In Los Angeles, good carnitas are common, great carnitas rare. Denise's is a small, sweet taco stand whose customer base consists largely of people waiting for the MTA at the bus stop right in front. A caricature of Denise is painted on one wall, and if you poke your head into the takeout window, you might see Denise herself, chopping meat, working the register, folding her special burritos. In a land dominated by carne asada, this is where to go for pork, a bagful of three or four different kinds of house-made chicharrones (fried pork rinds), the pickled pigskin called cueritos, or a pound or two of roast pork. If you have a buck for a taco, you can taste the carnitas, among the best in East L.A., dense-textured, with the full, almost gamy flavor of slow-cooked pig. Also good are the tacos with chicharrones stewed in spicy tomato sauce -- numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco. 4060 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 264-8199. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $7$10. No alcohol. Parking lot. AE, MC, DIS, V.
La Fonda Antioqueña
The customers here tend to be either well-dressed Colombian couples or unreconstructed Anglo counterculture types. If you don't understand something, the waiter will pull out a Xeroxed crib sheet explaining that saucocho is oxtail stew, and that bandeja is a traditional Colombian cowboy's platter of broiled steak, rice and arepa, topped with a fried egg and a leathery strip of fried pig's hide, which the crib sheet calls "bacon (Colombian style)." He'll insist that you order the small fried turnovers, empanadas -- and you should. The carne sudada ("steamed" or, more literally, "sweated") here is good, a cumin-scented eye of round, stained yellow with achiote and topped with stewed tomatoes and onions. Sobrebarriga is more or less the same thing done with brisket; lengua in salsa is the best variant, made with beef tongue. If you prefer meat grilled, you might consider Ave Maria bues, which comes with just about everything else: a thin, plate-size marinated steak, tasting strongly of the grill; a dense, spicy chorizo sausage; a dinner salad with a strong vinaigrette; a thick, smoky pinto-bean stew (awesome!); fried plantains; rice; arepa; and the inevitable strip of pigskin. 4903 Melrose Ave.; (323) 957-5164. Open daily 10 a.m.10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15$25. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. V, MC, DC
La Luz del Dia
The last place you'd expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is (and has been for decades): La Luz del Dia, serving cactus salad to the hordes. La Luz is a simple place, and most of what it serves are basic permutations of the two or three things it does best. So whatever you think you ordered -- soft tacos, carnitas, tostadas, whatever -- you'll probably get at least one helping of picadillo, the chunky Mexican beef stew that, with its carrots and potatoes, looks like a stew somebody's mother might have made . . . provided that somebody's mother has an industrial-size garlic press and a Thai tolerance for chile heat. Chicharrones, fried pork skins, come sogged with a truly awesome version of what gets slopped on enchiladas in chain restaurants, a chile sauce that's as sophisticated in its slight bitterness as a dry martini. W. 1 Olvera St., downtown; (213) 628-7495. Open Tues.Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $911. Beer only. Cash only.
The cornerstone of Nicaraguan cooking is the nacatamal, a brick-size package that is less a tamale than a world-view steamed in a banana leaf. The masa here is moist and fluffy, subtly tinged with citrus, spiked with olives, prunes, meat, potatoes and about half a dozen other things. (The flavor shifts from sweet to salt every couple of bites or so.) Vigoron -- tart yuca-and-cabbage salad strewn with chunks of crunchy fried pigskin, another famous Nicaraguan dish -- goes splendidly with beer. Pescado estilo Tipitapa, a whole fried mojarra done in the style of Tipitapa, a town near Managua, is tasty, topped with a delicious sauté of tomatoes, onions and peppers that is slightly astringent against the crisp, salty fish. Chancho is pork marinated in sour orange juice and what tastes like Worcestershire sauce, fried until the whole thing caramelizes and garnished with splendid fried sweet plantains. Greasy and salty and sweet and spicy: everything wicked you could want from ethnic food. 2212 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 365-0074. Open daily 11 a.m.7 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $10$15. Beer and wine. Cash only.
Tay Ho serves the Stradivari of banh cuon, transparent, almost membranous noodles, with the slight, stretchy resilience of caul and a faint fine-cloth nubbiness that catches bits of the thin sauce you ladle from a dog-faced (Goofy, to be precise) carafe. Here you can get the banh cuon wrapped around ground, dried shrimp, or wrapped around a filling of crumbled pork sautéed with black pepper and tree-ear mushrooms. The combination plate includes both kinds of banh cuon, heaps of cucumber and bean sprouts, a shrimp-topped sweet-potato fritter and a shrimp cruller spiked with green beans. Order the banh cuon with thit nuong, and you'll get sort of noodle burritos stuffed with sweet Vietnamese barbecued pork; order them with bi, and there'll be a gritty julienne of stewed pork skin. Get it how you like it -- but do get the banh cuon! 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5207. Other location in Westminster. Open Mon. 9 a.m.4 p.m., Tues.Sun. 9 a.m.9 p.m. Lunch for two, $7$9. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Vietnamese com tam, or "broken rice," may be the most elegant example of culinary salvage in the world. At Thuan Kieu, the thing to get, inelegantly called "broken rice with seven kinds of foods," is a big platter heaped with broken rice -- jagged bits of jasmine rice, accidentally shattered during the harvest or during processing -- and a bit of everything in the restaurant that you could wish to taste: steamed balls of Vietnamese pat, bright-orange wedges of a sort of Vietnamese quiche flavored with ground pork, and charbroiled slices of beef or pork, slightly blackened at the edges, bubbling grease. The platter also includes some of the best bi in town, shreds of roast pigskin tossed with herbs, which flavors rice as nothing you've ever tasted. 123 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5660. Open Sun.Thurs. 9 a.m.9 p.m., Fri.Sat. 9 a.m.10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8$14. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only.
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