Jonathan Gold Reviews Antojitos Carmen
Have you ever encountered a Mexico City–style huarache de huitlacoche? Because if you haven't, at a favorite truck, or at Huaraches Azteca, or especially at Antojitos Carmen in Boyle Heights, you're really missing out. It's a footlong "sandal" of fried corn dough, too hot to touch but too compelling not to, layered with steaming middens of beans and aromatics and corn smut sauteed with onions, sprinkled with lettuce and crumbled cheese, striped like the Mexican flag — why not! — with red salsa and green salsa and a little Mexican cream, and maybe with the pale, hell-hot habanero salsa Antojitos Carmen calls El Chamuco, the devil, for its ability to infiltrate your soul. The huarache will make you suffer, first through its physical heat, then through the heat of El Chamuco, then through the jet-black fungus that will paint your teeth the color of charcoal before it oozes down to stain your favorite shirt.
You will like the suffering. You will drink a bottle of Mexican Squirt. You will work your way through all the other shapes — the sopes, the gorditas, the quesadillas — that Antojitos Carmen has to sell.
Boyle Heights, as we have discussed, can be a wonderland of street food when you hit it right, miles of broad avenues lined with cemita trucks and fruit vendors, Sonora-dog griddles and vast chicken grills, freelance tepache merchants and atole entrepreneurs, trucks and stands and flimsy potable tables laden with crunchy, Jalisco-style shrimp tacos, ceviche tostadas, tubs of menudo, gorditas stuffed with pickled pigskin, fruit paletas, grilled corn with mayonnaise and Parkay, and all the other delights of the Mexican boulevard.
Street food, by its nature, is impermanent and subject to change. A vendor may have fallen out with her champurrado-whiz sister-in-law, so the next cup just isn't as good. Your favorite taco table may have landed a catering gig the night you were set on al pastor, so you decide to settle for some tamales you saw a couple blocks away, only to be sidetracked by a woman selling chalupas, silver-dollar-size tortillas smeared with pureed beans and splashed with green salsa hot enough to charbroil your frontal lobe. Tragedy may strike, as it did the day everybody's favorite vampiros guy got his rig stolen, leaving us to look toward distant Sinaloa for our cheesy, spicy treats.
But the saddest moment in Boyle Heights street food, most aficionados would agree, was the evening the Breed Street vendors were finally chased from the scene. This group of carts and tables and propane-fueled infernos gathered after dark in a parking lot just north of César Chávez Avenue, swelling to more than 40 operations on busy weekends and sometimes drawing 1,200 people a night. It was chaos, the Breed Street lot, intersecting fiefdoms of barbacoa specialists, crepe masters and steam-enveloped centers of pudding-soft tacos al vapor, the long table of Nina's, whose gooey pambazos, huaraches and toasted-seed salsa de semillas were among the stars of the scene, and the other table belonging to Antojitos Carmen, whose pambazos, Mexico City–style huaraches and salsa de semillas were close enough and good enough to lend the lot a certain tinge of Hatfield and McCoy.
The gathering had always been rousted by the cops every so often — it was amazing how quickly the circus turned into a deserted parking lot — but some neighbors and nearby restaurateurs complained loudly enough and often enough to get the ban made permanent, and the vendors scattered, some, including Antojitos Carmen, broadcasting their whereabouts on Twitter feeds, others never to be heard from again.
But Carmen Castellanos, the soul of Antojitos Carmen, had been working Boyle Heights since the 1980s, and after a brief stretch on a sidewalk next to an MTA building site on Matthews Street, just a couple of blocks from the Breed Street lot, she scraped together the funding for a real restaurant just around the corner, and brought along her family, including husband Salvador Ortega and son Abe Ortega, a cheerful, burly dude, never without a Dodgers cap, who had more or less become the stand's public face. Other L.A. restaurants began as street food — Pink's as a hot dog cart, Guelaguetza as a corner tamale operation — but none quite so vividly as Antojitos Carmen, which still has both its boots on the avenue. You want these guys to succeed.
The restaurant has been open more than 18 months now, and if you hadn't known about its Breed Street beginnings, you probably wouldn't be able to guess. There are restored pictures on the wall, mostly from Castellanos' village in Michoacán; rather elegant lamb barbacoa on weekends; and a small specialty in caldo de res, a beef-vegetable soup. Weekend mixiotes? A taste of Guerrero, beef and pork steamed in maguey leaves. Menudo? What the hell.
Still, there are the pambazos, plump, soft French rolls stuffed with chorizo and potatoes, sogged out in a mild chile sauce, and griddled until the texture resembles that of the best French toast. And what you have come here for are the crisp, artfully fried discs of masa: the saucer-shaped sopes; the fat, split gorditas; the fried-pie quesadillas that make up the heart of the Mexico City antojitos kitchen, stuffed with the smoky beef stew called tinga, with squash blossoms, with soft slices of beef tongue, with grilled beef, with stewed pigskin. If you want cheese in your quesadilla, you have to specify quesadilla de queso, which sounds redundant, but pays off.
"Do you want your quesadilla fried or cooked on the griddle?'' asks Abe.
"What's the difference?" you ask.
"The fried ones are much tastier," Abe says. "If it were up to me.'"
ANTOJITOS CARMEN | 2510 César Chávez Ave., Boyle Heights | (323) 264-1451 | Mon.-Thurs., 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sun., 8:30 a.m.-mid. | AE, MC, V | No alcohol | Street parking | Takeout | Antojitos $2.99-$5.49, larger plates $4.99-$8.49 | Recommended dishes: huaraches, sopes, gorditas, quesadillas
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