It is an indisputable truth that pork and corn tortillas are a holy pairing, an epiphany that dawned on Mexicans in the early 16th century. “Spanish conquistadors arrived and imposed pork upon the native-American diet in Mexico, and it gradually became an important part of modern Mexico’s cuisine,” notes Bill Esparza (@streetgourmetla), distinguished Mexican and Latin American food blogger who runs the site, StreetGourmetLA.
Pork, he says, “brought a superior flavor to traditional dishes that were previously made with wild boar and other indigenous proteins.”
It is no accident, then, that many of Mexico’s signature dishes incorporate porcine goodness in some way, shape, or form “using pre-Hispanic technique, and fusions with Old World and All-american products and methods (can’t leave out the bacon-wrapped hot dog).” And luckily for us, many of those pork products end up being served in taco form.
Dubbed the tacorazzo for his depth of knowledge (he’s tried tacos in 27 different states in Mexico), Esparza has made a reputation for hitting the pavement, traversing alleyways, freeways, and backyards in pursuit of L.A.’s best carnitas vendors, or nimble al pastor taqueros who amaze audiences with their carving theatrics. But those two delicacies are only a sliver of the story—if you really want to enjoy pork in all of its wonderful taco iterations, you’re going to have to dig a bit deeper.
To get you started, we had Esparza identify the vast spectrum of pork tacos in Los Angeles, so that you’ll know where to score the best parts of the pig on your next expedition.
All photos by Bill Esparza
*Only a full exploration of Mexican porcine delights would properly cover the flavors of pig from head to tail, but since we are serving this tale on a tortilla, carnitas are most adventurous when it comes to porky parts.*
Intel: Traditional carnitas include head-to-tail pork cuts cooked in a large copper or stainless steel pot, called a cazo, confit-style, and served in tacos or purchased by weight for making tacos at home. The condiments and sides vary by region. Chilangos (people from Mexico City) prefer offal in all things, so there you’re going to get cuts like pig hearts, tongue, kidneys, liver, and uterus. Uterus has an intense pork flavor and a texture like wonton skins. Trompa, which is the peeled and chopped snout, is one of the finer gelatinous, sticky cuts that’s great on its own, or to mix with muscle or offal. I love the variety of flavors and textures in whole-hog carnitas, but unfortunately offal is not a big seller here among the local Mexican community outside of hog’s maw and chitterlings, so liver, kidneys, penis, balls, lungs (illegal in the U.S.), pancreas, and brains are non-existent in L.A. Nor are the odd meats cuts like bunghole, shank and cheeks easy to acquire.
Where to get it: There has been a Michoacan-style vendor at the Mercado Olympic from time to time that has liver, and kidneys. So does the Zamora Brothers chain (1503 E Cesar E Chavez Ave), and Boyle Heights institution Los 5 Puntos (3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave) stocks kidneys and snout. But at all three of these places, these vital organs are over cooked, leaving them dry. For the best carnitas in Los Angeles, Carnitas El Momo (6015 S Avalon) is the place to go—ask if they have any trotters, or patas, which are whole pig’s feet waiting for a ‘manicure.’ But buche, or hog’s maw, is always on the menu, which is the stomach lining of the pig. Another favorite where carnitas are sold is cueritos (skin), shoulder, and sometimes ribs. At Tres Puerquitos, you can find pig ears, which deliver a nice contrast of crunch and gelatinous sensations in every bite.
Intel: Called moronga, rellena, and sometimes morcilla. Mexican-style blood sausage can be more like blood pudding, without a casing or a stuffed sausage, where congealed pig’s blood and some filling are mixed together. These are a morning favorite across the republic.
Where to get it: The Pueblan vendors at the Mercado Olympic located on the corner of Kohler and E. Olympic Bl. make a clean, herbal, soft blood pudding that can be ordered as a taco, and will make convert any blood sausage skeptics into believers.
Intel: Fried pork skin is cooked in seasoned lard in large pieces until they are crisp. They are either eaten as a snack or cooked in stews with chile-based sauces.
Where to get it: The fried pork skin king, Enrique Buenrostro, can be found weekends selling his artisanal Tolucan chicharrones and chorizos to go with complimentary salsas at the Mercado Olympic. You can prepare his chicharrones in either a red of green sauce for tacos. You can also drive out to Burritos Las Palmas for chicharrones en salsa verde, stewed to a pasta-like texture, and wrapped in a delicious northern-style, handmade tortilla. Yes, burritos are just a regional name for a taco.
Al Pastor Tacos
Intel: Leg meat is one of the preferred choices for tacos al pastor (other regional names are adobada on the Baja peninsula and other northern states, and tacos de trompo in Nuevo León). It is essentially marinated pork roasted on a vertical spit, which is most famous in Mexico City, Puebla and the Yucatan, but every state in Mexico has its own version.
Where to get it: The Mexico City-style dominates Los Angeles, fashioned best by mercenary taqueros brought in by Tacos Leo (1515 S La Brea Ave), Tacos Tamix (South Tremaine Avenue & Pico Blvd), and Tacos Los Güichos (Olive and Slauson), who all carve off layers of pork with a few flicks of pineapple chunks onto a corn tortilla, circus-style. The adobo marinade of chiles, vegetables, spices, acid, and onions are sealed into the meat by a hissing flame, in a trial-by-fire that burns off excess marinade and leaves behind flavorful pork—making these tacos some of the most coveted by Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike.
Cecina Enchilada, or Carne Adobada Tacos
Intel: In Mexico, cecina means cured beef, unless you are Oaxacan. Oaxacans play by their own set of rules, and in Oaxaca as well as here in Oaxacaliforna, cecina means pork in adobo cooked on a flat top (comal) or over fire. Cecina is used on tlayudas as well as in many Oaxacan dishes—and of course, in tacos.
Where to get it: Head to the West Side Oaxacan food truck, Oaxaca on Wheels (11975 Santa Monica Blvd).
Cochinita pibil and Lechón Tacos
Intel: Los Angeles is home to a small but mighty group of Yucatan-style restaurants: Chichen Itza, Flor de Yucatan, and El Faisan y El Venado. In each place you can count on delicious cochinita pibil (pit roasted pork rubbed in achiote and wrapped in banana leaves) served in tacos, but unlike in the Yucatan where you might get ears and other cuts, it’s pure muscle tissue here in L.A. Pork tenderloin or other muscle cuts are used for cochinita, and of course, here in town, it’s cooked in an oven not in a pit. (Gotta love that health department.) On Sundays, Chichen Itza pulls out all the stops and roasts a whole suckling pig for tacos de lechón.
Intel: Chilorio is spicy shredded pork shoulder cooked in a well-seasoned chili sauce that just screams Mexico; it’s everything you’ve imagined about the cuisine: spicy, complex and rich. For pork, Sinaloa is as far north as Mexican cuisine goes in Los Angeles, with many Sinaloan fondas offering their delicious chilorio with frijoles puercos (beans refried in pork lard) and flour tortillas for making your own tacos.
Where to get it: El Sinaloense (7601 State St) is a classic Sinaloan restaurant dedicated to Culiacan-style comfort food, cooked by a line of women who mean business.
Bonus: Head Tacos
Intel: On Tuesdays, Oaxaca on Wheels offers steamed pork head tacos, which are a late night specialty in states like Oaxaca and Chiapas. This is for lovers of tasty bits of cheeks, jowls, and head meat.