Meet Carmela Jimenez Perez, the woman behind your favorite late-night taco spot
Win or lose, sports fans eat their feelings late into the night at the popular spot known to some as “Taco Zone.” Following Los Angeles Football Club and USC Football games, patrons flock to the outdoor stand officially called Tacos Listos, whether they’re celebrating a win or dwelling in defeat.
The woman in charge of the late-night South LA spot is Carmela Jimenez Perez. Known to family and friends as “Carmen,” Jimenez Perez often stands behind the spit roaster, heating up the al pastor meat as customers line up to order. She and her husband, Benito Rios, ran the taco stand for four years together before Rios returned to Mexico four months ago. Jimenez Perez has been running it on her own since, and while it was hard at the beginning, she said it’s much easier now.
“My husband knew more, he just told me, ‘OK, prepare the salsa and I’ll do the meat,’ and I would just prepare the salsa,” Jimenez Perez said in Spanish. “But now, I’m doing everything: the salsa, the meat, and I cook there on the roaster.” She does not speak English, but said the language barrier has not prohibited her from running her business.
Tacos Listos has taken off in the last year. The stand arrives around 6:30 p.m. and stays open until 1 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday. On weekend nights, the market lights hanging on the front of the stand remain lit until 2:30 a.m. Jimenez Perez said she and her coworkers begin preparing the food at three in the afternoon at her house before arriving at their spot on the corner of 29th Street and Vermont Avenue.
“My brothers worked taco stands, but I never saw myself doing their work,” Jimenez Perez said. “I could have never imagined working the same job as them, but I learned how to.”
She inherited the business from one of her brothers, who worked the stand when it was on 30th Street. Jimenez Perez laughed as she reminisced about her unfamiliarity going into the business. She said her brother “just told me that he was giving me his business, but I knew nothing [about running it], nothing, nothing.”
Jimenez Perez is one of eight siblings originally from Oaxaca, Mexico. She was the first to come to the United States in 2009, before five of her siblings followed. Both poverty and tragedy struck her childhood, affecting her ability to receive an education.
“I was eight years old when my dad died, so that’s why I didn’t go to school,” Jimenez Perez said. “My mom didn’t have the means to send me to school because there, we needed money to be able to go.”
She was a domestic worker for 12 years in Mexico before coming to the United States, where she worked another six years cleaning houses.
When Tacos Listos first opened, Jimenez Perez said it was hard to earn enough money to make ends meet. She and her husband struggled to cover costs, including the rent for the parking lot they occupy. But now that their business is a community staple, profits have risen significantly. It’s during the vacations when it gets hard again, said Jimenez Perez, whose income relies largely on USC students, many of whom come after a night of partying.
Alejandra Villanueva, a USC junior majoring in theatre, went to Tacos Listos for the first time a month ago after hearing about it from her roommates. A few weeks later, she’s returned with some of her peers.
“I’m from Tijuana, Mexico, and … this is how it is in Mexico,” Villanueva said. “So it makes me feel like I’m at home, and it’s good food.”
Most people arrive at Tacos Listos by car, but others come walking or on rented scooters. Jimenez Perez and her team are efficient, spending no more than two minutes on each customer. Once people get their food, they find space to sit, either on the sidewalk or on the edge of their cart trunk.
Business for the stand can primarily be attributed to word of mouth. While Jimenez Perez says her business doesn’t do any official marketing, an Instagram account with the handle @istacozoneopen, created by USC students, keeps its more than 1,300 followers informed of opening hours. Before the account was created in April, Jimenez Perez would give out her phone number and people would call her to check if the stand was open.
The stand itself goes by multiple different names, and Jimenez Perez laughed as she listed three of them. The first is “Tacos Listos” (which means “Tacos Ready”), the last-minute name was decided when Jimenez Perez and her husband were forced to write down a business title in order to buy meat for the stand. The second name is “Tacos Open,” and the third is the name you’ll find when you put it into the Lyft app: “Taco Zone,” a play on the AutoZone shop next door. Most students, like Villaneuva, refer to it as “Taco Zone.”
Jimenez Perez’s cousin, Heriberto Lopez, has been manning the taquero position — which mostly means handling the meat — at Tacos Listos for the past three months. He came to the United States with Jimenez Perez in 2009, but worked in grape fields in Washington state before moving down to Los Angeles. He said he’s enjoyed working at the stand because “there’s lots of people and time goes by quickly. They treat you well and that’s most important — that you feel good here too.”
As for what’s to come of the hotspot, Jimenez Perez is unsure. She wants to return to Oaxaca and doesn’t plan on staying in Los Angeles for more than two more years. However, she hopes the business will keep running when she leaves.
“I don’t want to leave it closed. Hopefully, I can pass it down to someone,” said Jimenez Perez, who has her older son in mind as the heir.
After being asked what she hopes to do when she goes back to Mexico, she looked back to where her employees were serving carne asada burritos and gave a gentle smile.
“I want to rest and not have to work anymore,” she said. “Because now I have my two sons.”
Following the interview, Jimenez Perez returned to her position behind the spit roaster, listening to the order of a couple wearing LAFC ponchos. In her red polo featuring a “Tacos Listos” logo on the back, she picked up her slicing knife and got back to work.