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Meet L.A.’s Queen of Carnitas Succeeding In a Male-Dominated Taco Style

Her Michoacán-style carnitas are so tender, crispy, and sticky, that she's known to sell more than 1,200 pounds on Sundays alone. What sets her apart from other carnitas stars in L.A. is her commitment to making handmade corn tortillas, too. Her story of resilience is the stuff of taquera legends.

12:17 PM PDT on March 25, 2024

    Across the street from L.A.’s epicenter of piñatas on Olympic Boulevard and blocks from downtown’s skyscrapers is a massive cazo on the sidewalk with 800 pounds of glistening carnitas and a woman with a story to inspire. 

    The pork is perfectly rendered in its own fat, leaving your fingers sticky from her respective secret recipe that every carnitas abides by. Some say the only way to achieve that sticky caramelized texture is by adding Coca-Cola, orange juice, or milk. Others swear they only add salt. It’s all carnitas lore. What we do know is that these tender, crispy, and juicy tacos are served under a makeshift awning that provides shade for outdoor tables at the entrance to a parking lot. 

    For Guadalupe Baez, it’s clear why carnitas are a male-dominated profession. “Requiere mucha fuerza (it requires a lot of strength),” she explains. But it turns out strength was all she had and all she needed. 

    Guadalupe Baez. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

    Of all the taco disciplines, mastering carnitas is a laborious art akin to being a blacksmith of pork meat. It requires strength to maneuver heavy cazuelas with several hundred pounds of meat, taming heat during the coldest hours of the morning, and the skill to correctly cook the different cuts of meat in one batch. It requires patience, discipline, and tenacity, but most importantly, you must learn how to take the heat. 

    Recently divorced with a 13-year-old son named Gabriel and a three-year-old girl named Gabriela, she asked her brother, who learned carnitas from their cousins who sell them in Huetamo, Michoacán, to teach her. She found her own sazón and poured her savings into a deposit for a taco truck. She named it Carnitas Los Gabrieles after her children and headed to the streets. 

    A few months later, however, the pandemic would also take her truck and savings.

    “Perdi todo! (I lost everything)!” Baez tells L.A. TACO. “Mi marido, ahorros, y esperanzas (My husband, savings, and hopes).” 

    Carnitas Los Gabrieles serves all the pig.
    Carnitas Los Gabrieles serves all the pig, from snout to tail. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.
    Carnitas Los Gabrieles makes all their corn tortillas by hand, which gives her an advantage over other carnitas specialists in town.
    Carnitas Los Gabrieles makes all their corn tortillas by hand, which gives her an advantage over other carnitas specialists in town. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

    She would spend the better part of the following year with her kids at home with schools closed and jobs scarce until a friend told Baez about a small space available on Olympic across from the lively piñata and party favor stores where every inch of the sidewalk is already crammed with incredible food vendors. 

    Baez agreed with the parking lot owner and gave her carnitas a second chance with a small stove, a pot, and her kids. It’s all she had. 

    Three years later, Baez manages a multi-location carnitas business with her son, 18 employees, selling around 1,200 pounds of carnitas on Sundays alone, a second-weekend pop-up in the valley on Glenoaks and Arroyo in Pacoima, and is about to open up her first brick and mortar a few doors down on Olympic Boulevard. 

    “I wanted to give up so many times,” Baez recounts, “I clearly remember almost quitting when I dropped a bucket full of fresh salsa. I broke down and couldn’t stop crying. I thought to myself, what am I doing?!” But she didn’t give up.

    But even then, it didn’t happen so easily. In the first year, she was still perfecting her carnitas, learning how to manage a street business, acquire permits, and provide customer service without capital. During that time, she faced another setback: a YouTuber hoping for views called Carnitas Los Gabrieles, “the worst taco stand in L.A.” It didn’t get many hits, but for Baez, those few hits hurt her morale. 

    The tacos at Carnitas Los Gabrieles are loaded and stacked with meat.
    The tacos at Carnitas Los Gabrieles are loaded and stacked with meat. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.
    All aguas frescas at Tacos Los Gabrieles are made from scratch.
    All aguas frescas at Tacos Los Gabrieles are made from scratch. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

    “I wanted to give up so many times,” Baez recounts, “I clearly remember almost quitting when I dropped a bucket full of fresh salsa. I broke down and couldn’t stop crying. I thought to myself, what am I doing?!” But she didn’t give up. She couldn’t. She kept pushing forward with her carnitas and improving her taco stand. Whether it was determination or no other choice, she kept going. 

    What sets Carnitas Los Gabrieles apart, though, is the extra effort they put into their tacos, which most carnitas specialists skip. 

    Baez will flash fry the pork meat before simmering for hours to give it a crispier texture. While others stick to a few common and easier cuts of pork like maciza (pork butt), costilla (rib), buche (pork esophagus and sometimes belly), and cuero (pork skin), she prepares every cut from the snout down to the legs. And when that’s all done, she still makes it a point to be a rarity amongst L.A.'s carnitas pros: She’ll make fresh handmade yellow corn tortillas for every order. 

    Baez's goal is to “have people taste [the flavors] of her rancho because everything is freshly made in a rancho.”

    Baez standing in front of her stand, Carnitas Los Gabrieles. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

    Because of Baez's tenacity and perseverance, her sidewalk taco stand is slowly turning the piñata district into a world-class attraction thanks to YouTubers and influencers captivated by the sight of 800 pounds of carnitas simmering in a large metal cazuela on the sidewalk. She has had people come by from Denver, Hawaii, Miami, Spain, Oregon, and Iowa. 

    Even so, the haters still show up, maybe because she’s a woman, maybe because it’s her own flavor, maybe because they want to hate. But it doesn’t phase her anymore. She’s learned to take their heat, too.

    With a glistening smile and her head held high, Baez shares some new wisdom from her struggle this time. “I know my carnitas aren’t $100 bills for everyone to like. I’m here for whoever likes them,” she says. 

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