The versatility of the taco is well-documented, on these pages and countless others. There are as many potential taco fillings as there are kinds of food in the world, but not all of them are equally wonderful. (We know that Korean BBQ works but Taco Bell's 88% beef 12% secret recipe doesn't.)
When done right, cochinita pibil in a taco is one of the crown jewels of the taco empire. The best versions of the Yucatecan slow-cooked pork, marinated for hours in orange juice, achiote and spices, are the definition of succulent, juicy and tender. The marinade, which doubles as a sauce, is bright and flavorful without overpowering the essential porkiness of the meat. For this week's food fight we pitted against each other two renowned cochinita champions, Chichen Itza from downtown's own Mercado La Paloma and La Cabañita, the pride of Montrose.
La Cabañita's menu is dominated by large plates, including a diverse and interesting assortment of stuffed Poblano peppers. If you stick to those options you'll get a great meal, but you'll miss the real gems: their tacos. Often, at more "upscale" Mexican restaurants, tacos are completely overlooked, added to the menu only as a concession to kids, adventure-averse eaters and wide-eyed tourists looking for a cultural experience. Not here.
At La Cabañita, you can get their full compliment of meats in a variety of combinations. Eating a meal of tacos at La Cabañita is the rough equivalent of a tasting menu: You get the opportunity to sample the kitchen's wide variety of excellent dishes. They're not small, either. The tacos are large, and three or four of them make a full meal.
The arrachero and norteño tacos are delicious versions of tacos you may know, with onion and guacamole or avocado and cheese. The nopales are similarly solid and full of flavor, and the picadillo (ground beef cooked with almonds and raisins) is perfectly sweet. Best of all, though, is the taco de cochinita.
The marinated pork is supremely tender, juicy without being greasy and has the perfect amount of spiced flavor. The red onions on top add a crunch and sweetness, while the habanero salsa, which comes in a plastic jar and with a stern warning every time, is just right. A quick dousing before most bites kept us pleasantly scorched throughout the whole taco, and the flavor of the peppers comes through in the perfect amount. The tortillas, too, are stellar, made fresh by hand, holding together even through the onslaught of the juicy meat. If we have one minor gripe it is that the combination of the sauce and the habanero salsa overpower the pork, and we mostly end up tasting the spices. With sauce this good we didn't particularly miss the meatiness, but it would have been nice nonetheless.
Our other cochinata contender is tucked away in Mercado La Paloma, a former warehouse on a mostly empty street across the 110 from USC. It's hard to find but packed with culinary treasures. Peruvian hot spot Mo-Chica is the best-known and most crowded storefront, but Chichen Itza is'nt far behind. Chichen Itza takes its name from the massive Mayan site located in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant serves primarily Yucatecan food.
Cochinita Pibil is a specialty of theirs, and they feature it in several preparations. There's the cochinita plate, a solid stack of meat accompanied by rice and beans; the torta, cochinita and onions sandwiched together in a bun; and finally, the cochinita pibil tacos. They come two to an order, topped with bright pink pickled onions. The meat is delicious, the citrus and spice beautifully balanced and, unlike at La Cabañita, the porkiness shines through. This dish is about the pork. The accompanying habanero hot sauce is also excellent, with more heat than La Cabanita's but less chili flavor.
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These tacos aren't perfect. They tend toward the greasy side, and the tortillas, though good, weren't up to the challenge. The sauce leaked out and spilled all over, rapidly creating a slimy reservoir on our plate. We rarely shy away from a pool of grease, particularly when it's as tasty as this one is, but it detracted from the experience.
There's no denying that both of these two spots lived up to their billing as master taco houses, with flavorful meats and brilliant sauces. You can't go wrong with cochinita pibil at either place, but for our money La Cabañita rides to victory wrapped in one of its sturdy tortillas.