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January 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Carnitas

Carnitas Tacos - Border Grill Left, El Nopalito Right Dominic Armato

As somebody who tries to be non-discriminatory when it comes to the source of my food, I find myself defending both ends of the spectrum. Some people don't understand why anybody would want to pay for decor in a fine dining restaurant, and some don't understand why you'd want to eat at some dingy-looking joint in a strip mall. While those reading here probably don't embody either extreme (or they wouldn't stick around), I came across a great example this past week for the latter.

Above, plates of carnitas tacos from two restaurants. On the left, the Las Vegas outpost of Border Grill. On the right, El Nopalito of Phoenix. Both included three tacos of approximately equal size, beans and rice. The tacos on the left were served in a stylish and modern room in the Mandalay Bay casino. The tacos on the right were served in a nondescript strip mall near downtown Phoenix. The tacos on the left were from a kitchen overseen (to some degree) by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of early Food Network's Two Hot Tamales fame. The tacos on the right were from a kitchen overseen by... well, I have no idea. The tacos on the left cost $16. The tacos on the right cost less than $5. The tacos on the left were decent. The tacos on the right were much, much better.

Really, everything about them was better. The flavor of the El Nopalito carnitas was more intense, more porky, more engrossing. The El Nopalito carnitas had that great mixture of crispy and succulent textures, where the Border Grill carnitas were simply soft. Even the tortillas -- billed as handmade but suspiciously shaped in perfectly cut circles at Border Grill -- had better flavor and a freshly-griddled texture at El Nopalito.

And this is why the hardcore food nerds who seek out the dives have a hard time understanding the appeal of a place like Border Grill. To be clear, I like Border Grill. I have for a long time. Though this was the first time I've eaten there in probably six or seven years, I've spent many a meal in both the Santa Monica and Las Vegas locations and I'm sure I'll be back again. I know they turn out some great food. But even for me, somebody who has had positive feelings for the place for a very long time, the question has to be asked -- is the pretty room worth paying more than three times as much for tacos that are half as good? There isn't a right or a wrong answer. Though the focus here may be on the food, other elements factor into a great dining experience and what matters to you is a very personal thing. And I'm not the least bit opposed to spending some dining dollars on the surroundings. I'm unfazed by plenty of fine dining establishments where it's clear that at least a third of my check is going to the room. But if you've ever wondered why some people -- myself included -- spend so much time slumming it in the strip malls, this is why.


Great to see you, Dom! I hope the move went well.

As a fellow devote of classic carnitas and all things Mexican (a by-product of a San Diego upbringing), I have always viewed suspiciously "upscale" take on tacos and other traditional "street food". It's not that it can't be good if someone makes a more refined version (the universal praise of Bayless's efforts in this area as a notable exception to the rule), its just that the dishes are good the way they are, and are not in big need of improvement, and high end tricks like inserting a higher end piece of meat or messing with the salsas don't necessarily make them better.

Enjoy the variety of such good establishments in Phoenix.

If you haven't already, try the flour tortillas at Carolina's near downtown Phx. Its been a while since Ive lived in the area, so I cant vouch that the quality of food has remained constant, but I would suspect that their tortillas (for which they are most well known) are still worth the trek.

Thanks, Naomi! Good to be back. The move went great and we're settling in, so hopefully things should get a little busier around here :-)

Anon Man... Yeah, I generally share your suspicions. Not about upscale Mexican in general, but about certain foods that are just inherently downscale. They can be elevated, but it's an uphill battle. In Border Grill's defense, however, this was one of the simpler lunch items. Their dinner menu includes the sorts of dishes that I think are better suited to midrange and upscale Mexican. Of course, the frustrating thing is that if they can do that well, they ought to be able to do carnitas well.

Saxdrop... will do. We're in Arcadia, just north of the airport, so they're actually pretty close for me.


Just to clarify, I'm not saying Mexican can't be upscale, but I am saying that the most popular Mexican items in this country are generally downscale by nature.

On a lark, I wanted to see if Bayless has carnitas on his menus. I didn't find any right now, but I found this recipe for "carnitas".


If you're going to make street food your own, changing the protein is a pretty good place to start.

If you're going to make street food your own, changing the protein is a pretty good place to start.

And cooking with six cups of fresh, rich-tasting pork lard is a pretty good second step, too.

I am a huge fan of Mexican food. When I was in Chicago I had to go to either Frontera or Topolobambo- there was less of a wait at Topolo, so that's where we ate. The food was very good- certainly no complaint about the taste- but I have had better for MUCH less money. Next time I will go to Frontera where the items are cheaper and probably just as good.
And I would say that's true for a lot of food types- there's a fish shack near me that has the best lobster roll around (I'm in CT, so it's a hot roll with butter)- sometimes the dive places can be just as good or better tasting than the high end. It doesn't mean the higher scale place is bad and not worth going, to me it just means you shouldn't exclude the dives.


While in Ensenada the $1 carne asada from a truck and the fish tacos on the pier were FAR superior to any restaurant food we ate and much cheaper.

But I've also had some mighty fine food at Zarela in NYC (not upscale per se but certainly not a dive).

I've never been to Border Grill, but El Napolito is an unsung hero in Central Phoenix. I suggest trying the mole enchiladas sometime. It's another dish in which the little kitchen there produces a dish of unexpected complexity.

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