Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange -- A Cultural Parable [long]
I have passed by this place several times and often debated trying it out. It sits in a shifty strip mall in sort of a shifty part of Orange. Despite wanting to be an adventurous eater, I often chicken out when a place is too [forgive my lack of imagination] "ethnic." Something about the fear of food poisoning and the overwhelming sensation of being out of my safe familiar and vanilla element makes me cut and run to the nearest taco mesa. This despite my knowledge that the most legit mexican food often can only be found in the barrio. I read recs by gustavo in ocweekly and on squeezeoc, but i'm never really sure.
The gold standard for carnitas for me has always been el farolito in placentia. The trick there is to order them extra crispy. Just what your cardiologist ordered -- they fry the freakin' carnitas! But something about the fried, fatty, salty crispy pork product is just perfect, especially with the soft tortilla, a nice kick of spice and the unique bite of cilantro. But alas, P-Town is so far away...
So I braved past the lavanderia and the latino record store and ventured into Carnitas Los Reyes. The place was as intimidating as i had feared. A long line [a good sign] of work weary locals, and no one is speaking any english. They gave me a mixed look of wonderment and "oh crap, our secret has been discovered!" Feeling like a gringo intruder, I took my place in line and kept my eyes fixed on the telenovella on the TV set hanging in the corner. There were several day laborers standing around, apparently waiting for their order. I'm starting to wonder what the hell i'm doing in this place when I see a plate of carnitas tacos brought out. More importantly, I SMELL the aroma of these tacos as they pass and I know that I have to stay the course. The line moves along to the countertop over a glass case where all various cuts of meat sit. Behind the counter several men are working furiously. One chops the pork shoulder with a cleaver and the others work in tandem, almost on a production line, filling the orders. Tortillas are flying, beans being slathered onto torta bread and healthy doses of meats are being stuffed into burritos. Between the recent heat wave and the sweltering heat in the kitchen, these guys have to be dying. And here I am standing in line in a shirt and tie, sticking out like a sore thumb. I focus on the menu to avoid anymore awkward looks. It is written on a dry wipe board in marker and is rather extensive. I spy buche [pork stomach] and cabeza and note that you don't ever see those on the menu at taco mesa. I recall that the chicharon tacos are supposed to be heavenly but I'm a bit squeemish about pork rinds, even if you disguise them in a taco shell. This place has much more than just the namesake carnitas but I figure that ordering anything else would be like ordering chicken at a steakhouse. Besides, I had heard that this place had $1 tacos and that is what I came for.
All tacos are $1 each regardless of the filling -- with the exception for tacos dorados [fried tacos] which are $2.50 each or two with rice and beans for $5. I see another order come out and a table of paint-spalttered men have ordered no less than 2 dozen of the carnitas tacos. No rice. No beans. Just the tacos with a healthy bowl of salsa and the pickled peppers and carrots mix. That is what I'm going for.
By the time I get to the front of the line i have rehearsed in my head my order in spanish [thank god for that foreign language requirement in college!]. Just as I lunch into my premeditated statement, which was calculated to convey that *this* gringo has at least some culture ["hola che, podria me dar tres tacos de carnitas por favor"] a loud crash comes from the kitchen drowning out my words. The instinctual urge to take the opportunity to cut my losses and run like hell passes and I instinctively go with the decidedly gringo "tres tacos de carnitas por favor." Now, instead of sounding suave and purposely un-gringo, I sound like Al Gore. Much to my chagrin, the response is a question in spanish. "Con todo?" Phew, that was easy. "Si" says I. "Cebollas, salsa y cilantro?" Now, this isn't exaclty Quevado, but the stress of having a line of native speakers behind me makes my mind go blank for an awkward moment. "Si, si, por supuesto" I muster. He he, I'm holding my own here. In fact, I'm feeling a bit brave. Although the guy give me the total in spanish the register has a digital readout so I don't have to translate in my head. 3 bucks and change. what was i so worried about anyways?
Now, apparently if you are standing in line, it is because your order is to go. Otherwise, you would simply take a seat and the server would come take your order. But for some reason this slips my mind and I suddenly feel it necessary to tell the gentleman that my order is to go. I fumble mentally for the translation. "Uh, para salir, por favor." Then the laughing begins. The guy behind the counter and the gal taking out orders obviously find something funny. The few guffaws from behind me tells me that it is my mangled spanish. "No, amigo, es para *llegar*" the guy says with a smile. "Oh, lo siento" I say blushing, but at this point the wheels have come off my little spanish speaking adventure and I just default to english -- "I can never remember those informalities." To my astonishment, he responds in english, "no worries amigo, it is the same for us when we try to learn your language. You learn something new each time. Technically, para salir is correct, that’s just not how we say it."
I don't know if I just assumed that no one would speak english or if I was trying too hard not to stick out any more than I already was. But by now there are good hearted smiles all around and I had learned a valuable lesson: when in rome, you don't have to speak like the romans do. But if you do they will certainly understand when you butcher their language and appreciate that you made the effort. So I stand around like the others and wait for my order. When it finally comes, my new amigo walks over to the counter and says "tres tacos de carnitas." He winks at me and says: "Para llegar!"
The carnitas lived up to my expectations and more. Perfectly fatty and salty and somehow cooked so that they tasted like the extra crispy ones from el farolito. Onions and cilantro balanced out the spicy salsa that comes on the tacos. They included more salsa on the side, but these had a nice kick already. Therre is just something about the way they cook the cut of meat that enables it to retain all of its flavor. Many times, carnitas are too dry and bland. There must be something about the way they cook them. They come handily wrapped in yellow paper, which enables you to eat the taco without worrying about dripping all over yourself. And since these didn't get eaten until I got back to the office, I was a bit worried that tey would become soggy. My fear was unfounded. The tortilla held up well despite the smathering of salsa and the natural fatty juices of the carnitas.
Now the thing about cheap, legit tacos is this. They are usually the size of silver dollars. This is to be expected for the price tag, and this is what i figured i'd be getting at carnitas los reyes. Instead, for three beans and change, these tacos were muy hefty. They didn't skimp on the meat. That and the fact that they contained the equivalent of my target cholesterol for about a month had me in food coma after only two and a half. They also included a bag of tortilla chips obviously made on the premises, a container of some fresh salsa and the aforementioned carrot and pickled pepper mix. Carnitas heaven for just over 3 bones!
I’ve been back since, and will keep this one on my regular rotation [my arteries permitting]. But now I stroll in like a regular and play it cool. Nevertheless, the guy ringing me up always asks if I want my order para llegar.
Carnitas Los Reyes
273 S. Tustin Ave., Orange