Metro Balderas is a well-known taqueria in Highland Park. Actually, you might as well just say "it's a taqueria in Highland Park". The concentration of high quality tacos that come from this sliver of land northeast of downtown Los Angeles is remarkable, from the fantastically fried fish at Via Mar Seafood to the permanently parked La Estrella lonchero. What Metro Balderas is said to do exceptionally well, though, is carnitas.
In this town, nearly every truck, table, or take-out joint offers carnitas as an option. There are the everyday pork purveyors, who manage to put carnitas on the menu daily by quickly boiling and then flash-frying their shoulder cuts. Then there are the weekend warriors, who work large copper vats of bubbling lard over hours to ensure a fully rendered, succulent, perfectly porcine bite. And then there is Mexico City (aka Distrito Federal) carnitas, more of a preparation than a particular cut of swine, which is why places like Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo in Santa Ana offer up a menu of braised edibles that runs from the snout to tail, and all the way inside the belly.
Metro Balderas is such a D.F.-style carnitas wonderland, lovingly named after a Mexico City subway stop. The carnitas here runs the gamut from thin and crispy to rich and fatty, but only on the weekends. The variation on flavors comes from all of the different pork parts that have been carnitas-ified in the back of the small orange shop.
For the everyday eater, maciza (pork shoulder) and costilla (ribs) are the most unassuming options, and those most commonly found on plates elsewhere. Anyone looking for something a bit more exotic can opt for the cuerito (skin), trompa (snout), oreja (ears), buche (stomach) and nana (uterus), each of which offer something unique when wrapped inside a tortilla.
A word of warning before moving forward: get to Metro Balderas early if you'd like to assure yourself some of the best cuts. Highland Park is Taco Town, after all, and the carnitas here is sold as large plates, inside tacos or bagged by the pound, which means it doesn't last long.
The maciza, a traditional pork shoulder, arrives as a pile of thick shreds, crisped at the edges from all that time in the boiling lard. The heftier bites share the same whisps of pinkish hue that you might find inside a slice of smoked pork butt, but at Metro Balderas it means you're getting a tender mound of juicy, perfectly handled meat. Another prime option is the trompa, or snout, which is served thickly cubed and eminently fatty. If you wanted pure wanton pork flavor with a rich layer of fat, but didn't feel like reaching all the way down to the belly, the sniffer is a good second option.
Elsewhere is the nana, a soft, rich, earthy concoction that tastes like pure porky fat, with none of the crispiness you might find with other cuts. But at Metro Balderas, there's really no need to pick favorites, since you can snag a little bite of everything by ordering the mixed taco. At once fried and soft, crispy, greasy, porky, thick and flavorful, ordering an early morning mixed carnitas taco is a surefire way to kickstart your morning. At around $2 a pop, any these outsized tacos are more then enough to keep one person fed for hours.
Venturing too far from the weekend pork can be a bit troublesome. The carne asada tacos are perhaps too dry, having been chopped into near dust and given no room to retain their juices. The suadero is a decent option, although some bites may find themselves a bit over-fried. You can also stray from the taco path with a huitlacoche quesadilla, a huge puffy fold-over of hand patted tortilla that emerges thick and golden from its time on the griddle. Inside is a stuffing of cojita cheese and crema, plus a few strands of lettuce to go along with the funky black corn smut.
If you're not a fan of creamy, cheesy, more than a little sloppy quesadillas, this may not be your best option. Stick with the pambazo instead, a griddled chorizo and papas mix inside a hearty roll that has been dipped in a red guajillo pepper sauce and then tossed onto the grill. It's like a torta, but all business.
Metro Balderas is one of the good guys, in a land of good guys known as Highland Park. Their carnitas are often ranked among the best in the city, alongside such heavy hitters as Los Cinco Puntos and Tacos Los Guichos. There is a common thread to each of these operations: dedication. Taking the time to select and stir, chop and braise, and let the porky flavors work for themselves takes simple dedication. Metro Balderas is doing it all for their carnitas, and at an incredibly high level.
5305 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park (map)