Friday, October 30, 2009

A Celebration of Succulent Pork - The 8 Types of Carnitas at Metro Balderas!

From as far back as I can remember, I've always had a fascination with Pork Carnitas. But thinking back on it now, I have no idea why, considering the vast majority of the places I've ordered Carnitas from in L.A. have been decent-to-mediocre at best, being too dry, overfried, too salty or tasting like it's reheated Pork from a week ago. Perhaps it's the craving for a bit of pure Pork simplicity - slowly braised chunks of Pork in a warm Corn Tortilla - that's pushed me to order Carnitas at each new place I've come across.

But over the years, I reached a point where I had nearly given up on finding fresh, succulent Pork Carnitas, until I saw a discussion from Eat_Nopal and Dommy! on the various styles of this dish (the differences between the juicier, stew-like Carnitas and the fried, crisped versions). From there, the conversation continued with mi amigo streetgourmetla joining in, and I learned that specialists in Mexico featured *multiple types* of Carnitas, not just 1 generic "Carnitas" dish. I was stunned and excited, but also saddened, since I realized I had never heard of a specialist in L.A. that featured more than 1 type. And when even a hardcore Mexican Cuisine Hound like Eat_Nopal didn't know of an L.A. specialist, I began preparations for a trip to Mexico instead.

Then a few weeks later, I ran across a great review from Jonathan Gold about a restaurant that served up multiple types of Carnitas... here in L.A.! That restaurant turned out to be Metro Balderas, and after experiencing the mouth-watering porcine preparations over the past four visits, it's become my go-to spot for delicious Pork Carnitas, served up 8(!) different ways.

Metro Balderas is a family operation, with four locations across L.A., each one run by a different member of the family. The original branch is in Northridge, run by Chef Abraham Guzman, with the Highland Park location run by his sister, Jasmine Guzman. As we arrive at the Highland Park branch of Metro Balderas, we see the humble, hand-written sign greeting us with something I had never seen before in L.A.: 8 different types of Pork Carnitas. :)

The 8 different types of Pork Carnitas are available only on Saturdays and Sundays, and is cooked in a D.F. (Distrito Federal (Mexico City))-style based on a recipe learned from their mother. The Carnitas are fried in Lard first, then slow-cooked and braised in its own juices, a process taking at least 4 hours, and after having tried all 8 types, the time and love put into these creations shine through and through. :)

We sit down in the festively colored, simply-decorated eatery, and after a bit, the first half of the tacos arrive.

It should be noted that the Tacos served here are *huge*, containing at least 200% - 250% the amount of meat in a normal taco truck Taco. I start with their Buche Carnitas Taco (Braised Pork Stomach Taco). "Buche" can also refer to Esophagus Tacos, but at Metro Balderas they use the Pig's Stomach.

The Buche has a good, light chewiness, a bit of elasticity that gives way to a soft, braised quality. Lightly salty and clean-tasting (made that day), it's the best Buche Taco I've had in L.A.

Their Cuerito Carnitas Taco (Braised Pork Skin Taco) is the saltiest of the offerings (but not overwhelmingly so), with the Skin absorbing the most braising liquids throughout the cooking. It's wonderfully pungent, porky and unctuous with this viscosity that coats your lips and mouth as it melts. Delicious! :)

If the Cuerito (Braised Pork Skin) isn't juicy and lush enough for you, then the give the Trompa Carnitas Taco (Braised Pig Snout Taco) a try.

The Trompa really shows off the 4 hour braising time with ultra juicy, fatty, sultry pieces of super tender Pork goodness. At times it almost tasted like I was eating chunks of Pork Fat, but not as overwhelming as if it literally was. Still, it's quite tasty and a must-order if you love that type of texture.

The last half of the 8 types of Carnitas arrive at this point, with the heftier cuts served together.

I love Pork Ribs, so I was really looking forward to the Costilla Carnitas Taco (Braised Pork Ribs Taco).

The Pork Ribs taste very fresh, with a nice crunch from the bits of cartilage interspersed with the Pork Rib meat. It's lean, but still "dry moist." And while that was pretty good, during my 2nd, 3rd and 4th visits, the Costilla Carnitas have been even better: They've had a little bit of fat mixed in with the Pork Ribs and Cartilage, with a wonderful brightness and clarity. I'm able to pick out more of the Garlic, Bay Leaf and Oranges than during our first visit. For the leaner style of Carnitas, the Costilla is definitely my favorite! (^_^)

Perhaps the leanest of all the cuts of Carnitas served here is the Maciza Carnitas Taco (Braised Pork Butt Taco), which despite its English name, is actually the Pork Shoulder.

