In many parts of Mexico, the pig is king. From fried skin to chopped ears to ground chorizo, puerco is the carne of choice for millions of Mexicans every day. And, as our southerly sister nation goes, so too do the culinary interests of Los Angeles.
We are a city that loves its carnitas, the long-simmering pork preparation that renders fat and boils huge chunks of pig to create tender, juicy bites that fall apart with flavor. And while many readers may only regard carnitas as the thick, pulled-apart bites from a simmered pork butt, it is really just a specific preparation of pig. You know, like how BBQ is both a specific food and a technique.
Everything from the snout to the ribs to all of that inside stuff can be tossed together (usually inside a large metal pot known as a cazo) and simmered for hours in lard. Once the desired internal temperature is reached, the already boiling pot is heated further, frying porky edges and crisping skin in the process.
So where can you find the best carnitas in Los Angeles? After weeks of taste testing, re-testing, taking home samples and scouring the city (tough job, isn't it?), here are our picks for the ten best carnitas spots around.
10. Rambo's Taco Truck:
There's a lot to love about this colorful late night truck that parks on Eagle Rock Boulevard. If the hand-painted John Rambo mural painted on one side of the lonchero isn't enough to make you pull over, the wafting smell of grilled meats should do it. Rambo's does a brisk asada business most nights, but there's something undeniably satisfying about their carnitas tacos as well. The $1 units aren't very robust, but you can soothe yourself with a full plate for under $5. The pork is water-boiled before being seasoned and fried, but the mellow saltiness works well with the freshly chopped onions and kick of salsa roja. These are great carnitas introduction tacos, pulled apart and loaded up with toppings to provide porky newcomers with a taste of what's to come. Eagle Rock Blvd., south of York Blvd., Eagle Rock.
9. Carnitas El Tio:
Compton isn't exactly synonymous with great carnitas preparations, but Carnitas El Tio on Long Beach Blvd. is a rare exception. The folks in the long, triangular building have been laying down plates of pork for years, and have gained a strong local following as a result. The carnitas here comes in thick bands, barely fried at the edges and oozing with juices. Instead of some pressed taco concoction, Carnitas El Tio offers full, chopped bites that could use a bit more salt but otherwise warm the belly. Order up a few street-sized tacos and watch your plate emerge from the back, brimming with freshly prepared pork that's been stacked haphazardly onto a few griddled corn tortillas. 1903 N. Long Beach Blvd., Compton.
8. Las Fuentes:
Open since 1982, Las Fuentes is a popular Reseda lunch spot that tends to push out warm plates of wet enchiladas and bulging burritos. But their carnitas comes brimming with flavor, be it inside a burrito, layered into a taco or as a standalone plate with a side of rice and beans. The slightly smoky meat is sturdy enough to stand up on its own, with hefty chops that carry the soft texture of a long simmer back in the kitchen. Since Las Fuentes is a "something for everyone" sort of place, you won't find any tasty off-cuts of carnitas, such as ears or skin, but the trusty pork butt here hasn't been strung out or made to lie down. Instead, Las Fuentes provides some of the most serviceable carnitas you'll find in the San Fernando Valley. 18415 Vanowen St., Reseda.
What business does a kosher Mexican spot in the Jewish Pico Blvd. neighborhood have being on a best carnitas list? A lot, actually. While it's true that you won't find a drip of pork in the place, this kosher-abiding fast casual spot has put together a beef-and-duck-combo carnitas that is elegant and satisfying. Chef Katsuji Tanabe's multi-animal concoction is braised to nearly a confit consistency, with fried bites pulled to perfection. There is still a wisp of the crisp, fatty edges and earthy funk you might be looking for with traditional carnitas, but in an upscale and Jewish-friendly package. You'll pay a premium for this duck-and-beef carnitas at MexiKosher, but with a thrash of their warm orange mango habanero salsa on top, the burning hole in your wallet will be nothing compared to the one in your mouth. 8832 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
The Zamora Brothers meat shop in East L.A. has a longstanding carnitas tradition. Day and night, the neighborhood flocks inside the small storefront operation to buy their carnitas by the pound -- but not from over the counter. Instead, customers are given their own tray and tongs to mull through the pile of pork that rests inside the glass warming cases that line the room. All cuts of pork are offered and stacked together, ranging from tripe and sweetbreads to ears, skin, ribs and shoulder. Discerning to-go customers pick and pull from the porky pile all day long, but there are a few tables in the back available for dining in. A plate of tacos is actually pretty skimpy, considering the sizable offers from the counter out front, but they don't lack for flavor. The snout is fatty and gelatinous, while the sweetbreads are velvety soft, with a deep and slightly sweet funk. Thanks to the ongoing kitchen operation in the back of Zamora Bros., the more traditional shoulder arrives fresh and slightly fatty, with an earthy undertone of salt that pervades every bite. 4771 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East L.A.
