Just east of the LA River, hemmed in on all sides by a series of freeways headed every direction but here, sits Boyle Heights. There's nothing much to the name itself, but for many Angelenos, it conjures up a taste of Mexican food and an immediate pang of hunger. The beloved El Tepayec is up on Evergreen, while Guisado's sits just around the corner on Cesar Chavez Ave. Less than a mile east is Los Cinco Puntos, one of the undisputed carnitas kings of Los Angeles. And somewhere in this taco hotbed is Antojitos Carmen.
The Spanish term "antojitos"indicates a small street bite, something quick and savory that doesn't qualify as a full meal. As a result, the menu at Antojitos Carmen reads like a taster's choice, with a section dedicated to possible meats for any of the following concoctions: sopes, gorditas, huaraches, tacos, quesadillas—y mas! Indeed, the former cart turned upstanding Boyle Heights business offers everything from the workaday warm snacks its name implies to more substantial fare like burritos, tortas, and deep, welcoming stews. With so many great choices in one place, it's no big shame that the regular old tacos can't live up to the competition on their own menu.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the tacos at Antojitos Carmen. They arrive as medium-sized affairs, double-stacked with corn tortillas made just moments before. The chorizo is a worthy option, chopped loosely into large, crispy morsels of deep red pork. The carne asada is more subtle, lacking the punch of salt that often makes this cut so successful elsewhere. Otherwise, the birria is a pungent weekend-only option, but should only be reserved for those intrepid eaters accustomed to the deep funkiness that sometimes accompanies gamier cuts.
Thankfully, there's a whole menu left at Antojito's Carmen, full of heartier alternatives to the tacos. The huaraches, a longtime staple of Mexico City, are oblong disks of thicker, fried masa (the same stuff they use to make tortillas). The result is a sandal-shaped golden brown mini-platter, topped with black beans, corn, a heavy splash of thin sour cream, your meat of choice, and a dusting of Mexican cheese. Every bite has crunch and substance and warmth, without being overly filling. These are still antojitos, after all.
Forget what The Bell has taught you about gorditas; they're the real deal at Antojitos Carmen, and probably the best single menu item available. Thin round disks of masa are gently fried instead of griddled, pulling off the rare "crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside" feat that so many places miss. Draped around the same ingredients as the huarache, but in a tighter space with a higher concentration of meat, each bite of gordita is immensely satisfying. The normally reserved carne asada shines through here, once it's been given a little bit of help.
The next time you find yourself in Boyle Heights, don't overlook Antojitos Carmen as a viable alternative to the other well-trafficked Mexican spots in the area. The tacos may not stand up to much scrutiny, but the other menu options will fill you up right, antojitos or not.
2510 E. Cesar Chavez Ave, Boyle Heights (map)