[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s a gloomy Sunday morning in early May. Nestled on the corner of Avenue 26 and Humboldt Ave in Lincoln Heights, Maria Pitones is posted up under an ez-up canopy, in an enclosed and industrial alley way. She is surrounded by tables and chairs set up diner style, and stands over a portable mini-stove, pouring in the perfect amount of flavorful carnitas fat into a large pot of frijoles and mashing slowly and carefully. Her son, Luis Pitones is standing over a flat top grill, warming tortillas, grilling some fresh cactus and standing alongside a cazo, a huge, semi-cone shaped, metal cooking pot, filled with some juicy, tender and perfectly spiced and flavored carnitas, cuero, and buche. It’s a first visit for me in my search for some good carnitas and it’s a regular weekend for Luis, working alongside his mom and carrying on his late father, Miguel Pitones’s, dream to watch his carnitas business, Carnitas Alto Estilo, flourish.
Though Avenue 26 is best known for Avenue 26 Tacosthe beloved evening taqueria famous for their $1.25 tacos and the crispiest buche in Los Angeles—weekend mornings are a completely different vibe on this street. On Saturday and Sunday, Avenue 26 and the surrounding area is a yard sale dream. Vendors line the streets selling everything from used tools to home décor.
Carnitas Alto Estilo is one of the few, if not only, food vendors on Avenue 26 on weekends. They began selling carnitas in July of last year when Miguel and Maria Pitones decided to take on a challenge and try their luck in food vending.
Five years prior to beginning their carnitas cooking journey, Maria and Miguel spent their weekends vending new and used household items and décor on Avenue 26. Miguel would arrive home on Friday evenings from a long week of truck driving only to take a short nap and eagerly wake up just before 10 PM to load their truck up with their merchandise and head to Avenue 26 to secure their prime vending area. “I remember when my parents first started vending years ago,” Luis shares. “My dad would come home anxious from work excited to prepare for his weekend of vending. He loved the community that existed there and they loved him!”
The vending in that area of Lincoln Heights began around 2011, and it was members from that hustler community that encouraged Miguel to begin selling carnitas after they noticed he left his vending post early one day, which was rare. Miguel was leaving to visit with some family he hadn’t seen in years, he was excited because they had promised him a carnitas cooking lesson and a good time. Upon returning, the community of Avenue 26 joked and asked Miguel to show off his newfound skills and cook some carnitas for them. With the support of Maria, a salsa making extraordinaire, Carnitas Alto Estilo was born.
During their first cook, Miguel’s friends gave him feedback immediately. Luis shared “My dad’s flavor was good, but the community shared the meat was missing that perfect sear and color.” After seeking and finding the best cazo in East L.A., a friend took Miguel aside to teach him how to perfect his carnitas. Maria describes their style of carnitas as “Son estilo Michoacan hechas con manos Zacatecanas…They’re made in Michoacan-style but made with hands born in Zacatecas.”
Though they were originally from the same state in Mexico, they met in Silverlake after a mutual friend introduced them. Maria cleaned houses while Miguel drove trucks for a local seafood company. They never knew they would venture into cooking carnitas, but Maria shared with me she was so happy they did, “El tiempo que cocinamos aqui fue su año mas feliz…He was the happiest this last year that we cooked and served the community.”
After four months of growing his business and sharing his flavorful carnitas, on a Saturday morning in December last year, Miguel unexpectedly passed. He left behind his two sons and wife.
Luis shared with me that grieving his father’s passing was not easy. The vending community was devastated and in the few weeks Maria took off to take care of their loss, the community safely guarded the Carnitas Alto Estilo vending post and welcomed them with open arms and support when they started back up in January of 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Miguel’s son described his father as a go-getter, “It would take me another lifetime to be half the man he was, he was really chasing that American dream. One of his dreams was to own his own cattle and bulls in Mexico and I am so glad he lived to see that through, he wanted to succeed here to be able to maintain a rancho in his hometown,” Luis told me.
Miguel and Maria worked seven days a week after they became a part of the Avenue 26 morning crew, but Maria said it didn’t feel like work to her. Working on weekends and chatting, joking and gossiping with their vending family brought them all the joy in the world. The close community of vendors is Carnitas Alto Estilo biggest support system, aside from Luis’ closest friends. Maria shared that the community is the reason she keeps vending, “Yo sigo aqui por la diversion! Dios me mando un hijo bueno, mi Luis, que me ayudo mucho cuando perdimos a Miguel, pero si un dia no me quiere llevar a vender, yo me voy en el camion!...I keep up with the vending because it’s fun! God sent me a good son, who stepped up and helped me a lot when we lost Miguel, but if he doesn’t want to bring me one day, I’ll bring myself on the bus!” she joked.
Luis works in finance during the week, “I went from crunching numbers and negotiating with merchants to learning how to cook.” His older brother also supports on many weekends. Luis says that some vendors joke and pray for his dad’s forgiveness because his cuero (pig skin) is more tender and better than Miguel’s. Their rockstar ingredients are laurel leaf, oranges and garlic. One bite of their tender meat, and you’ll feel the love that goes into the cook.
Carnitas Alto Estilo pops up on Saturdays and Sundays, but the carnitas are strictly sold on Sundays now. On Saturdays Maria chooses a different dish to cook and dedicates time to continuing to sell tools and other items. Luis calls this “Wildcard Saturday.” On the weekend we spoke, she was getting ready to sell barbacoa, but she also prepares menudo, guisados, pollo con pipian (chicken with pipian) and more. She talks with her friends and takes a community poll to decide what to cook each week.
On Sundays Luis and his mom wake up to prepare for their vending at 4 AM. At 4:30 AM they fire up the cazo and sear the meat, and add the buche and cuero. Luis and Maria sell 45 – 65 pounds of meat every weekend and it usually sells out by noon. The local community comes together to enjoy tacos, mulitas, tortas and homestyle burritos simply filled with perfect refried beans and some tender, tasty and soft carnitas, buche and cuero.
Carnitas Alto Estilo is most sought after for their buche, because before passing, Miguel was able to perfect his cooking style and achieve a soft and tender pork stomach (most places have a tendency to sell chewy and tough buche). Although many folks visit the stand to grab a quick bite, others stop by to buy their pound or two of meat to take to go and enjoy elsewhere. The salsas Maria offers daily add that perfect kick, they’re all freshly made in a molcajete.
Luis and Maria are eager to continue cooking for the community and ended our conversation with somewhat of a blessing, “Hacemos todo con amor, quiero que todo salga bien, que la salsa no salga muy picosa y que los clientes sean feliz, en el nombre de dios, padre y espiritu santo…We pour our hearts into serving everyone, we hope everything turns out well, we hope that our salsa isn’t ever too spicy and that our clients are happy in the name of God, our father and the holy spirit.”
When you’re free on a Sunday morning and want your day blessed with some tasty carnitas, make your way to Lincoln heights. You won’t regret it.
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