January 29, 2011

Taco Task Force #4: Carnitas Tacos


Is there a more butchered (sorry for the bad, early pun) taco ingredient than the humble carnitas? Seen across all Chipotle burrito menus and dingy faux Mexican joints across the Southland, carnitas is so incredibly misrepresented that I’ve honestly never thought to seek out some of the best stuff that might be hiding right in my neighborhood (or in this case, city).

It had been a while since good friend Bill Esparza, the master of all things Mexican food, rounded up the Taco Task Force for a rundown of some of the city’s best taco joints. Starting on a brisk Saturday morning at 9AM, we started our tour of carnitas at Metro Balderas in Highland Park, just a stone’s throw away from my old apartment in Glassell Park.

Metro Balderas is named for a train station in Mexico City, and the weekend-only carnitas naturally take a Mexican City-style tint to them. For the whole day, we were going to focus on only surtida, which is a mix of all the meats they have available. I should note briefly about the difference between the carnitas we were attempting to taste on this day versus the carnitas that might be more familiar to you on a friendly neighborhood steam table (like at Chipotle).


The cazo at Tacos Los Guichos

Carnitas is prepared in a large stainless steel or even copper cauldron, called a cazo. This bubbling, boiling contraption is filled with pure pork fat. Into the cazo goes the whole mess of tasty pig parts, from organs to meats. At Metro Balderas alone, there were the following choices: Cuerito, Buche, Nana, Costilla, Trompa, Corazon, Higado, Rinon, Oreja, Lengua and finally a mixture = Surtida. I don’t know all the translations, but basically esophagus, uterus, various cuts of meat, lips, ear, tongue, skin – you name it, it goes in there. If you’re a believer like me that the pig is the greatest animal in the Pantheon of Animals, then the very idea of carnitas is pure genius. And the seasonings are minimal – salt. So the flavor that you get is perhaps one of the most essential (in that meaning of the word) expressions of pork. Can I get an amen?


carnitas at Metro Balderas

Back to Metro Balderas – I have to say that I wasn’t really prepared for what was to come wrapped in tortilla. Somehow I still had this conception that carnitas is mainly muscle meat that’s stringy and chopped up. I wasn’t expecting a mélange of various cuts that exuded a tender, juicy, and blended quality. The carnitas that we’re used to is often the maciza, or shoulder cut, which does indeed come in Metro Balderas’ surtida, though probably less than 25%. The rest of the surtida is variety meats, which is always the quickest way to a foodie’s heart.

Our only other control mechanism was the condiment, which was the plain and simple salsa verde, in this case Serrano chile and tomatillo. At all our stops, the salsa verde was piquant and acidic, the right counter to the often fat-infused surtida. Metro Balderas showed well, though the tortilla’s flimsy texture didn’t hold well to the meat. Now that my paradigm had shifted, we were off to the next spot.


Cinco Puntos is a veritable East Los Angeles institution, when the warehouse-like space draws lines with its siren-call of porky aroma. It’s like In-N-Out’s mesmerizing mix of grilled onion and hamburger. Walking into the space draws immediate attention from all five senses. In the middle of the cooking space behind the counter you see a massive flattop and accompanying hood with two women slapping together fresh tortillas. You see pork parts mounted onto various counters and displays. The redolence is almost dank with porcine flavor. You can’t help but become excited while waiting in line.


The result in tortilla (even those handmade ones) didn’t quite match the expectations. The tortillas were thick – almost like sopes or empty pupusas. Apparently these are a patent Mexican American attribute. They also worked to overwhelm any semblance of surtida meat, which didn’t feature any variety cuts. Also the toppings included (against our preference) some nopales (cactus) and pico de gallo. The essence of carnitas was shrouded. We had to huddle around an empty section of the shop in order to eat our tacos – there isn’t any eating space at Cinco Puntos. Most customers were getting their carnitas by the pound and taking them home. Before we could even process any more, we absconded to the next stop.


Carnitas Michoacan #3 sure makes a heady claim in its moniker, as Michoacan boasts the deepest tradition in carnitas. The roof of the East L.A. shack features odd-ball kitsch, like a T-Rex and a sign claiming over “5 Zillion Served.” Zach made a hilarious remark when he saw a guy in the back of the kitchen separating slices of processed American cheese – a far cry from the women slapping together tortillas. Our carnitas were a joke – dried out, lacking any flavor, any artistry, and especially any sense of the esprit of carnitas. Skip it to save your life, even if they have free wifi, nachos by the pound, and a 24-hour schedule.


