The Taco-Inspired Papa Loca Is The Ultimate Loaded Baked Potato

Who says the baked potato needs to be relegated to side status? There are endless possibilities for converting the humble spuds into a full fledged meal, and that includes turning it into a taco. Few pull off this brilliant fusion better than Josue Maldonado and Michael Alvarado, the brains behind Southern California sensation Tacos Los Cholos. At the Orange County mini-chain, tacos may get top billing, but the wildly popular Papa Loca is the must-order. 

Covered with sour cream, butter, guacamole, jack cheese, charcoal grilled meat, and homemade salsa, this potato "with a taco twist" earned cult status when it was originally sold out of Maldonado's house. The decadent dish has grown from its humble beginnings, attracting massive crowds at all three brick-and-mortar Tacos Los Cholos locations (a fourth is on the horizon). 

With a pedigree like that, we just had to find out what goes into making these over-stuffed taters. So, on a busy summer day, with fans already lined up outside the flagship Anaheim restaurant before opening, Maldonado sat down with us and revealed the secrets behind the Papa Loca.

The potato is prepared in an unusual way

Usually, a baked potato is coated with oil and then roasted in an oven at a high temperature. While you end up with a tender spud that's ripe for smothering in any variety of toppings, the cooking process requires an ample amount of time. There may be ways to cut baking time for a potato, but at Tacos Los Cholos, Maldonado doesn't mind the extra time it takes to roast taters — especially since he can bake potatoes in the same mesquite where he grills meat. 

That's right, while most people roast their potatoes in the oven, Maldonado buries them in the coals of the grill. And yes, it's well worth the extra effort. He still pricks them all over with a fork and then wraps them in tin foil, but burying them adds a slightly smoky flavor that enhances the overall dish.

About those grills

At Tacos Los Cholos, one thing remains the same: all the meat is grilled. Where most restaurants have a small grill buried in the kitchen, Maldonado and Alvarado were forced to position the sizeable grills outside the Anaheim Tacos Los Cholos outpost. That may sound like a curse, but it couldn't have been more fruitful. "They ended up becoming part of the restaurant," says Maldonado, who notes that the grills are the first thing customers see and smell when they pull into the parking lot. 

But it's not just the grills that make the Papa Loca stand out. The chefs use a 50/50 mesquite charcoal and red oak mix. Mesquite is the charcoal of choice in Mexico, but Maldonado says the charcoal they were getting here in the States made the meat a little bitter. "Red Oak is also a strong wood, but it's more subtle and it gives out almost like a spicy taste," Maldonado explains. "So, when you taste the meat, you can taste the red oak. It's like a spicy, slightly sweet flavor, which is why we went with the red oak."

Beef is the meat of choice for the Papa Loca (but you have options)

Tacos Los Cholos offers three different Papa Locas to choose from. While each one has the same core toppings, the difference between the three potatoes is the cuts of meat that top them. Maldonado says the Regular Papa Loca comes with meat that is familiar at taco spots: asada, chorizo, or chicken. The Premium Papa uses cuts that aren't as typical including arrachera (skirt steak),  cecina (thinly sliced, air-dried brisket), and costillo (chopped beef rib). 

Another premium meat option is tripas, which are small intestines. While the offal is a less common option for street tacos, the way the grill masters at Tacos Los Cholos prepare them is unique. "Usually when you have intestines, they boil them," Maldonado says. "We just grill them really slowly. It takes a while, but they come out perfect," he tells us with a smile. If you're feeling fancy, there's the high-end Prime Papa which is all USDA black Angus prime ribeye and filet mignon. "It's just a really high-quality beef," he adds.

Whipped butter is key

Like most baked potatoes, no matter which Papa Loca you get, they all start with the same base: butter and sour cream. While most restaurant baked potatoes come with a thick pad of butter, Maldonado reveals Tacos Los Cholos use a whipped, salted butter like you'd find at a pancake house "so it's a little bit sweet." But patrons don't get to choose how much butter and sour cream come on their potato. The chefs behind the counter do all the work for you — there's a definitive order for the way this potato is prepared. 

"We slap on some butter on the bottom of the potato, we do a little drizzle of some sour cream, and then we add the cheese," Maldonado explains. "So once you get your bite into your papa, it's creamy, it's buttery, it's cheesy, it's meaty, it's everything in one, you know," the chef says with a chuckle.

The cheese isn't a mere sprinkle

Shredded cheese is an important part of both the taco and baked potato experience. But what type of cheese should you use? It usually comes down to taste. More often than not cheddar, Colby, and Jack are the most popular choices and are often combined into a delectable cheesy mixture that melts into gooey deliciousness. Taco Los Cholos doesn't do a mixture, though. The chefs opt for just one cheese: creamy Monterey Jack. And they don't just sprinkle it over the butter and sour cream; the cheese is piled onto the griddle. 

According to Maldonado, the trick to ensuring the cheese doesn't create a mess is to ensure that the griddle is scorching hot. You'll also want to coat your cooking surface (feel free to use a pan as well) with butter and oil to make it even easier to scoop up the cheese. The end result is crunchy, gooey perfection that far superior to a simple cheese sprinkle on your baked potato.  

Salsa adds a fiery kick

Do you like the subtle flavors of a simple pico de gallo or are you more of a light-your-mouth-on-fire type? Whichever you prefer, Tacos Los Cholos has a salsa to take your Papa Loca to the next level. And not one of them comes from a jar. 

All seven salsas varieties are made in-house, including a salsa verde made with tomatillos, serrano peppers, and garlic, and the aguacate salsa which brings together  avocados, limes, cilantro, and garlic. For some heat, go with the roja made with tomatoes, garlic, and dried chilis or the serrano salsa prepared with fried chiles and garlic that's blended into a creamy green sauce. If you're looking for something spicier, the habanero salsa fits the bill.

But Maldonado's pick to douse your potato is the mild, garlicky chimichurri, which is based on a recipe from León. "We learned how to make it, and people love it," Maldonado tells us. "It's a creamy, delicious sauce that goes perfectly [with the Papa Loca]."

Don't forget the extra toppings

If all that meat, cheese, guacamole, and salsa isn't enough for you and your Papa Loca, there's one more stop to make at Tacos Los Cholos. You could turn that potato into a serious meal by going all out at the toppings bar. Of course, there's the standard cilantro, onions, and limes that are often included with street tacos. There are several other options as well. Toppings you wouldn't necessarily think of for a baked potato but are just as good and add another layer to the already outstanding Papa Loca.

With six different toppings to choose from, you could keep it simple and go with a scoop of sliced radishes or cucumbers. But this is the Papa Loca, a baked potato unlike any other which deserves a topping unlike any other. Our favorite: the pickled onions. 

Those bright pink onions add a delightful acidity that complements both the chimichurri and homemade guacamole while adding a delightful tang to the decadent, creaminess of the butter, sour cream, and cheese.