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Having never been inclined toward ivory tablecloths and soft focus candle lighting, I subscribe to the philosophy that a good restaurant is, simply, one capable of churning out palatable food. While Michelin is unlikely to take notice of this modest establishment in Boyle Heights, on the taste front, at least, Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1 satisfies.
On your way in, you’ll have to skirt by a squat metal shelf housing a tower of plastic cups, a collection of silverware, and a coffee machine. Other curiosities line the walls (whose blaring orange hue can come off strong), including a lone cash register squatting on a glass case full of Mexican sweets, homemade paper signage mandating things like “Debit Credit $1,” and multiple toy dispensers (how often are they patronized, one wonders?). On the overhead TV screens, Spanish-language soap operas unfold with campy flair.
But that’s not what you’re here for. Focus on food instead. Specifically, I’d like to draw your attention to the taco de cecina, starring, well, cecina: a thinly sliced cured beef. The taco comes mutant proportioned, its mountainous form splayed impressively across the plate. Start by peeling back the curtain of grilled cactus, then brush aside strings of Oaxacan cheese,nudge over the onion bulblet, and finally, clear away the heaps of potatoes, black beans, and pliant green onion strewn artfully across the whole splendid piece. Your excavatory efforts will be rewarded when you hit the base: an endless field of cecina–salted and dried, gently curled at the edges–blanketing a thick swathe of tortilla.
To a roving eye, the taco de cecina may seem unfashioned and graceless, not unlike the eclectic jumble of the restaurant space. What force determined the placement of each tangle of cheese, each cut of avocado and strand of green onion? Whether the chef’s neurotic hand or gravity is to thank, the payoff is the same. And besides, ultimately, you are the master of your own fate. Tear, pair, and spear to your own tastes. You might even witness the unveiling of a scandalous affair while you’re at it.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1
3010 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90063
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.
With the Breed Street food vendors now dispersed, you really have to drive around Boyle Heights to find the best stuff. My tactic is to search out the stands with a bit of a crowd, the thinking being that most people won’t stand in line for bad food.
That’s not a foolproof theory, but it proved accurate when I spotted Balbina on a recent Friday night. On a corner, just off E. First St (email me for exact location), Balbina serves up a a full menu–which includes flautas,pambazos, huaraches, sopes and quesadillas, to a steady stream of regulars and newbies like me. The promise of thick, hearty tortillas handmade on the spot are a big part of the allure.
Last time I went to the LA Street Food Fest, I didn’t even get in. This time, it was more organized, and I actually ate some food. The lines were pretty long, but spirits were high on the Rose Bowl field, and I was able to try some great stuff.
Here’s the rundown:
First up was Boyle Heights’ Antojitos Carmen, formerly a popular Breed St. vendor and now a brick and mortar presence on Cesar Chavez Ave (map it). Well worth the wait, they were serving up potato tacos and enchiladas. The tacos dorados, filled with a mixture of potatoes and cheese, were the highlight. I couldn’t help but flood the plate with the delicious salsas.
Downtown Dogs’ hotdogs remind me of Chronis‘ on Whittier Blvd. Maybe it’s the snap that happens when you take a bite. Whatever it is, it’s a good dog, and tater tots are always an easy sell. I wanted to try the Dogzilla stand as well since their doing their version of Japa Dogs, but the line was excruciating.