STOP #3: Carnitas Michoacan
741 South Soto Street, Boyle Heights, 323 266 7188
As we pulled up to the Boyle Heights branch of Carnitas Michoacan, Esparza said, “It’s got a hamburger and a dinosaur on top. Is that a good sign?” No, Bill, no it isn’t. The theme park like outpost of a local chain is open 24 hours, featuring uncomfortable red booths and a Ms. Pac Man machine.
The carnitas ($1.25 per taco) was not cooked in copper pot, as befits Michoacan. They also don’t offer surtido, just dry, desiccated shoulder meat, but they did have gloppy salsa verde, bagged, mealy tortillas and finely minced onion. As far as food goes, there’s nothing sadder than wasted pork, and this taco was so poor it wasn’t even worth finishing.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 1.5 DL 2 LL 2.5 BE 1 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1 AVERAGE 1.643/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 1.5 DL 1.5 LL 2.5 BE 1.5 ZB 2 VS 2.5 JL 2 AVERAGE 1.929/5
Overall Flavor: MK 2 DL 3.5 LL 3 BE 0.5 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1.5 AVERAGE 2/5
Cooking: MK 1.5 DL 1 LL 2 BE 1 ZB 2 VS 1.5 JL 1.5 AVERAGE 1.5/5
OVERALL SCORE 1.768/5
STOP #4: Tacos Los Guichos
SW corner of East Slauson Avenue & Avalon Boulevard, Vernon/Main, no phone
Thankfully, our next stop was at Tacos Los Guichos, a four-year-old taco wagon that parks in a lot belonging to a hand car wash and window tinting establishment. The siding on the wagon hosts a trio of dancing jalapenos, which should be happy to grace carnitas from their cazo.
As Esparza said, their surtido taco ($1.50) involves “ears, lips, shoulder, esophagus and ribs, oh my.” The meat had the day’s best texture, sticky with pork juices, nice and tender, with the shoulder meat touting the consistency of good pulled pork, along with gelatinous and chewy bits. The diced onion, pico de gallo and tomatillo-jalapeno salsa were all fun, the only element holding the tacos back were the packaged tortillas, which didn’t have the vibrancy of fresh-pressed corn tortillas.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 4 DL 4.5 LL 3.5 BE 4 ZB 5 VS 4.5 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 4.286/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 4 DL 3.5 LL 2 BE 4 ZB 4 VS 3.5 JL 3.5 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Overall Flavor: MK 4.5 DL 4.5 LL 4 BE 4.5 ZB 5 VS 4 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 3.857/5
Cooking: MK 4.5 DL 4 LL 4 BE 4.5 ZB 5 VS 5 JL 4.5 AVERAGE 4.5/5
OVERALL SCORE 4.036/5
STOP #5: Carnitas El Tio
1903 North Long Beach Boulevard, Compton, 310 493 8126
A-Frame might also occupy an A-Frame building, but it’s got nothing on this Jalisco inspired Mexican restaurant, which has been open in Compton since 1994. That’s because this part of Compton is infinitely – how shall I put this – colorful – with hookers strolling Long Beach Boulevard during broad daylight. The signage was visually arresting for another reason. Given the porcine provenance, it was hardly a surprise to find a sign sporting a pig cooking in its own juices in a cazo.
Cooks loaded each Taco Grande ($1.50) with hacked-to-order shoulder meat, which was boiled then fried, forming crusty bits. No cazo was in evidence. The simple garnish consisted of cilantro, minced onion and a squeeze of lemon. They didn’t have salsa verde, which is preferred with carnitas. Instead they offered salsa ranchera, a mild tomato salsa. This was a fairly simple taco that tasted just fine, but wasn’t fairly one note. Even though we were near the end of our journey, Dave Lieberman persisted and bought a true taco surtido, which had curls of gelatinous skin that added much needed variety to the experience.
Grade of Key Ingredient: MK 2.5 DL 4.5 LL 2.5 BE 3 ZB 3 VS 3 JL 2.5 AVERAGE 3/5
Condiment/Tortilla: MK 3 DL 2.5 LL 2.5 BE 2.5 ZB 3 VS 2 JL 2 AVERAGE 2.5/5
Overall Flavor: MK 3 DL 4.5 LL 2.5 BE 3 ZB 3 VS 3.5 JL 3 AVERAGE 3.214/5
Cooking: MK 3 DL 2.5 LL 2.5 BE 3.5 ZB 3 VS 3 JL 2.5 AVERAGE 2.857/5
OVERALL SCORE 2.89275/5
Ultimately, only two of the five carnitas tacos are worth repeating – Metro Balderas and Tacos Los Guichos – which is a pretty low percentage for meat from a pig, an animal that has such a flavorful yield, and such a high approval rating.