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, there is Denise herself, chopping meat, working the register, folding her special burritos. In a land dominated by carne asada, Denise‘s is where to go for pork, a bagful of one 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. MC, Disc., V.
Each time I go to El Colmao, I order the same huge, greasy, splendid lunch. There is an avocado salad to start — cool, ripe chunks garnished with thin slices of raw onion, which I dress with splashes of vinegar and torrents of good Spanish olive oil; then a heaping plateful of thin, pounded circles of unripe plantains, fried crisp as potato chips and dusted with salt. Next come boiled yuca, the color of a legal pad, sauced with oil, lemon and a truly astounding quantity of garlic; a big plateful of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), a tasty miscegenation of black beans and rice fried with garlic and gobbets of fat pork; piles of fried fresh ham, pierna de puerco, crisp and brown on the outside and meltingly tender within, topped with an immoderate portion of caramelized onions. For dessert there is good flan and torpor — and cups of strong Cuban espresso to wake us up a little. 2328 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 386-6131. Open Wed.–Mon. for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9–$28. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.
This basic Taiwanese deli of the type made popular here by the Mandarin Deli chain, Dumpling Master — which sounds like the title of a Hong Kong martial-arts movie where the hero regretfully lays down his skein of noodle dough in order to avenge the death of his sister, father, lover, etc. — buzzes with customers slurping down giant bowls of beef noodles, platters of bean curd with minced pork and chile, and hubcapsful of the restaurant’s famous creamy corn soup. A specialty of the place is deep-fried pork chops, brown and crunchy and slightly sweet, coated with a salt crust just spicy enough to tingle. Potherb, home-preserved mustard greens of sorts, can be had stir-fried with shredded bits of said pork or, better, with fresh, sweet soybeans. If you remember to specify handmade noodles, you‘ll get thick, wheaty, dense things the thickness of fan belts, fresh enough to soak up an intense pork broth and still retain their texture. Essentially, though — this being Dumpling Master and everything — you may as well have some of those doughy boiled pork dumplings, crisp on the outside, spurtingly juicy within. 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-8689. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $10–$16. Takeout. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
The cornerstone of Nicaraguan cooking is the nacatamale, a brick-size package that‘s less a tamale than a world-view steamed in a banana leaf. The masa 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 saute of tomatoes, onions and peppers that’s 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 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $7–$15. Beer and wine. Cash only.
The best ham in L.A.? Probably the one at Nick’s Cafe downtown, a plateful of thick slices fried to smoky denseness, ribboned with sweet fat, fibrous and chewy in a way that only real ham can be, and blackened crisp at the rim. There are ham omelets here, sandwiches made with ham alone, and hardcore sandwiches made with ham and a fried egg, but the best way to have the ham may be straight up, doused with the restaurant‘s fine, searing house-made salsa and served with a bland pillow of hash browns. If the world were just, Nick’s would be as renowned for ham ‘n’ eggs as El Tepeyac is for burritos. 1300 N. Spring St., downtown; (323) 222-1450. Open Mon.–Fri. 5:30 a.m.–2 p.m., Sat. till 11:30 a.m. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $6–$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
The sort of thing you don‘t really find in garden-variety Thai places is what Yai — located in the rear of a dingy Hollywood mini-mall, sandwiched between a doughnut stand and a fading fish ’n‘ chips parlor, and as authentic a Thai restaurant as they come — calls roast pork with Chinese broccoli: fatty, crispy chunks of pigskin on a dark-green pile whose vegetable bitterness cuts through the richness like a knife. It looks something like a spinach salad, and fully half the customers here seem to have an order on their tables. The dish is bound together with enough garlic to induce a sweat in some people that will stay with them for days. There’s a pungent, searing chile dip on the side. And though it‘s not hard to like, exactly — in fact, it’s rather delicious — the dish is kind of a walk on the wild side for the Western palate. 5757 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 462-0292. Open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$20. Beer only. Lot parking. Cash only.
Why settle for a little pork when you can have it all?