There are carnitas everywhere, from the taco truck down the street, where they chop pork shoulder into little bits and toss it on the flattop, to the sandwich chain that wants to call its roasted pork and avocado sandwich "authentico." And almost every kind of carnitas you'll encounter is pretty good — it's hard to go wrong with hot, fatty pork — but even the best standard version can't hold a candle to a true carnitas specialist.
When you encounter such an expert, it should be obvious — the pork is cooked not on a flattop or grill, or in a pot or crock-pot, but in a giant bubbling cauldron called a cazo, stirred with cuts of meat fried together in fatty harmony, lard mixed with rendered fat into something rich, tender and fiercely porcine.
There are plenty of places making excellent carnitas in L.A., including Carnitas El Momo, Villa Moreliana and Metro Balderas. And those places typically focus on tacos. At the breakfast and lunch-only carnitas specialist Taqueria Periban in South El Monte, the star attraction is a little more interactive — you order your carnitas by the pound.
Walk in through the tiny interior and step out onto the back patio, which is really just 10 or so long plastic tables in a sectioned-off piece of the parking lot, with a few blue tarps strung up to provide some shade from the angry midday sun. There are plenty of options on the menu — breakfast, various antojitos, a rotating soup — but you are here for the carnitas, about half a pound per person. Before the carnitas arrive, your waitress will produce several little bowls, each one full of either green salsa, red salsa, pico de gallo, limes, and onions with cilantro. Shortly thereafter you will receive a packet of piping hot tortillas, your beer (you should have a beer), and the centerpiece, a large, paper-lined bowl of carnitas.
The completed setup looks almost like Korean banchan, a semicircle of miniature dishes in several colors, around a mountain of meat. The tortillas are wonderful, pliant and fresh, sturdy enough to hold a couple generous scoops of meat and all the fixings without springing a leak. The salsas are great too — the red viscous and smoky with a slow-burning, earthy spice and the green its perfect complement, bright and punchy, spicier up front but fast to fade.
The carnitas mixtas is a blend of several different cuts, with some bits that are tender and rich, some more solid and substantial, and the occasional slice of something gelatinous and sticky, all coming together — better in one bite than the shoulder or buche or cueritos alone.
On weekends the scene is festive and loud, thanks in large part to the thumping bass drum and screaming trumpets of the banda playing out front. It's an appealingly chaotic backdrop for a carnivorous lunch.
The mountain of meat in front of you may look like an impossible task, but slowly, as the squeezed limes pile up on your plate, and you start to run out of beer, the mountain begins to shrink. And then you notice that you have built a snowman army out of balled-up napkins on the table, that the band is wrapping up, that you are happy and full, and it is time to go home.
2129 Chico Ave, South El Monte, (626) 444-6923.