Swine Connoisseur

If you're into the swine thing, Carnitas Uruapan may be the greatest place this side of a Louisiana pigskin fry, a cinder-block shack just down from the track in Tijuana, crackling with mariachi music, echoing with the crashes of Bohemia empties, crowded with truck drivers and slumming debs, local lawyers and sleepy-eyed tourists, working-class families celebrating birthdays, all sitting elbow-in-salsa close along the communal wooden tables. If you pay attention, you can smell the copper caldrons of frying hog flesh from half a mile away.

What you eat at Carnitas Uruapan isn't so much in question as how much of it, one orden or two, one kilo for three people or two kilos for 10. Everybody seems to get the same thing: a plateful of freshly made guacamole and another of extremely lardy refried beans, a basket of lard-fried chips and freshly fried pigskin, tortillas patted to order, bowls of hot salsa and pickled chiles and fresh herbs.

Fried pork is usually pretty good under any circumstances, but carefully made carnitas can be to other pork dishes what an aged Delmonico is to Steak-ums, the meat's potential pungency tamed into a concentrated, almost caramelized sweetness, the edges crisp, the fat melted almost away into an intense mineral richness that completely permeates the meat.

Deuteronomy enjoins the faithful from seething a lamb in its mother's milk--this is a main tenet of Jewish dietary law. (Of course, it's also not so hot on the eating of swine.) The time-honored method of making carnitas by boiling a hog in its own fat may be as treyf as it is possible for a dish to be, but it brings out a flavor impossible to get any other way.

People ask me sometimes about my favorite places to eat in Tijuana, but in truth Uruapan's appeal is such that I've never bothered to check out another restaurant. A night at the dog races followed by a half-pound of carnitas is pretty much my idea of a perfect date.

In Los Angeles, good carnitas are common; great carnitas rare. Antijitos Denise's sells close to perfect carnitas and chicharrones from a stand in East Los Angeles. The carnitas at the Lincoln Heights branch of Carnitas Michoacan are very good. At the West L.A. restaurant Lares, the carnitas are fine.

Lately, I've found myself going a lot to a modest place called Las Carnitas on Olympic in East L.A., a fragrant little restaurant with leatherette booths, populated both with local white-collar guys and downtown businessmen, and also an oddly high concentration of couples engaged in what look like secret afternoon rendezvous. It may be 95 degrees in the late-summer sun, but in Las Carnitas it is always cool and dark, the food is good, and the beer is cold.

The first thing you look for in a beer-at-noon restaurant, I guess, is chips and salsa, and the chips are nice here, probably fried in lard and very fresh. And the salsa is tomato-juicy and hot. There are OK enchilada platters and stuff, and a passable, if mild, chile verde, and tongue in a piquant tomato sauce good enough to tide you over to the next tongue, though not remarkable or anything.

I'm fond enough of the baby goat, cabrito --crisp little rib chops that are as hard to stop eating as Doritos (if you ask for an order "with bones"), scented with garlic and as gamy as mutton, perfect with a slosh or two of salsa. The kitchen has sort of a minor Yucatan groove going on, but neither the tostada-like panuchos or the bland, stewy cochinito, pork cooked in a banana leaf, will remind you much of your week in Cozumel.

Anyway, as you might expect, carnitas are what's happening at Las Carnitas--regular chunks largely trimmed of fat, sweet and crunchy with just a hint of barnyard wildness, served on a stainless-steel platter with everything you need to make a half-hour's worth of tacos: cilantro, lard-infused refried beans, decent flour tortillas, rustically chunky guacamole.

Spanish-language doo-wop plays on the radio. "Little Pork Meats," explains the sign outside. This place may not be Tijuana, but Las Carnitas is authentically East L.A.


Where to Go

Las Carnitas, 4003 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles, (213) 267-9716. Open for lunch and early dinner, Sun.-Fri. (Closed Saturdays.) Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Street parking only. Lunch for two, food only, $11 to $15.

What to Get

Carnitas, cabrito .

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