Carnitas Los Reyes - Orange
Criss-crossing metal bars protect grimy windows. On the glass, the words Burritos, Tortas, Tacos, Combination Plate! are stenciled in neon colors. Touted as one of the best taquerias in Orange County by OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano, fellow blogger Diamond Dog and others, this is Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange. But the joint wouldn't be out of place in a dusty border town. After I stepped inside, I half expected "El Mariachi" to breeze in after me, toting a guitar case and a wink.
The menu -- scribbled with markers on whiteboards precariously hung above the counter -- features buche, lengua, and al pastor variations on everything from tacos, to tortas, and quesadillas.
A faded mural depicted an idyllic ranch scene, but the room I stood in was as hot as the Sonoran Desert. This was because it shared the same boxy space as the kitchen. The heat from the glowing red bulbs of the radiative lamps, the bubbling deep fryers, and the sizzling griddles kept every square inch at one constant temperature: hovering somewhere between ninety degrees and hell.
But despite the sweaty workspace, the gentleman who took my order was surprisingly upbeat without a trace of fatigue. He was just as old as I was, but much happier and jollier than I would have been if I had just pulled an eight-hour shift in that sweat-box of a room.
I asked for some carnitas tacos, but he informed me that it'll be another twenty minutes before the next batch is ready.
"Two al pastor tacos then," I said.
"Everything on it?" he grinned.
"Yup! Thanks!" I replied.
Another guy, whom I will call "The Assembler," prepared my order. With a cleaver, he hacked hunks of pork into tiny pieces, and spooned fistfuls of the meat, some onions, and cilantro with one hand and onto the other, where two warm tortillas were waiting. He moved at whiplash speed and with the same deft movement of a master sushi chef.
In a blur, after stuffing each taco, he rolled the tortilla into a tube, tucking one side into the other, and then wrapped it in paper and foil.
My take-out order included a paper sack crammed with chips, a cup of fresh-milled salsa for scooping, and some pickled carrots balled up in Reynolds Wrap.
Each overstuffed taco sold for an insane price of one buck. The Al Pastor Taco, which is described as "BBQ Pork", is composed of chunky bits of roasted pork, marinated in a caustic brew of spices. Although not as spicy or rich as other al pastor tacos I've had, it still did its duty as a full-fledged and authentic taco, especially after a few hits of El Tapatio. I only needed two of these obese pouches to quench my hunger, where usually it would take five.
Next visit, I'll be trying their namesake carnitas, and the chorizo, which Senor Arellano describes as "cooked in oil that looks and feels like transmission fluid but tastes like a thousand spicy hogs."
Carnitas Los Reyes
273 S Tustin St
Orange, CA 92866