First and foremost, Los Cinco Puntos is a carniceria, or butcher shop, that has been serving the East Los Angeles community for well over forty years. Once inside, your senses are greeted by the sight of the steamy glass display cases showcasing every imaginable cut of meat, as well as the smell of homemade tortillas being heated to order. Most of the people in line were ordering carnitas and other pig parts by the pound, pairing it with freshly made masa to to be transformed into tortillas for at-home tacos. The Boyle Heights mainstay (it’s named after the five point intersection of streets it occupies a corner on) is also one-part corner store, offering packaged goods, drinks, and a few stray piñatas just in case you’ve procrastinated on your party planning duties.
On this particular occasion I was looking for immediate satisfaction so I skipped buying in bulk and instead ordered three tacos: carne asada, carnitas, and chicharron. At LCP, employees complete each customer’s order from start to finish, a personal touch lost in the speed-obsessed assembly-line era of Chipotle and the like. Each taco begins with a hand-pressed and warmed tortilla, which serves as the base for meats that are cut to order. From there, your taco is brought over to the salsa bar, where you have your pick of four or five different salsas in varying hues and heat, as well as toppings like pico de gallo, guacamole and pickled nopales.
I first discovered the greatness of chicharròn during my college days when I’d drive from Irvine to Santa Ana for tacos at El Toro (another carniceria), where the fried pork skin with chunks of meat attached (“grueso“) oozed enough cholesterol-spiking oil to soak through the double tortillas and turn the white butcher paper translucent. While those tacos certainly helped ease the constant hunger of a broke college student, the version at Cinco Puntos has them beat by a long shot. The fragile, almost brittle pieces of skin are responsible for the initial shatter when you take a bite, but it’s the meatier pieces that carry the deep, porcine essence. I went with a salsa verde for its acidity to cut through the over-the-top oily richness of the pork.
For a place whose calling card is everything pork (literally snout to tail), the carne asada was outstanding. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender with just enough chew to it, and the roughly chopped pieces picked up a delectable char from the grill. The smokey salsa roja was an ideal compliment for the flavors of the meat, while the slivers of pickled cactus added a pleasingly tart crunch. Unexpectedly some of the best carne asada in recent memory.
Any time Los Cinco Puntos is mentioned, the conversation manages to find its way to their carnitas, revered as some of the best around in Los Angeles. Personally, I didn’t find them to be quite as awe-inspiring as advertised, although they were certainly enjoyable and better than most. My mistake may have been loading up on the pico de gallo and guacamole, which may have masked the deep, roasted flavors of the pork. I thought the meat could’ve also been a touch crispier around the edges, but that of course is a matter of preference.
Los Cinco Puntos might be the farthest east I’ve traveled for tacos thus far, and the payoff was a level of authenticity not found anywhere in my regular mid-city realm. The customer base was comprised entirely of locals, and there was seemingly little effort to cater to “outsiders”. In my eyes, this is a HUGE plus. Still, the staff was incredibly friendly and helpful, ensuring nothing short of a great experience. With no seating inside, your options for eating on the premises are limited to a short metal counter out front, or the trunk of your car like the true OG’s were doing. You might even ignore the sign prohibiting alcoholic beverages, as I noticed one group doing, and take a quick swig from your brown paper bag to wash down the thick tortillas and pristine pork. When in East LA, do as East LA does.
Los Cinco Puntos
3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90063
Dine date: Sun 12.15.13, 3:30p