Toasted corn has its place. Chiles are indispensable. The indescribable scent of achiote is key. But well-made carnitas may be at the center of the genius of the Mexican kitchen, a process evolved to draw the maximum fragrance out of something already inherently fragrant, pork seasoned with itself, and salt, and time. The greatest European charcuterie may draw from the same state of mind, the same minimalist aesthetic, and the same cuts of meat, but carnitas, whose flavor emerges over hours in a bath of its own bubbling lard rather than developing over months in the dark, comes from an even more natural place. Like duck confit, carnitas is both meat and a cipher of meat, only more so. Stripped of the necessities of both portability and preservation, the pork is allowed to reduce like consomme into purest essence of flesh.
In Los Angeles and down through Michoacan, carnitas is a fairly specific thing, big pork butts rendered and then seethed in their own lard until the surfaces caramelize, the interiors soften, and the mass reaches a sweet, succulent equilibrium. If you eat a lot of carnitas, this is the stuff you’ve had a hundred times, tucked into tacos and burritos, scattered over tostadas, served as carnitas plates. We all have our personal benchmarks — mine is still the carnitas boiled in tractor-size copper kettles at Carnitas Uruapan near the dogtrack in Tijuana — but even mediocre carnitas, fried instead of meticulously rendered, tends to be pretty good.
But in some parts of Mexico, Mexico City in particular, the term carnitas implies a process rather than a product, and you would no more ask for carnitas at a taquería than you would walk into a Baskin-Robbins and ask for an ice cream. There is still a lot of choosing to be done: lard-simmered skin or tongue, liver or heart, ear, kidney, stomach or surtida, a mixed bag that resembles an abbatoir on a plate. If you don’t specify a cut, you will probably be given maciza, which I have seen defined a dozen different ways, but which basically stands for just plain meat. There is nothing wrong with maciza — you may actually prefer maciza — but as when standing in line at a famous gelatería only to order vanilla, one is occasionally under the impression that there is something less than manly about the decision, that one has declined to consider the possibilities. Such a taquería will run out of snout long before it runs out of maciza.
Until recently, these carnitas were something you only read about in guidebooks, a style of cooking that had never quite worked its way up from the Distrito Federal to California. Expats were left to their grumbling, the way that New Yorkers gripe about Los Angeles pizza or Parisians about local andouillettes. But there has been a surge of emigration from the capital to Los Angeles over the last few years, and a minor boomlet in D.F.-style foods. El Huarache Azteca established a beachhead of Mexico City street food, and half of Highland Park crowds into the restaurant on weekends for the huaraches, golden fried sandals of dough smeared with beans and piled with lettuce, cream and meat; for the enormous Mexico City quesadillas stuffed with cheese and squash blossoms; and for the crunchy fried saucers of masacalled sopes.
Lately, I have been obsessed with the tiny café Antojitos Chilangos, just down the street from El Huarache. Its flat, plate-size huaraches aren’t quite as compelling as the models at the older restaurant, but its massive quesadillas, inch-thick, freshly made tortillas folded over meat or cheese, like giant tacos scaled for Andrew Bynum, are utterly delicious. Its extra-crunchy gorditas, filled with beans and stewed chicharrones, are the best I’ve had in a lifetime of gorditas. The pambazos, D.F.-style sandwiches of chorizo and potatoes dipped in bright-red chile sauce and griddled to the shine of a well-worn serge suit, are the best in town. The aguas frescas are made to order from fresh fruit, water and ice. The only tacos in the place are the minuscule tacos de canasta, steamed things filled with potatoes or sausage. (Antojitos Chilangos, whose customers often include uniformed deliverymen from the Domino’s next door, plays host to a fair number of poshly dressed transplants who nibble these tacos de canasta as if they were caviar canapés.)
But to taste the D.F.-style carnitas, it is necessary to travel a couple of miles south to the new Metro Balderas, a formica-sheathed joint in the commercial heart of Highland Park named for a Mexico City subway station, whose menu of huaraches and pambazos and gorditas and pig’s-foot tostadas grows on the weekends to encompass the vast range of organ-meat carnitas cookery, available by the kilo or by the taco, in all their sanguinary glory. Maciza — sure there’s maciza, sometimes dense and fibrous like aged ham and sometimes loose and juicy, spilling out of the huge $1.99 tacos like Beyonce out of a tight jumpsuit. Depending on the time of day, you’ll probably find buche, pig’s stomach, hacked into soft, meltingly rich slivers; oreja, slithery sliced pig’s ear; lengua, firm, salty tongue; and the bits of skin called cueritos. (My habit is to ask what’s available, and then get one taco of each.) The rib meat, costillas, is dripping and succulent; the trompa, nose, like biting into pure, braised fat. It turns out that practically any part of the pig tastes good when you simmer it long enough in its own fat.
Deprived of tacos de nana? No longer. The carnitas of hog uterus here is chewy yet forgiving, pink and yet not, whorled in swoops and paisley shapes that defy Euclidian geometry. Lard-braised uterus has an odd flavor, briny yet not salty, high yet earthy, alien yet oddly familiar, the Earth contained in a corn tortilla.
Antojitos Chilangos: 5528 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 255-1042. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout and delivery. $ Recommended dishes: pambazos; gorditas; sopes.
Metro Balderas: 5305 N. Figueroa Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 478-8383. Open Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Lot parking in rear. Takeout. $ Recommended dishes: sopes, quesadillas, carnitas (weekends only).