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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - Carnitas Heaven (Combo Hell)

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

I’ll just say it simply: LA rocks Mexican food. With the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City based in the City of Angels, we are blessed with a preponderance of high-quality, authentic grub (at least based on my uneducated Chinese taste buds). Granted, we’ve neutered it a little bit, spreading our gospel of burritos and hard-shell tacos, but nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without stumbling across a good homestyle meal that sticks to your insides.

Because of the level of quality of Mexican food in the area, a restaurant must truly be exceptional to garner praise. Thus, I set my expectations extraordinarily high for my visit to El Farolito, Citysearch’s 2006 editorial choice for best Mexican food in Orange County, and a hugely popular pick on the Chowhound boards. (“Best” Mexican food in OC should of course be caveated, since authentic cuisine of any kind is so much harder to find in the ‘burbs). The verdict: mad love for the carnitas, everything else not so much.

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Situated in Old Town Placentia – yeah, Old Towns actually do exist in OC, it’s not all tract homes and strip malls, even if 'old' means pre-1970 – El Farolito has the charm (read: minimalist décor, old building) of the typical family restaurant you’d find in East LA, with Rivera-like prints on the wall and friendly service. The menu is similar to what you’d find at most Mexican restaurants. However, according to both the servers and the menu, the carnitas are what make the place famous.

Problem is that carnitas are not typically one of my go-to dishes, since I’m not a heavy meat-eater. So me being the stubborn dolt that I am ordered the dreaded combination plate (also known as the gringo special) so I could try a few different things. Thankfully, my friend Amy wisely went with our waitress’ recommendation and got the carnitas.

The carnitas are served as is, alongside a healthy portion of refried beans and rice, as well as fresh pico de gallo. But the truth is that the carnitas don’t need any additional flavor. As Amy let me mooch off her plate, I was blown away by the tenderness and juiciness of the meat on my first bite. Absoultely succulent. The meat was heavily seasoned, which may be a turnoff for those that don’t like salty dishes, but was a huge bonus for me. If there was a Real World-style camera following my mouth, you would have likely seen my mouth pucker up in reaction to the sensory overload from the overwhelming savory goodness. Yet the meat wasn’t heavy at all, seemingly light on oil or lard. However, El Farolito also serves the carnitas crispy-style if you ask, for those that need that fried feeling in their stomach.

As far as my gringo special is concerned, it was pretty ordinary. The pork tamale was tasty (apparently they know their pork) but contained too much masa and not enough filling. The chicken enchilada was also pretty good, not overly doused with sauce, but a little sweeter than I prefer, as if it were trying to be a mole dish without taking out all of the tomatoes and chiles. Steer clear of the beef taco; apparently they sucked all of the moisture out of the ground beef and stuck it in the carnitas, as the meat was horribly dry and flavorless. Blech, combo plates.

The moral of the story? Stick to the specialty; it’s famous for a reason. And El Farolito has justifiably earned its reputation for its carnitas.

El Farolito
201 S. Bradford Ave.
Placentia, CA 92870

Photos by Amy Yang

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