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).
carnitas at Metro Balderas
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
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).
The right surtida at Tacos Los Guichos
The cazo meats
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.
5305 N Figueroa St Los Angeles, CA 90042 (323) 478-8383
Carnitas on Saturdays and Sunday, open 9AM, closes 9PM.
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