Here is the topic for today's discussion: Why isn't duck carnitas on every Mexican menu in town? Because if you think about it, the dish is almost inevitable — duck meat simmered in fat until it nearly collapses, perfumed flesh arranged atop crisply fried sopes, a shotgun marriage of traditional and European cooking techniques of the sort that have been going on in Mexico since the conquest. If life were fair, you would be able to get duck carnitas from every respectable taco truck on the Eastside.
Carnitas, of course, is made from pork shoulder boiled slowly in its own lard until it is difficult to discern the medium from the product being cooked, and the magnetic pull of the giant copper kettles traditionally used to prepare the dish sometimes seems sufficient to pull the whole of the Earth toward Michoacan. Duck confit, its equivalent from Southwest France, involves salted duck legs cooked in their own fat for many hours until they, too, achieve concentrated flavor and extreme succulence.
As served at Cacao Mexicatessen, a newish Mexican deli in Eagle Rock, duck carnitas sort of splits the difference between carnitas and confit. Cooked down to a rich, soft, fibrous mash, it tastes very much like duck but with a lingering presence that suggests the bird was cooked in pure lard — in a way, it's porkier than the restaurant's regular carnitas, which hasn't near the intensity. If you thought of the duck carnitas as a sort of Mexican rillettes, you could happily smear it on a bit of toasted baguette and eat it with mustard and coarse salt. As it is, the duck carnitas makes a splendid taco filling, mounded onto one of Cacao's thick, freshly made tortillas and garnished with slivered radish and a strand or two of pickled onion. A duck carnitas taco is about as much happiness as three dollars can be expected to buy.
Cacao is the kind of sweet, family-run restaurant that should really be more common in L.A.; it's a bright, happy, burnt-orange storefront halfway between Larkin's and Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock, and a couple of doors down from a Trader Joe's. There are chilaquiles and spiced café de olla at breakfast, chile-spiked hot chocolate for rainy afternoons; a full vegetarian menu; and inexpensive quesadilla plates for the kids. (Mexican rice is molded into Aztec pyramids on the plate here, and children instantly covet the tiny Mexican flags that fly from toothpicks stuck into the peaks.)
The waiters (you order at the counter and linger until a table opens up) wear T-shirts that say Hecho en Eagle Rock, which I can't believe aren't on the backs of half the hipster kids at the nearby performing arts high school. Images of Ek-Chuah, the wide-mouthed Mayan god of cacao growers, pop up on the walls. In addition to the café, there is a small selection of imported Mexican chocolate and salt for sale, a few assorted knickknacks, and a deli counter where you can buy tubs of house-made salsa, mole sauce, nopales salad or chiles rellenos; at least half the people who visit Cacao are there to pick up quick food to go. You could do worse than to pick up your guacamole and chips here for a Super Bowl party.
There are very acceptable plates of chicken in mole poblano at Cacao, stacked enchiladas and tequila-marinated pork belly served on a bed of refried beans stiffened with cheese. But the basic unit of consumption here is probably the taco, a very homemade-tasting thing filled with roast turkey, or stewy carne asada, or squash blossoms stirred into a mass of roasted poblano chiles and melted cheese. The taco Don Marcos combines the carne asada with a mouth-blistering gob of hot chile salsa, a fresh blast of lime, and cilantro that is just refreshing enough to distract you from the pain that is yet to come. There is a taco of bacon in a sort of chocolate-inflected salsa, which is not quite as good as it sounds; another of shrimp in a smoky chipotle sauce; and a very decent taco made with potatoes and house-made chorizo.
Cacao will always have its detractors. The tacos are more expensive than those you find on trucks (although there is a daily “happy hour,'' when you can get cheap street tacos, mole fries and mojado dogs), and don't really represent any particular regional tradition. Food is slow to come. The solace it offers is different from what you find at the elbow-in-the-salsa dining at rougher establishments — Cacao is a neighborhood restaurant in a fairly gentrified neighborhood.
But if suffering good coffee, folksy music and the bourgeois presence of duck is the price one has to pay for access to Cacao's chiles rellenos, unbreaded roast poblanos stuffed with cheese and sweet corn or squash blossoms with cod, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
CACAO MEXICATESSEN: 1576 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (323) 478-2791, cacaodeli.com. Breakfast, Tues.-Fri., 8 a.m.-noon, Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-1 p.m.; lunch and dinner, Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Takeout. Limited parking in rear. Tacos, $2.55-$3; burritos $6.95-$8.95; platillos $6.95-$14.25. Recommended dishes: duck carnitas, chiles rellenos, tacos Don Marcos.