By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
In May, Villas Tacos of Highland Park won LA Taco’s 2021 Taco Madness championship. After several rounds of competitive voting, the underdog prevailed over the better-established Tacos Don Cuco by a narrow margin. It was a stunning victory for Victor Villas and his team.
Operating out of his grandmother’s backyard carport in Highland Park, Villas served his seven-layer taco.
Currently open only from 3 to 9 p.m. or until sell out on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a visit is a quintessential Los Angeles experience.
On a recent Friday afternoon at about 4 p.m., the sidewalks and parkway in front of Villas Tacos was filled with a dozen guests waiting on orders. A small line of folks stood patiently waiting on the north end of the sidewalk to place their orders with Villas’ sister Lizette, who cheerily answered questions as she shuttled orders to her brother and his team of eight. Villas and his crew busily man three grills as well as tortilla and salsa stations. An air of ebullient intensity prevails over the backyard, open kitchen at Villas Tacos.
Periodically a new group of taco fanatics arrives at the sidewalk. Many wearing Dodgers caps, they greet Villas effusively from across the fence. Villas refers to his tacos as “estilo LA,” or LA style. The tacos are as distinctively native and unique to the city, as the scene on the sidewalk here.
“In LA, there’s not one set style,” Villas said.
“That’s something I thought of before I opened up shop. My tacos are going to be true to Los Angeles, true to myself. I’m estilo Los Angeles. I have roots in Mexico, but I’m from LA, just like my tacos.”
Villas was born and raised in nearby Atwater Village, but his roots and extended family span what he refers to as the “Northeast,” meaning Highland Park, Glassel Park and Lincoln Heights, not to mention Eagle Rock and Pasadena.
“Just in the Northeast, in this area, I want to say I have at least 500 family members. Somewhere around there,” he speculated.
Highland Park was always a social nexus for the family.
“Growing up I spent a lot of my birthdays at my grandma’s house in Highland Park. I would go there for New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving — you name it; all the major holidays. I grew up in Atwater Village, but I spent a lot of time in Highland Park.”
A natural entrepreneur, Villas staged and promoted large house parties as a teenager while attending Marshall High School. He graduated with a degree in business from CSUN in 2015. While working front of house at a restaurant Downtown, he began formulating his plans for taco supremacy.
“When we started Villas Tacos in 2018, we launched it in the front yard of my grandma’s house in Highland Park,” he recalled. “Then we moved to York Boulevard. But within that year, we would also cater. We would go to different bars, we would pop up in different locations.
“But then COVID came around. We took a couple months off, and I got back to the drawing board. I said, ‘Hey let’s go back to our roots, but instead of the front yard we could do something in the back.’”
Initially, there was no walk-up business. He devised a preorder and pick-up system, where preorders were taken at noon Tuesdays for pick-up windows on the weekend.
“The fastest we ever sold out on a Tuesday for the weekend was 30 seconds,” he said. “In 30 seconds, we filled 180 slots and we sold out. It was around June we started that.”
The process and pandemic timing helped establish his vociferously loyal following.
“That was pretty awesome. It was a lot of work, but it was definitely worth it,” he said. “We built a lot of relationships with all the guests that we communicated with. That’s what helped build the rapport with all our guests and those relationships, which was much needed.”
Care and attention informs the entire experience at Villas Tacos.
“On top of the food being great, one of my main goals was that the service is as good, if not better, than the food,” he said.
Villas Tacos’ menu is deceptively simple, and the prices are eminently reasonable and accessible for what is delivered. Regular tacos are $3, while the queso tacos are $4. Mulitas are $7, and quesadillas are $9. Carne asada, chorizo, chicken breast, soyrizo and black beans with nopales serve as filling options. Fresh agua frescas, served in large 12-ounce cups, are $4 and serve as the solitary beverage option.
The tortillas are pressed on-site using organic blue corn masa from Kernel of Truth Organics in Boyle Heights.
“I wanted to do something different, something new,” Villas said.
“So, I wanted to go with the blue corn. I rolled the dice with that, but it ended up paying off. It was a great decision. It’s a tribute to the Dodgers. Our logo is inspired by the Dodgers, too.”
There are no flat-top grills here either. The meat is turned over mesquite on three Santa Maria-style grills with horizontal spits, adjusted by hand cranks. There’s one large grill in front and two smaller ones at the side of the yard.
“The big one, her name is Maria, and the twin brothers, those are Rick and Morty,” said Villas, who named them after the popular animated characters. “The way I like to say it is they’re part of the family, so they get a name.”
The queso taco is the star here. Each blue corn tortilla is griddled with a crispy lace of Jack cheese and the filling is topped with onion, cilantro, crumbled cotija cheese, crema and a generous dollop of fresh guacamole — hence, the “seven-layer” moniker.
Also, notably unusual here is the array of fresh salsas that accompany every order. Typically, seven to nine cups of fresh housemade salsas and garnishes are included with each order. They span from mango habanero to pickled hibiscus red onions.
Villas insists on using fresh, high-quality ingredients even if it slims his profit margin.
“We use quality over quantity,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of our company because we only use the best. Before I even sold my first taco, I said, ‘When I open this taco shop, it’s not to make the most money or to have the following. All that will come later. It’s simply to be the best.’ I’m very competitive. If you’re not the best, then what are you? At the end of the day, our food speaks for itself.”
As the accolades and attention continue to roll in for Villas Tacos, Villas has ambitions to grow the business. He expects the location for his first brick-and-mortar outlet to come on the market soon.
“It’s all about the food,” said Villas, whose shop was the subject of a short documentary.
“It’s all about the hospitality. It’s all about the love that we pour into our food. It’s that feeling inside that every dish that leaves the line has to be as perfect as possible.
“When you open that plate, you look at this beauty of a taco. I’ve never seen a taco like that in Mexico, and I’ve never seen a taco like that here. It’s truly an innovative taco. It’s something I created. It’s a taco true to Los Angeles.”