos and $7 in bowl and burrito form.
Maquina’s storefront is small, with comfortable seating for about 12. Most of the restaurant is comprised of the kitchen, which is completely visible from the order counter. During my visit, Lukasiewicz used the opportunity to chat with every customer who came in as he made their food.
Next to the walk-up counter is a self-service salsa bar with six variations of red and green salsas. Proudly displayed on the salsa bar and announced by Lukasiewicz if you even glance in its direction is the bottle of Carolina Reaper salsa. Made from the world’s hottest pepper, it is sold by the ounce at Maquina.
Because that is the eclectic experience that Lukasiewicz brings to the game. It’s seriously well-made food that does not take itself or dining too seriously. You get gourmet tacos, without the mention of gourmet at a spot with authentic personality.
The menu is expansive, with ceviche in three variations, shrimp ($9), fish($8), or ahi tuna ($9); cheesy ($5.50) or asada tater tots ($7), and quesadillas with one meat for under ($10)
Head to Maquina soon, before word spreads and the line is around the block. I predict we’re months if not weeks away from Maquina’s once troubled Yelp page having hundreds of reviews and being featured on your favorite foodie influencer’s Instagram page. Maquina Taco will hold a special place in my heart for just how well they do with “food experiments” that I have never seen or dreamed of before.
1274 N. Lake Ave., No. 1, Pasadena