"I need a novio!” This is Leona. She’s standing by as I chow into her lush carnitas, basically slow-cooked pork on a plate loaded with frijoles, grated cotija cheese, avocado slices, pico de gallo, and rice, with a side of chips, corn tortillas, limes, red onions, and a couple of hot sauces. Ten bucks’ worth.
“I need a boyfriend,” she says. “I’ve been 14 years without one. He doesn’t have to be rich, just kind, honest. Find one for me!”
Leona is a kick. We’ve just met. Already we’re talking like old friends.
She’s running this whole place on her own. Even doing the cooking. It’s early evening. We’re in this ranch house–style building on the ragged edges of Lemon Grove, up by the blue-domed St. John’s church on Broadway. An airbag character in blue, advertising a car wash, flops and stretches across Broadway, like he’s yelling at us.
I came in here because, well, I remembered something about it. Not the name, not the green and orange paint job, but carnitas.
Actually, Carla reminded me. She called my cell. See if I had anything for tonight. Christmas is coming and the geese ain’t getting fat.
“Where are you?”
8035 Broadway, Lemon Grove
“Place called, uh, ‘El Pachanguero.’
“‘Pachanguero?’ That means ‘party animal,’ dude. You doing some Christmas partying without me?”
“Don’t worry. Just thought I might grab a bite of Mex.”
Don’t know why, but I’m finding myself on a Mexican kick lately. And even getting back into the straight, standard border-Mex stuff. I’ve missed it!
“As long as that’s all you’re grabbing. Hey! Is that the carnitas place? Remember? From Uruapan, Michoacán? Birthplace of carnitas? Place where they cooked the pork in lard? Get us some, Bedford. Do not even think of coming home without it.”
Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Swear this place did used to be called “Uruapan.” And their carnitas, they were certified wicked. They had huge ollas where they slow-cooked 1000 pounds of carnitas, they said, every week. In lard. And what I remember, they cooked their frijoles in lard, too. Wicked, wicked taste. And now you hear lard ain’t so bad for you after all. Hey hey! Carnitas rules again!
Plastic sign tacked to the wall outside says, “Now under new ownership. WELCOME to Pachangueros Grill. Mexican Cuisine.”
So I walked across the parking lot and into the kinda chalet entrance to this big room. Could see a sign saying “Karaoke. Baile con musica en vivo, las fines de semana.” (“Karaoke. Dance to live music on the weekends.”) And behind, clumps of bongos and music stands. Looks like this could be a fun place...Fridays, Saturdays, anyway.
It came from somewhere out back. Then this busy curly blonde lady in a red and black outfit and gold earrings appears around the door. Leona. And soon she’s got me at a table, and she’s telling how, yes, she lives in TJ. And she’s been to Las Pulgas (“the fleas”), my favorite dance place at the top of Avenida Revolución, in TJ. She has even danced on all four floors (banda, norteño, disco, versatile) in the club, where guys often as not wear their XXX Stetsons and boots, and the ladies go full finery. And, yes, she can dance the quebradita, the Mexican break dance I long to learn.
Wow. Fun atmosphere here. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the menu and the first thing I see is “Our specialty: Carnitas.”
“The new owners are from DF, Mexico City, but we still have the same cook, from Uruapan,” says Leona.
Whew. Carnitas. “Little meats” live to bite another day.
The menu lists six different sizes of carnitas. Serving for one costs $9.95. For two, $19.95, and on up to eight, for $79.95.
“But our dishes are piled so big, if there are two of you, order for one,” says Leona. “It will be enough.”
And, yes, when Leona wheels mine out on a black trolley from the kitchen, there is plenty. The oval plate is half filled with cheese-sprinkled frijoles (and they do taste like they’ve been cooked in lard) and rice. The other half has the shredded pork and pico de gallo and avo slices. Leona says the pork is cooked slow, low flame, for about four hours. It’s tender, all right. I know I should stuff it inside the hot corn tortillas, but man, I love just forking it right in the gob. Part of the recipe calls for orange juice in the meat. Preferably a bitter orange. Here, you certainly get the full garlic-onion-orange-juicy meat flavor. I order a bottle of Sangría Señorial to add to its nice winey taste.
Next time I could try some of their lunch deals, like the cheese enchilada with rice and beans for $4.95, or the green chicken enchilada with rice and beans for $5.45, or the $1.95 fish taco, or the mojarra fria (with rice and beans) for $10.99. But right now, these carnitas are more than enough to handle.
“So, Leona,” I say, wiping my mouth. “About this novio. We’ve got to find you a nice rich one.”
“I don’t care about money,” she says. “I have my little tiendita [convenience store] down there in Tijuana. I have my children. I know what work is. I just want a man who is not afraid of work, who is gentle and kind and honest. At times like this, Christmas, that’s what you long for.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Finding you a rich man may be easier.”
Turns out Pachanguero’s open Christmas day. Might bring Carla and rellies back for a Christmas dinner of carnitas. Why not? At least it would be different. And they might even have the karaoke going. Could turn into a karaoke Christmas. Merry Christmas, everyone!
8035 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Hours: 8 a.m.–9 p.m. daily (Friday and Saturday, till 10 p.m.)
Prices: Breakfast omelet with ham and cheese, $7.25; menudo (small), $5.25; with pig’s trotter, add $4; carnitas plates, from $9.95 for one to $79.95 for eight; cheese enchilada with rice, beans for $4.95, green chicken enchilada (rice, beans), $5.45; fish taco, $1.95; mojarra fria (rice, beans), $10.99; milanesa combo plate, $11.75; chile relleno, $3.50; carnitas burrito, $6.45
Bus: 856, 936
Nearest bus stop: Broadway, at Grove Street
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Lemon Grove Depot (at Broadway and Lemon Grove Avenue)