Carnitas Michoacan - lovely looking but not tasty

It was a long leg to travel from East L.A. to the heart of South Los Angeles, on a stretch of industrial road that seems apt for a hipster music video. A few miles east of the 110, north of the 105, you can find the intersection of Slauson and Avalon, where a busy carwash harbors a beacon of Mexican cuisine – the truest carnitas you can possibly find in Los Angeles. Tacos Los Guichos rests in humble emblazoned by red lettering and sided with a tent holding a stainless steel cazo on weekends. A quick investigation leads you to believe one thing: these must certainly be good.


A slender, short man gets orders from the truck, pulling out whole pieces of pork meat and organs onto a massive cutting board. A scale is placed in front, so people buying by the pound can get their worth. If you’re like us, on a carnitas task force, you’ll opt for one (to begin with). The surtida comprises too many meats to mention, but it’s by no means dominated by the pedestrian maciza. Expect skin, buche, costilla (rib), oreja (ear), maciza (shoulder), and trompa (lips). Lips are a bizarre cut to say the least, but hey why not, we’re going whole hog (sorry another bad pun).

tacos los guichos

The right surtida at Tacos Los Guichos

A quick dressing of onions, cilantro, and salsa verde and you’re money. The amalgam is juicy, tender, flavorful, full of spices despite the lack of spices in the cooking spices. Flavors of pork are reaching the fifth element of purity and grace – it’s amazing. And I quickly order another one, throwing away inhibition and washing it down with an apple soda.


The cazo meats

Carnitas El Tio seems to have a lot of things going for it – it’s located on the border of Lynwood and Compton, a seedy part of town that seems conducive to rare culinary finds. The A-frame building has a fantastic sign of a pig smiling in a pot (vegan-un-friendly to be sure). We order some surtida tacos, peering at the now empty cazo in the back of the kitchen thinking we’d be in for something good. The surtida tacos contained nothing but costilla and maciza – the meat dry, the condiments just passable. The find wasn’t such a great one.


I feel like there are so many other good carnitas places that are out there in Los Angeles, just waiting to be discovered, but the terrible version we’re often stuck with makes no one want it. I hope the aggregate efforts of the Taco Task Force make us realize that we’re missing out on one of Mexican cuisine’s great treasures. Be sure to seek out Tacos Los Guichos, the undeniable winner of this round. Metro Balderas also has very respectable carnitas on weekends. Next time you think of weekend brunch, make it carnitas.

Metro Balderas
5305 N Figueroa St Los Angeles, CA 90042 (323) 478-8383
Carnitas on Saturdays and Sunday, open 9AM, closes 9PM.

Cinco Puntos
3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave Los Angeles, CA 90063-2804 (323) 261-4084

Carnitas Michoacan #3
741 S Soto St Los Angeles, CA 90023 (323) 266-7188

Tacos Los Guichos
Southwest Corner of Slauson and Avalon, Los Angeles, CA
Carnitas starts at 8AM on the weekends until they run out.

Carnitas El Tio
1903 N. Long Beach Blvd. Compton, CA 90221 - (310) 635-3587


Gastronomer said...

I learned so much from this post! I always thought that carnitas meant shredded pork. Odds and ends and bits of meat sound so much tastier and interesting! I will have to hit up the winning joint ASAP! Great post, Matt.

LosAngeliciousTimes said...

Excellent post. Though unfortunately it doesn't serve tacos, Zamora Bros. serves some really authentic Carnitas that you can buy by the pound that rank among the bet I've had in LA:


Joshua Lurie said...

Mattatouille gets a jump on the rest of the wrecking crew. Interesting recap. Cool photo of the carnitas with the knife. Looking forward to the next mission from the "master of all things Mexican food."

Nick said...

I also learned quite a bit from this. Thanks for doing this write-up (and I appreciated the puns on this early Monday morning).

Nick said...

I also learned quite a bit from this. Thanks for doing this write-up (and I appreciated the puns on this early Monday morning).

Dorf said...

Amen! Carnitas are so delicious and I really appreciate your quest to find the best.

kat said...

Great Post Matt, I will have to add the winners to my long long and ever growing list of taco spots to try before I eat the great dirt taco. Funniest thing, I had one of the best carnitas tacos ever last week made by a Korean dude, blew my mind but I kind of had a debate with him because his version had the meat from the trotters, belly and shoulder and I thought carnitas was just shoulder. I'm gonna have to go back and get some killer carnitas tacos and in between bites, apologize.