Antojitos Carmen, street food inside four walls

Carmen Ortega prepares a meal in her new restaurant.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The way it used to be, on almost any given evening an irrepressible assemblage of Mexican food vendors would flood a Boyle Heights parking lot in what seemed like seconds. Empty tables suddenly were covered with tubs of masa and astringent salsas, and griddles glowed with immediate heat. Before you knew it, diners would be perched on plastic chairs and crumbling curbs, their fingers stained an inky, huitlacoche-rich black. Couples quickly huddled around cups of goat consommé as kids eyed the cinnamon-dusted ridges of freshly fried churros. It was a mesmerizing sight, one that transformed a patch of otherwise-empty asphalt.

When authorities shut down the not-quite-nightly Breed Street food fair some months ago, vendors were forced to accept a more itinerant existence. Where there was once an unrivaled concentration of street-food specialists is now a diaspora of barbacoa masters and pozole purveyors dispersed across several Eastside blocks. Veteran vendor Antojitos Carmen, meanwhile, found a permanent place for its movable feast.

It’s still sparse -- not much more than a half-dozen brick-red booths staring out onto César Chávez Avenue -- but Antojitos Carmen the restaurant is home nevertheless. After two decades spent hunched over sidewalk fryers, the Ortega family was recently able to move its operation indoors. The month-old restaurant already feels lived-in: Photos of Carmen Ortega’s hometown of Yurécuaro, Michoacán, adorn the walls; regulars pick up orders with mere nods of the head.


Menu mainstays

Carmen’s beloved Mexico City-style antojitos -- mostly masa-based snacks like sopes and gorditas -- remain the restaurant’s primary focus. Quesadillas can almost make a meal, either browned on the griddle or fried into empanada-like turnovers. Squash blossoms and chorizo-studded potatoes are fine fillings, but they don’t match the intensity of the earthy corn fungus huitlacoche, viscous and rich, oozing from the quesadilla like a lava flow.

Sandal-shaped huaraches -- oblong panes of fried masa daubed with beans -- are rigid and substantial. Here, they’re perhaps best topped with tinga, chipotle-soaked shredded beef, and chicharrón guisado, smoky flecks of brittle pig skin stewed in a tomato-based broth. Serious appetites might also consider the huarache gigante, which super-sizes the snack into something that could fit the foot of your favorite Laker.

The restaurant, however, isn’t limited to those street-style classics -- the Ortegas are cooking from a greatly expanded bricks-and-mortar menu. Antojitos Carmen is open for breakfast every day, which results in chilaquiles and plates of rice, beans and eggs. More impressive are the lunch specials, dishes like mole enchiladas and parchment-thin steaks that arrive with rice, beans and a bowl of soup.

Pambazos, spongy potato-and-chorizo sandwiches whose chile-dipped slabs of bread are charred on the grill, still reign, but there’s now a whole cast of tortas. Try the torta milanesa. The overloaded sandwich isn’t filled with the limp breaded beef you encounter elsewhere, but a filet that’s fried until it fractures like crisp, herb-rubbed bacon. Burritos and tacos are present too.

Weekends see a quartet of specials: goat barbacoa, pozole, carnitas and migas, a bread-thickened soup only tenuously related to the Tex-Mex breakfast of that name.

Be it one of those weekend specials or a light workday lunch, every meal at Antojitos Carmen should be accompanied by a cup of walnut atole, a spiced, masa-enriched drink that’s like a hot, full-bodied horchata.

Inside looking out

A rift formed months ago when Antojitos Carmen and the Breed Street vendors were cast out of their parking lot in part because of complaints from nearby restaurants. So is it strange for Antojitos Carmen to have its own restaurant? Not for Carmen’s son Abe. The Ortegas opened it, he says, for their fans and friends who have long wanted a more reliable source of Carmen’s antojitos, one that wouldn’t be interrupted by the occasional legal sweep.

Besides, even with this newfound permanence, Antojitos Carmen still sets up on the sidewalk around the corner from its restaurant every night, the Ortegas bringing their food back to the people who helped put them in their current two-kitchen position. It’s cooking with respect and gratitude.

And as Abe peeks outside now, rain pouring down in slanted sheets, he looks eagerly to the street.