Taco Task Force: Carnitas
The Taco Task Force previously tackled Baja style fish tacos, birria and the cursed potato taco, and while we found more than a little success, it was the January 22 mission that inspired the most hope: Carnitas! Pork cooked in its own fat, preferably in a stainless steel or copper pot called a cazo. Organizer Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet L.A. once again assumed control of the itinerary and provided key context, as he’s enjoyed the dish in his Mexican motherland, in places like Michoacan, Jalisco, Mexico City and San Francisco de Los Romo, which resides outside Aguascalientes. This time, he recruited me, Matthew Kang (Mattatouille), Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly) and wife Linnea, Zach Brooks (Midtown Lunch) and Valentina Silva (Eastside Food Bites).
Prior to our mission, Esparza e-mailed participants a primer, writing, “Most of the carnitas you’ve had in LA come from the cheater method, first boiling the carnitas in water, then frying them in lard or oil prior to serving. Although this is faster, the result is that stringy, and sometimes hard texture. This cooking style tends to be dominated by salt, since it lacks pork flavor. Carnitas are usually head to tail, lots of fun parts, but for our run, we are comparing the taco surtido only. The surtido is a mixture multiple parts. The hardest part to get right is the shoulder (maciza),so we’ll be looking to see all parts are cooked tender. We’ll also stick with a salsa verde at each stop as a control.”
There were certain factors we assessed at each stop, including the quality of the key ingredient, the condiments/tortilla, the quality of the cooking and the overall flavor.
Here’s my rundown, with interspersed scoresheets where MK stands for Matthew Kang, BE stands for Bill Esparza, JL stands for Joshua Lurie, DL stands for Dave Lieberman, LL stands for Linnea Lieberman, VS stands for Valentina Silva and ZB stands for Zach Brooks. We rated each category using a 5-point scale. Keep in mind that the scores don’t just represent a carnitas taco, they reflect a taco. In theory, a 5-point carnitas taco should be just as good as a 5-point potato taco, not that there would ever be a 5-point potato taco. EVER!
STOP #1: Metro Balderas
5305 North Figueroa Street, Highland Park, 323 478 8383
The time to go to Metro Balderas is clearly on weekends, when Abraham Guzman’s Mexico City-inspired restaurant features carnitas and tacos loaded with almost every imaginable cut of hog, including riñon (kidney), trompa (snout) and nana (uterus). He owns several branches around Los Angeles, including his latest locale in Highland Park.
My approach was to order a single taco at each stop, though some people split tacos, which was probably a better idea, since this sort of taco isn’t exactly quick to digest. Metro Balderas’ Surtido ($1.99) taco involved fairly uninspired corn tortillas topped with crunchy minced onions, cilantro and mix including cuts (cooked in a cazo) like cuerito (skin), costilla (rib), trompa (snout), nana (uterus) and oreja (ear), along with firm strips of stomach, juicy shoulder meat and gelatinous lips. The meat features a range of textures that contributed to rewarding bites, though the meat could have been pinker, which is a sign of expert preparation in places like Mexico City. The varied salsa bar added to the taco, including a tangy, somewhat spicy salsa verde of tomatillo and serrano.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 3.5 DL 3.5 LL 2.5 BE 4 ZB 4 VS 4.5 JL 4 AVERAGE 3.857/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 3 DL 3.5 LL 3 BE 4.5 ZB 4 VS 4 JL 3.5 AVERAGE 3.643/5
Overall Flavor: MK 3.5 DL 2 LL 3 BE 3 ZB 5 VS 3.5 JL 3.5 AVERAGE 3.357/5
Cooking: MK 3.5 DL 3.5 LL 4 BE 4 ZB 4 VS 4 JL 4 AVERAGE 3.857/5
OVERALL SCORE 3.6785/5
STOP #2: Los Cinco Puntos
3300 East Cesar Chavez Avenue, East LA, 323 261 4084
This super cocina (super market) has been an East LA staple since 1967. Inside, they house bins of dried chilies, semillas (seeds) and cones of piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar). Art on the building’s exterior bode well. Any establishment that features a cartoon pig strumming a guitar pretty much has to be confident in its product, or at least have a good sense of humor.
People line up 20-deep to score orders of Michoacan-style carnitas, which are indeed cooked in a cazo. Most people order meat by the pound, fixings and stacks of tortillas to go, but it’s also possible to eat tacos in-house. We ordered tacos surtidos ($1.99) with fresh cleaved pork. Los Cinco Puntos offers a smaller range of cuts, primarily chopping shoulder meat and a second gelatinous cut. Some members of the group appreciated the crusty bits of meat, but to me, that just said overcooked. The overly crusty pork was too chewy for my liking. I did appreciate the thick, griddled tortillas, which more than held up to the meat, strips of pickled nopales and pico de gallo. In this case, the tomatillo and jalapeno salsa didn’t exactly sing, and this isn’t a taco I’d want to revisit.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 3 DL 3 LL 4 BE 2.5 ZB 4 VS 4 JL 2 AVERAGE 3.214/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 3.5 DL 4.5 LL 4 BE 3.5 ZB 5 VS 4 JL 4 AVERAGE 4.071/5
Overall Flavor: MK 3 DL 3.5 LL 4.5 BE 3 ZB 4 VS 4 JL 3 .5 AVERAGE 3.642/5
Cooking: MK 3 DL 2.5 LL 3.5 BE 2 ZB 4 VS 4 JL 2 AVERAGE 3/5
OVERALL SCORE 3.48175/5
STOP #3: Carnitas Michoacan
741 South Soto Street, Boyle Heights, 323 266 7188
As we pulled up to the Boyle Heights branch of Carnitas Michoacan, Esparza said, “It’s got a hamburger and a dinosaur on top. Is that a good sign?” No, Bill, no it isn’t. The theme park like outpost of a local chain is open 24 hours, featuring uncomfortable red booths and a Ms. Pac Man machine.
