This week was an epic showdown of Los Angeles porkdom for the Rum & Biscuits blog.
Following the publication of our list chronicling all of our favorites, recos, and bucket lists from the food world, we couldn’t help but notice that our most highly anticipated dish to try and our second favorite food item to date shared a wonderful trait: their parents were pigs.
While the carnitas came in an established (if untested) defending champion, it was impossible to call the chicharron an underdog. The hype was real. Broken Spanish had graced every trending food list in the city, their prodigal chef crowned the Grand Cochon “King of Porc” in 2014; they’d been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown as a vanguard of progressive Mexican cuisine, and had finally won us over for good with a showcase on the latest season of Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate – their first in HD, naturally. The 405 freeway could only contain us for so long after that.
We finally made it over
It’s safe to say we’ve never experienced a dish like the Broken Spanish chicharron. We, like so many, usually think of something akin to cracklins – deep fried pork skin that you eat like chips. But this creation was far more beautiful and confusing, blurring the lines of meat and fat.
Peaking shyly from beneath a wig of microgreens, the heritage pork belly enveloped us in a cloud of garlic as soon as it was set on the table. It was as though we were rolling, hands at our sides, through an herb garden. Surely, this was to be expected: long before it had reached us and even prior to the fryer, the meat would have been wrapped around shavings of elephant garlic – like cinnamon roll dough around the cinnamon – and slow cooked in garlic confit for 24 hours.
The first bite only compounded the effect. Even with a bit of heat from the toasted arbol chile rub, the porcine slab was like a garlic potato chip compound butter, a description which – appropriately – has layers.
The outer crust of pork skin had lived up to the reputation of an elevated deep-fried classic. It was a glistening candy shell of savory subtle nuttiness, as light, crisp and precious as a communion wafer.
And the rest, as moistly herbal as it was, was y’know, congealed fat.
Now don’t get us wrong, there’s a place for congealed fat! But pork-dish-to-pork-dish, Mercado’s carnitas are the city’s best.
Are we comparing apples to apples? Not exactly – as much as our gastroenterologist would prefer that. The pork belly of the Broken Spanish chicharron and the pork shoulder typically used in slow-cooked carnitas are vastly different cuts. Not accounting for the additional fat for frying or braising, a slab of belly is going to be pound-for-pound about 40% higher in fat content than the shoulder.
But at the core of the exercise, we weren’t voting for a better preparation of pork in any case. Rather, we were underscoring the dismay we felt with the relative lack of hype circulating Mercado – just two years older than Broken Spanish – for what we felt was an even better and just as unique pork heavyweight on the menu.
And the Mercado carnitas were special.
Served on a spartan plate of charred cauliflower and broccoli, deep, chocolatey salsa brava and two dollops of guac, the mountain of Salmon Creek pork succumbed to the gentle blunt pressing of your fork like a relieved hug.
It’s purple-brown slopes and crispy black peaks were as sticky and sweet as a teriyaki glaze, but balanced with the salt and heat of roasted chiles, a touch of acidity mellowing the rich, succulent threads of meat lying just beneath the surface.
Hardly a surprise that a dish so legendary is almost literally so: the product of a recipe dating back generations in the Acevedo family, and about which little more is divulged in dozens of online postings.
While there’s no denying the talent behind Broken Spanish, (and the talent with pork in particular from a chef who delivered dishes like “pork ceviche” and pork shoulder-legs-and-fatback huaraches to win a national competition), the simple, balanced, intimidatingly generous carnitas of Mercado make it the must-do for your L.A. pig meat needs – be they specifically Latin-inspired or more general.
Now, do either establishment over-perform outside of pork? You’re probably reading the wrong post if you’re wondering this, but we’re happy to indulge. Mercado, for one, offers some of the best chips and guac in town – while the guac is on the lime-forward part of the spectrum, the chips are astoundingly thick and clearly-fresh fried, the richness from the oil negating any flavoring beyond a mild salting. Could eat them plain, in fact. Their Dos Gringos tacos are some of the best we’ve enjoyed; their offering of Mexican wine and margaritas, including Happy Hour, are just as strong.
As for Broken Spanish, well, you’ll have to read the latest update to The List 🙂
Until then, keep it Westside for the pork and pay a visit to the fine folks at Mercado as soon as you can!