Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Michoacanas Carnitas and the Rise of the Taco Truck

The taco truck is alive and well in Los Angeles. Despite a recent campaign by jealous restaurant owners to shut them down, the taco trucks prevailed. And now, one can find a truck serving tacos at almost any hour in one part of the city or another; if not all parts.

But why do you care about the taco truck? Unless you live in L.A. you probably don’t. So I guess the question is better off phrased, why do I care about the taco truck? I care for two reasons:

1) I like tacos.
2) I want to start my own taco truck…which won’t necessarily serve tacos.

As I am learning, taco trucks take lots of planning and preparation. Not to mention a nice chunk of change to get one up and running. So that friends is why I have taken so long to post another blog; I have been researching taco trucks.

And just the other day I actually did my first ride along on a real-life taco truck. The gentleman I rode along with is named Tito. Tito is a wonderful man who was very open and friendly. He answered all my questions and didn’t hesitate to give me advice. The folks on Tito’s route seem to really love Tito. As they poured out of factories and plants in the greater Glendale area, they all greeted Tito by name and seemed generally glad to see him. Tito would chat with them about their families and their weekend, in both Spanish and English, as if they were old friends.

But while Tito is the face and personality of the truck, Alisia is the heart of it. Alisia is Tito’s cook. And what a cook she is!
Starting at 4am Alisia arrives at the truck and begins cooking beef tongue, tacquitos, al pastor, “grilled” chicken (which may well be the best grilled chicken I’ve ever had…and the most fattening.) soup, oatmeal and a whole host of other things. And it is all delicious. Not just kinda good, but deeeeee-lish-us!

While drooling over all of Alisia’s dishes in the warming box of the taco truck, I was taken back when I saw carnitas! For those of you not knowing better, carnitas is kinda like Mexican BBQ (pulled pork for all of those non-southerners out there). I wasn’t taken aback because carnitas is a hard to find delicacy; in fact, about any taco place worth its weight in Tapatio, has carnitas. But rather b/c I was under the assumption that carnitas needed to be slow cooked in an oven, and taco trucks don’t have ovens. This is when Alisia explained in brokenesque English that she fried the pork.

In case you missed that, SHE FRIED THE PORK! Being that fried and pork are my two favorite flavors I was eager to learn more.

Alisia went on to tell me that the carnitas she cooked was Michoacanas style carnitas. What this means is that this is essentially a pig confit. The pork cooks in its own fat giving it all the piggy flavor one could ever desire.

Should you ever find yourself in the industrialized section of Gelendale, might I recommend trying to search out Tito and his truck. The search for the pig will be well worth your time.
In the future I will develop a southern version of this pig and if it is delicious as I think it can be, well, you can come buy it on at my truck!

Should you wish to try this on your own, here’s a recipe I put together from several recipes I found online.

WARNING: There is very little safe about this process.

Michoacanas Carnitas

3 pounds pork shoulder chopped into 3” pieces.
1 lb of lard
12-16 oz of coke, orange juice or water

Melt the lard in a large pot. When lard is nearly smoking, pour the liquid into the oil. Yeah. The oil will then pop like an erupting volcano. This is no exaggeration. Explosions leapt out of the pot about 4 feet into the air. Take caution because you are going to get burned. The severity of your burns depends one your safety measures. I put a screen in front of my face and wrapped a towel around my arm and thus minimized the blisters on my skin the next day. Give the oil and liquid time to re-heat and then add the pork. Let pork cook in oil that remains at about 250 degrees for 90 minutes. Stir occasionally. When the meat reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees, remove from oil, drain, shred and eat.

As Southern As Mango Ice Tea

Recently, a friend suggested we have lunch at Baby Blues in West Hollywood. Not being one to say no to southern food, I took her up on her suggestion. Not to mention I had only heard marvelous things about the flagship store in Venice and had been wanting to try it for some time.

So last Saturday* my friend and arrived just as they were opening for business. We were promptly greeted and taken through a dining room decorated just like a southern dining room. Well, maybe not exactly, but exactly like the dining room in the head of someone who has read a lot about the south but maybe never actually spent too much time there. Nonetheless, the restaurant’s décor was lots of fun: a scattering of knickknacks, mismatching chairs, bottles of pepper vinegar at every table and even more mismatching chairs hanging from the ceiling (a very wise move I thought to myself for 2 reasons: 1- All southerners have chairs hanging from nails on their ceiling. 2- because those patrons not killed by flying furniture in the next earthquake will need a place to sit and regroup once it’s over).

Within seconds of us taking our seats, we were greeted by our very cheerful and friendly server. So far we had been at Baby Blues for 45 seconds and already had been greeted, sat and then greeted again. I was really starting to like the place.

The bubbly lass took our drink order. I ordered my standard ice tea. And then I heard the phrase that one just doesn’t hear outside of the south (and even then, it is only uttered in select parts of the south), “Sweet or un-sweet?” What? Sweet tea?! Are you kidding me? IT HAS ARRIVED!!! I truly hadn’t been this excited since I saw the giant billboard back in ’98 announcing the arrival of Bush Light Draft to California.

