Taco Task Force: LA’s Best CarnitasApr 20 2011 · 6 comments · Boyle Heights, East LA, Highland Park, Mexican, Tacos
In every life, there comes a moment when you must make a choice. Recently, this moment came for me. I couldn’t waffle, I couldn’t equivocate—I had to declare…my favorite carnitas. Luckily, I had a team, a Taco Task Force if you will, to help me navigate the meaty jungles of this town and cut through the pork.
The Taco Task Force’s previous missions have included finding the best fish taco, potato taco and birria in town. I was lucky enough to be drafted for the most recent TTF to crown the best carnitas. The tasters for this outing included founder Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA), Josh Lurie (Food GPS), Matthew Kang (Mattatouille), Zach Brooks (Midtown Lunch), Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly) and his wife Linnea.
A word about carnitas: I learned that most carnitas you find in LA are boiled and then fried in lard. This is cheating and the reason why carnitas often have a hard (sometimes to the point of petrification) and stringy texture. It’s definitely the reason why I’ve never been a big fan—in their usual state, they’re almost oppressive. Ideally, they should be slow cooked in their own juices in a cazo (copper or stainless steel pot).
The scoring: To make the comparison as fair as possible, we ordered a taco surtido, a mix of various pig parts, at each location. Each taco was judged on Grade of Key Ingredient, Condiment/Tortilla, Overall Flavor and Cooking to determine a final score. Catagories were scored with a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the best.
The contenders: Some of carnitas destinations were chosen by popularity and buzz, but there were also some less established places here that specialize in carnitas.
Location #1: Metro Balderas–Runner Up! 5305 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles 90042
At 9am, we all met up at Metro Balderas for our first taco of the day. On the weekends, this small and colorful Figueroa Street restaurant serves 8 different types of carnitas. Their taco surtido is relatively huge and stuffed with a mix of uterus, snout, shoulder, rib, and ear. Braised for hours, the meat is tender and juicy with lots of salty flavor while the tortilla is pretty standard (but totally fine). The salsa is tangy and top-notch.
Score: 3.6785/5 Metro Balderas’ highest scores were earned for ingredients and cooking.
Location #2: Los Cinco Puntos 3300 East Cesar Chavez Avenue, Boyle Heights.
Even if you’ve never been, you’ve probably seen Los Cinco Puntos—it’s been around since Cesar Chavez was Brooklyn Avenue. The line is long here, but while you wait, you get to see right into the kitchen, where they cook the carnitas in cazos. The tortillas here are thick, and the tacos are garnished with pickled nopales (woot!). I enjoyed these tacos more than the rest of the TTF. The carnitas weren’t as tender as Metro Balderas, but I found them really flavorful, and I liked the odd crispy bits you’d get now and then. Plus, I like a big, fat tortilla.
Location #3: Carnitas Michoacan #3 741 S Soto St, Los Angeles, 90023
Carnitas Michoacan gets a lot of buzz, and while I like their wacky façade (dinosaurs and giant burgers are okay in my book), I can’t say the same for their carnitas. Definitely boiled then fried, these tacos somehow managed to be both soggy and dry. The taste was so bland, I gave up after two bites. Sigh…I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Score: 1.768/5 The cooking technique earned the lowest scores for Carnitas Michoacan.
Location #4: Tacos Los Guichos—the winner! Corner of East Slauson Avenue & Avalon Boulevard
Some of the best carnitas in LA are sold at the car wash. If you don’t believe me, try Tacos Los Guichos. The food truck and a tarped “kitchen” take up the corner of an car detailing center, where the main attraction is a giant cazo of pork cooking in its own delicious juices. The cook chops up the various parts for every order, so the mix of ears, lips, shoulder, and ribs is as fresh as can be. The flavor is fantastic, and packaged tortillas aside, this is a stellar taco (pictured at the top of this post). Plus, you can get your can get your windows tinted while you’re eating.
Score: 4.036/5 Tacos Los Guichos earned its highest scores for cooking and ingredients.
Any restaurant with a sign depicting a pig happily sacrificing itself in the name of carnitas must be tried. That’s the rule. In this case, the sign was a little more exciting than the food. The tacos and Carnitas El Tio were alright, though not worth a drive to Compton. The carnitas are boiled and fried, however, the results were much more successful than Carnitas Michoacan. I didn’t mind the flavor, but the meat was on the dry side and the salsa was pretty blah.
Score: 2.89275/5 Carnitas El Tio earned its highest scores for overall flavor and lowest for condiment/tortilla.
The last word: On this list, I think there are three places worth driving to: Metro Balderas, Tacos Los Guichos, and Los Cinco Puntos. They all have something to offer, in my opinion. If the more obscure pig parts scare you, keep in mind that you can always ask for shoulder (maciza) or rib (costilla)–no need to eat lips and ears, but If I were you, I’d give it a try.
Metro Balderas photo and Tacos Los Guichos cazo photo courtesy of Bill Esparza.