Putting your restaurant's most famous menu offering right into the name of the spot can be a tricky proposition. When done well, it's a mark of accomplishment (and perhaps a bit of braggadocio), but when the namesake huaraches or antojitos fail to wow the crowd, there's always a bigger sense of disappointment.
Thankfully, there are places like Tacos Al Pastor and Mariscos Jalisco that have reached a near-pinnacle in their aptly named operations, and ordering anything other than what's so boldly stated can seem like a fool's gambit. This is not the case at Carnitas Michoacan.
Granted, the carnitas from this Lincoln Heights spot work wonders inside a tortilla. The long-simmered pork is robustly rendered in its own fat, then plied off into a double stack of corn tortillas. These are big carnitas bites, robust and satisfying in that meaty way that you feel the moment the pig hits your tongue, but lacking the crispy fried edges that send a taco like this over the top. The dark red salsa negra certainly helps to add another level to your towering carnitas tacos, rich with smokiness and the light spice of a good chipotle pepper. Again, for being a daily carnitas operation, these tacos certainly are tasty.
There are other tacos at Carnitas Michoacan worth talking about, perhaps more so than their name would imply. The cabeza is a surefire winner, a pile of extremely moist stewed beef laid on thickly with a mouth-tinging salsa roja. The juicy bites of cow come off almost as a roast, with the salty back end and satisfying texture of a slow-cooked hunk of beef. You'd also do well to grab a buche taco or two, depending on your affinity for all things offal.
While buche is certainly a less-frequented cut around town, when done delicately, as it is here, the results can be quite satisfying. Large chunks of soft stomach are piled into two lightly griddled tortillas and laced with a mellow salsa verde. Each bite is earthy and clean, without any twinge of gaminess or "what have I gotten myself into?" flavors. Newcomers to the buche realm will certainly appreciate the subtle, well-executed version presented at Carnitas Michoacan, with a fatty texture more akin to pork belly than the rubbery chewiness found at less skilled operations.
But after all that taco talk, it's likely you haven't even stumbled upon perhaps the best single menu item available at Carnitas Michoacan -- the carne asada fries. Largely a San Diego delicacy, a few iterations of these fries have made their way north, usually in some from of cheap imitation. The supremely cheesy version that arrives inside a styrofoam box is unique to Carnitas Michoacan, but no less worthy of the praise.
Freshly cut crinkle cut fries retain a pillowy interior while still giving sufficient crispiness to their wavy exteriors. The carne asada is chopped into long, thin strips, the perfect size to gab onto globs of the pale yellow molten cheese. Whereas more restrained carne asada fries opt for guacamole, sour cream and a handful of shredded cheese blend, Carnitas Michaoacan goes all seventh-inning-stretch with a baseball stadium level of nacho cheese overdose.
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Yet, theirs is somehow thicker, more put together and much less oily, with a jalapeño spice that sneaks up on you and then won't let go. There are a few token pickled carrots and half a pepper tossed inside the box, but they're entirely unnecessary. Grab a heaping forkful of asada, fries and velvety jalapeño cheese and cram it in your mouth all at once. It's all you need, and far more satisfying than its humble looks imply.
Carnitas Michoacan is a bit of a mystery, at least in terms of nomenclature. In a city teeming with quality carnitas outposts, this colorful Lincoln Heights local spot wouldn't crack a Best Of list, even if their porky tacos are satisfying. Yet their less-heralded options, the buche, the cabeza and that beguiling box of carne asada fries, are certainly worthy of discussion. Then again, you can't exactly change the name to Buche Tacos, Cabeza Tacos and Carne Asada Fries Michoacan.
1901 N. Broadway, Lincoln Heights (map)