The carnitas ($1.25 per taco) was not cooked in copper pot, as befits Michoacan. They also don’t offer surtido, just dry, desiccated shoulder meat, but they did have gloppy salsa verde, bagged, mealy tortillas and finely minced onion. As far as food goes, there’s nothing sadder than wasted pork, and this taco was so poor it wasn’t even worth finishing.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 1.5 DL 2 LL 2.5 BE 1 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1 AVERAGE 1.643/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 1.5 DL 1.5 LL 2.5 BE 1.5 ZB 2 VS 2.5 JL 2 AVERAGE 1.929/5
Overall Flavor: MK 2 DL 3.5 LL 3 BE 0.5 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1.5 AVERAGE 2/5
Cooking: MK 1.5 DL 1 LL 2 BE 1 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1.5 AVERAGE 1.5/5
OVERALL SCORE 1.768/5
STOP #4: Tacos Los Guichos
SW corner of East Slauson Avenue & Avalon Boulevard, Vernon/Main, no phone
Thankfully, our next stop was at Tacos Los Guichos, a four-year-old taco wagon that parks in a lot belonging to a hand car wash and window tinting establishment. The siding on the wagon hosts a trio of dancing jalapenos, which should be happy to grace carnitas from their cazo.
As Esparza said, their surtido taco ($1.50) involves “ears, lips, shoulder, esophagus and ribs, oh my.” The meat had the day’s best texture, sticky with pork juices, nice and tender, with the shoulder meat touting the consistency of good pulled pork, along with gelatinous and chewy bits. The diced onion, pico de gallo and tomatillo-jalapeno salsa were all fun, the only element holding the tacos back were the packaged tortillas, which didn’t have the vibrancy of fresh-pressed corn tortillas.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 4 DL 4.5 LL 3.5 BE 4 ZB 5 VS 4.5 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 4.286/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 4 DL 3.5 LL 2 BE 4 ZB 4 VS 3.5 JL 3.5 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Overall Flavor: MK 4.5 DL 4.5 LL 4 BE 4.5 ZB 5 VS 4 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 3.857/5
Cooking: MK 4.5 DL 4 LL 4 BE 4.5 ZB 5 VS 5 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 4.5/5
OVERALL SCORE 4.036/5
STOP #5: Carnitas El Tio
1903 North Long Beach Boulevard, Compton, 310 493 8126
A-Frame might also occupy an A-Frame building, but it’s got nothing on this Jalisco inspired Mexican restaurant, which has been open in Compton since 1994. That’s because this part of Compton is infinitely – how shall I put this – colorful – with hookers strolling Long Beach Boulevard during broad daylight. The signage was visually arresting for another reason. Given the porcine provenance, it was hardly a surprise to find a sign sporting a pig cooking in its own juices in a cazo.
Cooks loaded each Taco Grande ($1.50) with hacked-to-order shoulder meat, which was boiled then fried, forming crusty bits. No cazo was in evidence. The simple garnish consisted of cilantro, minced onion and a squeeze of lemon. They didn’t have salsa verde, which is preferred with carnitas. Instead they offered salsa ranchera, a mild tomato salsa. This was a fairly simple taco that tasted just fine, but wasn’t fairly one note. Even though we were near the end of our journey, Dave Lieberman persisted and bought a true taco surtido, which had curls of gelatinous skin that added much needed variety to the experience.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 2.5 DL 4.5 LL 2.5 BE 3 ZB 3 VS 3 JL 2.5 AVERAGE 3/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 3 DL 2.5 LL 2.5 BE 2.5 ZB 3 VS 2 JL 2 AVERAGE 2.5/5
Overall Flavor: MK 3 DL 4.5 LL 2.5 BE 3 ZB 3 VS 3.5 JL 3 AVERAGE 3.214/5
Cooking: MK 3 DL 2.5 LL 2.5 BE 3.5 ZB 3 VS 3 JL 2.5 AVERAGE 2.857/5
OVERALL SCORE 2.89275/5
Ultimately, only two of the five carnitas tacos are worth repeating – Metro Balderas and Tacos Los Guichos – which is a pretty low percentage for such an animal like a pig, which has such a flavorful yield, and such a high approval rating.