Like any good southerner I ordered it sweet. But to have sweet tea is not enough. I mean, let’s face it, any moron can make the stuff, its just tea, sugar and water after all. But making good sweet tea is an art that takes time and precision to master. Some (my darling mother who I love dearly being among them) never get it right no matter how hard they try. In fact, another common phrase often used when discussing dining establishments in the south is, “How’s their tea?” This is either answered by replying that the tea is good or “get a coke.” Note “coke” is not capitalized. For in the south, “coke” refers to any kind of soda, pop, soft drink or whatever your region of the world calls it, not just that brown beverage made by the Coca Cola Co. But I digress.

While our server disappeared to fetch my heavenly nectar, my friend and I perused the menu. Ribs, mac n cheese, gumbo, pecan pie and even Po’ Boys immediately stood out. This is one heck of a menu I thought as my smile got bigger and bigger. While everything on the menu looked great, I was here for one thing and one thing only. I was here for bar-b-q. Good ol’ NC style bar-b-q I had heard countless people talk about. And there it was…or was it?

I feel that any southern restaurant worth its weight in fatback must serve bar-b-q. But Baby Blues was serving up “pulled pork.” This concerned me a little. Yet, I overlooked it figuring it was a choice made by the menu writing folks at Baby Blues in order to make it easier for those patrons who could only read Californiaeese. Besides, my sweet tea had arrived making it hardly the moment to waste time splitting hairs. It was probably just an oversight, I thought. And with that I ordered the “pulled pork” sandwich while my dining companion ordered a shrimp Po’ Boy along with a country salad and an order of mac n’ cheese for us to split. Our server disappeared and excitedly I took a great big gulp of my sweet…what in the name of fatback is this! The milky concoction they were attempting to pass off as tea was made even worse by the fact Baby Blues sweetens their tea with brown sugar!

OK, I feel most anyone who has ever made sweet tea on any kind of a regular basis has had the original bright idea of sweetening tea with brown sugar. However, most of these amateur mixolgists only do it only once. You see, brown sugar dominates the flavor of the tea and causes an otherwise splendid beverage to taste like an herbal pancake and maple syrup smoothie.
The tea was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I have consumed oceans of tea. Most of it good, but also lots of bad. And this crap was hands down the worst to ever cross my lips. I flagged down my server and opted for un-sweet instead. Again, with lightening like speed, she appeared with my un-sweet tea. The cloudy mess she then served me couldn’t have been older than 2 weeks. I say this with a fair degree of certainty because the restaurant had only been open for about two weeks (otherwise I would have sworn this tea to have a vintage of 1997). But I was pretty sure this batch had been sitting around in a back closet since the grand opening and only this morning had been re-discovered.

Next out was our salad. While simple and visually unappealing, the salad was not bad for one comprised primarily of iceberg lettuce. Our server even brought us two mismatching plastic plates on which we could split it up (I honestly didn’t know my people were all about mismatching. I mean, at my house we always used plastic plates that varied in their degree of whiteness, but NEVER when company came around. Company got the good plates. And I would like to think Baby Blues thought of me as “company.”)

Just as we were finishing up our salad, our server arrived with our meals. And wow, there it was, a sesame seed bun stuffed with “pulled pork” and topped with a heaping helping of coleslaw. They didn’t put it on the side, oh no, they slapped it right on top of the meat like any good bbq place would do. God bless you Baby Blues. That’s how a sandwich should look no matter how you spell the meat that goes on it.

Wiping the drool from my chin, I glanced over at my friend’s Po’….nope. It was not a Po’ Boy. It was a shrimp sandwich. And albeit a tasty one, to call it a Po’ Boy was a disgrace. For the essential element in a Po’ Boy is the crispy French-style loaf that holds the meat. A multigrain bun is NOT a crispy French-style loaf. Not even close. The shrimp was also grilled opposed to fried. This I could live with in the name of health consciousness had it at least looked like a Po’ Boy, but it didn’t. But that was her problem. I had a sandwich with a slight identity crisis of my own to demolish.

My bun was indeed top notch and perfect for a bar-b-q sandwich. The coleslaw tasted every bit as good as it looked. But the bar-b-q left much to be desired. Slightly old tasting and lacking anything reminiscent of flavor, the shredded pig on my plate made this sandwich fall flat. A little bit of Baby Blues’s extra hot sauce helped the sandwich a lot. And though a little thicker than the typical eastern NC style sauce that I like most, it was genuinely a good sauce. And genuinely a very hot one. The hotness burned away my taste buds and made it possible for me to choke down the rest of the poor pig that was never allowed to reach its full potential.

I also mentioned a side of mac n’ cheese. But mushy noodles void of clinging cheese and an excess of breadcrumbs made Baby Blues’s mac n’ cheese too pathetic to even write about.

Maybe I am naïve. Maybe “bar-b-q” has flavor and “pulled pork” is just its B-team, generic equivalent and the joke was indeed on me for hoping for somethng that I wasn't even technically ordering.

Because I’m a sucker for fantastic service, I’ll probably give Baby Blues one more shot. I can honestly say without a doubt that it is the best service I’ve had in any restaurant in a very long time. But its going to take a lot more than a friendly and attentive server to sway my opinion of this joint.

If you're looking for good southern food in LA, I'm afraid Baby Blues is not the answer. A much better place to start would be Harold & Belles. But if you don't really know better, Baby Blows just might be the spot for you. Enjoy and watch for flying chairs!

*Though I say I was there 2 weeks ago, this post has been sitting in my computer for about 2 months.