In this town, it's generally assumed that the further east you travel, the better the Mexican food. Of course, there are any number of exceptions to this rule (see also: El Chato, squarely planted in Mid-City), but it's safe to say that crossing under one of those vibrant blue neighborhood signs that reads East Los Angeles is a good indicator of a tasty lunch.
Right on the Western edge of that section of East LA, that abuts with Boyle Heights, sits Los Cinco Puntos. A squat and vibrantly painted building that overlooks a confluence of five different streets—Cinco Puntos means "the five points"—these guys are at once a neighborhood small grocer, local lunch spot, and takeaway dinner destination.
Like any good Mexican meat market, you can have your choice of cut by the pound, or order up a burrito, quesadilla or taco instead. While there's no place to sit (unless you count the curb, which you should), it is highly recommended that you get in line for a few tacos then and there, instead of waiting to take your meat home with you.
Why's that? Simple: the homemade corn tortillas. Made by hand from a bevy of elderly, hard-working women, each slab of masa is given ample time on a flat top grill the size of a truck bed. As many as two dozen tortillas might be going at once, firming up from their time on the griddle while still retaining an impossible airiness. These warm, pliable tortillas simply won't wait for your drive back across town. They are possibly the best homemade tortillas I've ever had, and they deserve to be eaten on the spot.
"If it's meat you're looking for, Los Cinco Puntos should be the five-pointed star on your map."
If it's meat you're looking for, Los Cinco Puntos should be the five-pointed star on your map. You can't walk into the joint without running headfirst into the finished meat counter; a steamy, streaky window that offers up freshly cooked piles of nearly a dozen different cuts. From snout to stomach to trotters, you'll find pretty much any slice of pig you can imagine, and the heaping piles of deeply browned carne asada sure seems to indicate its popularity as well.
Deep in the back, past the counter and the lovely ladies with their hands full of future tortillas, a bubbling copper cauldron gets the occasional jostle from a passing worker. After a while, whole shoulders of pig are removed from the shimmering vat, turned onto the gigantic plancha for a quick crisping up, and set into the window. The way that steady line keeps ordering the carnitas, it's no surprise that the workers don't even bother to label the meat they pull from the vat and place in the window. Everyone knows why they're here.
Don't expect to leave hungry, even if you've only ordered a couple of tacos. Each is a massive pile of protein resting on a substantial corn tortilla. You'll probably want two at the most, although the adventurer in you might be tempted to order a third and make that the weird one. If that's your plan, I would highly recommend the buche, a pale, soft cut of esophagus/stomach that pairs perfectly with a zippy salsa verde. It is satisfying without being overwhelming, and the velvety bites go down so easy you will hardly notice how full you've gotten.
Otherwise, stick with the carnitas, carne asada or suadero. Each offer their own push towards perfection, especially the suadero (rib meat) which is cooked on the rib and chunked off one order at a time. But, if you could only have one, go with the carne asada. It is a taste to be reckoned with; the strips of pounded flank steak are cut wide and irregularly, leaving plenty of room for crispy browned corners to emerge and engage your tastebuds. The chunks are still big enough to maintain an incredible amount of juice as well, and without such a hefty tortilla, this might otherwise be a problem.
At Cinco Los Puntos, the carne asada is a call from up above. And when paired with the long strips of pickled nopales and a vibrant red salsa roja, the combination is an incredible taco that eats like a meal.
Los Cinco Puntos is an absolute Los Angeles treasure. As a gateway into East LA (both figuratively and literally, with their location along Cesar Chavez Blvd.), there is no better messenger to herald the call of the authentic taco than this hardworking, boxy building. Inside, a team of wonderful women are waiting to point you in the right meat direction, take care of your homemade tortilla needs, and deliver you a finished taco that is among the best you'll find not just in Los Angeles, but anywhere.
Los Cinco Puntos
3300 E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., East Los Angeles (map)