5. Las Morelianas:
Tucked into the Broadway end of downtown's Grand Central Market sits Las Morelianas, a Michoacan-style carnitas spot that boils and bubbles their own pork on premises. Three large cazos churn away behind the long counter, where piles of previously cooked pork rest inside glass cases, waiting to be picked apart. Stand around long enough and you'll be offered a sample of the browned meat, wrapped delicately in a small tortilla. But let's not kid ourselves: You already knew you wanted to eat at Las Morelianas. The thick cuts of snout are a juicy reminder of what pork belly used to be before it went all mainstream, while the ribs come chopped through with little bony ends still intact. Make your way through a plate, though, and you'll be rewarded with some of the smokiest, most satisfying meat you can find on a pig. Perhaps the best option is a few mixed tacos, which favor the pork shoulder but offer a nice dose of the lesser-eaten slices, all inside a single wide tortilla. 317 S. Broadway, inside Grand Central Market, Downtown.
4. Mercado Olympic:
Downtown's weekend-only Mercado Olympic is teeming with so many mom-and-pop carnitas operations, it's impossible to parse them all out individually. Instead, spend a Saturday lunching from one end of the market to the other, using the smell of pig fat as your guide. Different vendors may favor their own cuts, but it's not surprising to find livers, ears, tripe, skin and nana (uterus) all on display. And it's easy to be a discerning diner; all of the cuts are laid out for your perusal. Just ask for your requested piece of pork, and find yourself in open market heaven in no time. Olympic Blvd. at Central Ave., Downtown.
3. Los Cinco Puntos:
Los Cinco Puntos is easily the most heralded carnitas spot in all of East L.A. The wait for freshly simmered carnitas starts early here, and the line regularly spills out onto the sidewalk. Be warned: There is no dine-in option here, so if you can't wait until you get home (most customers purchase by the pound and receive a stack of tortillas to take home with them), you'll be chowing down on the hood of your car. No matter, the sturdy hand-patted tortillas are the perfect size to reign in all of the overwhelming carnitas flavor. The various cuts emerge fast and frequent from the cazos along the back wall, and the ribs and shoulder are generally the first to leave the case again. Order a mixed taco for a taste of the entire piggy spectrum at Los Cinco Puntos, including the thick chunks of shoulder that everyone in line seems to be whispering about. And watch out for the heavy-handed salsas; their heat will sneak up on you. 3300 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East L.A.
The weekend carnitas tradition at Metro Balderas in Highland Park is the stuff of legend. Delicately rendered, each porcine mouthful is a revelation of what true carnitas can be. The snout is pure porky fat, without the crunchy, salty skin to take the edge off. The ears are chopped into tasty ribbons, crisped and curled at the edges, with a bit of that identifying cartilage still tucked inside the simmered flesh. The masterful Mexico City cooking technique is on full display with a mixed plate, with edges of perfectly fried skin giving way to thicker, meatier interiors and almost gelatinous bites of tripe and nana. Top your plate with some of the best salsas available to pair with pork, and this is the best sit-down carnitas you can find in Los Angeles. 5305 N. Figueroa Blvd., Highland Park.
Tacos Los Güichos isn't afraid to show people how it's done. The weekend-only carnitas operation sits just off of Slauson in an otherwise unassuming neighborhood. But once that super-heated cazo hits the pavement on Saturday mornings, people for miles come flocking to catch the attentive taquero at work. By mid-morning, Tacos Los Güichos tends to be pretty lively, but no worries -- one look into the pot will tell you that there's plenty to go around. Order your carnitas at the trailer and the person manning the cauldron will serve up your meat when he's damn good and ready, but not a moment sooner. This, in all of its greasy outdoor digs, is carnitas perfection. While any cut is sure to satisfy, opt for the ribs or shoulder to start -- the perfectly fried pig skin that comes attached to the meaty bites of wonderfully simmered pork will have you drooling so much you might need to hose off at the car wash next door. Corner of Avalon and Slauson St., South L.A.
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