The Maciza has the least amount of remaining fat after the cooking process, and is on the dry side, slightly crisped and lightly salty. It's probably the healthiest of the 8 types of Carnitas here, and is the closest to the texture quality of the typical Carnitas found around L.A., except here, the Maciza Carnitas taste like they were made just few hours before - very fresh - and not like they were reheated from the previous day's leftovers.

And on the other side of the spectrum lies Nana Carnitas Taco (Braised Pork Uterus Taco).

The Braised Pork Uterus Taco is intense, dense, thick and chewy. While the term "earthy" has been bandied about to describe all sorts of foods, there is perhaps, no better term to describe the Nana Taco. I think I prefer the metallic, iron taste of Liver over Nana, but it's definitely worth trying once if you enjoy the rarer cuts of meat.

But if there's one type of Carnitas that outshines the rest, it might very well be the Oreja Carnitas Taco (Braised Pig Ear Taco).

It has just the right balance of fat and delicious crunchiness from the Cartilage, being at once wonderfully porky, succulent and crunchy, yet still having that moist, sexy fattiness you get with something like Pork Belly and Bacon, but here, it's in a more manageable, tiny package. (^_^) It was so outstanding, I had to make sure it wasn't a fluke, and in the 4 times I've ordered the Oreja, it's been consistently delicious.

Finally, the Surtida Carnitas Taco is a combination of the Trompa, Oreja, Cuerito, Costilla, Buche and Maciza cuts, basically all the types above, except Nana (Uterus).

It's a very good combination and a great exploration of texture with each bite, containing a bit of the fatty juiciness of cuts like the Pork Skin and Snout, while still having the crunch of the cartilage from the Pork Ribs and Ears.

Service is pretty straightforward at Metro Balderas: You order at the counter and take a seat, and the food is brought out when ready. All 8 types of Carnitas Tacos are sold for $1.99, which is a bargain considering the slow-cooked loving care that's gone into them, and the fact that, as aforementioned, each one of these Tacos contain about ~2 to 2.5 times the amount of meat of a normal street taco.

After a great absence of a Pork Carnitas specialist in L.A., it seems like we finally have something to celebrate, with the simple, mouth-watering 8 types of Carnitas of Metro Balderas. Chef Guzman's Carnitas have been so consistently good, that I can't imagine how I got by without them all these years. Like the paradigm shift I experienced with Carne Asada recently in Tijuana, I can probably never go back to just the 1 type of generic, reheated, fried "Carnitas" served around town. While they may not have the rarer Carnitas de Pato (Duck Carnitas), and while they may only serve it on weekends, I can't wait to go back to Metro Balderas to get my Taco fix of Costilla Carnitas (Braised Pork Ribs) and Oreja Carnitas (Braised Pig Ears) amongst other things.

Rating: 8.5 (out of 10.0)

*** Reminder: Carnitas served only on Saturday and Sunday. ***

Metro Balderas
5305 N. Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90042
Tel: (323) 478-8383

Hours: Mon - Sat, 9:00 a.m. 10:00 p.m.
Sun, 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.


Brian said...

Its great to have a go-to weekend Mexican place. I had one back in the Bay Area, and almost every Sunday morning I would head down for a bowl of birria and some carnitas.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Brian,

Nice! :) It's definitely a nice way to start a Sunday. :)

weezermonkey said...

I *love* carnitas! I can't believe there are eight different kinds. Sounds like heaven!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

I think you might like this place. (^_~) If you get a chance to go, let me know what you think of it. Thanks.

Anna A. said...

Uterus, snouts, ears oh my! Thanks for sharing your crazy taco eating adventure Exile Kiss.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna A.,

Thanks. :) Some of the cuts may sound a bit strange, but generally they were all tasty. :)

Piggipiggy said...

Hello! I stumbled upon your site when I was researching ramen shops before and I've been reading your blog ever since. I love all the places you go to eat at! I think we have the same food palate! I'm definitely going to Metro Balderas to give it a try!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Piggipiggy,

Thanks. :) I hope you like Metro Balderas. Please report back on how the visit went if you get a chance. :)

adlawrence86 said...

Love your posts. Love them.

And when is it that you might be needing a die hard eating buddy?..

Exile Kiss said...

Hi adlawrence86,

Thank you and thanks for the kind offer. :) Let me know if you end up trying any of the Carnitas here. :)

adlawrence86 said...

Haha, will do!

Piggipiggy said...

I got to try this place over the weekend and got the 8 different types of pork tacos. They were all very tasty and the place was really clean too! I like all of them, hard to say which one I liked best. Thanks for the tip!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Piggipiggy,

Thanks for the report back. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed all 8 types of the Carnitas! :)

jeesung said...

i'm jealous! need to find a place like this near SF

Exile Kiss said...

Hi jeesung,

I empathize with you: Before this, I didn't know of any other restaurants locally serving multiple types of Carnitas. Let me know what you think of it, if you get a chance to try it. :)

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