Pal Cabron Brings Cemitas and Tlayudas to a Central Location

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Even though there is technically no “Midtown” in Los Angeles and my quest for good food has no boundaries, when it comes to Midtown Lunch’ing in L.A. I’ve adopted a “between the goal posts” mentality since moving back west- trying to keep my lunches between Downtown and Santa Monica. So I never quite made it to Pal Cabron, the Huntington Park Pueblan sandwich specialist owned by the same family that owns Guelaguetza. I’ve always been curious about cemitas (most specifically, how exactly are they different than tortas?) and Pal Cabron was also given high praise by my two go-to Mexican food blogging experts. Well, last week Pal Cabron completely solved my problem by moving their operation to Koreatown- taking over the Guelaguetza space on 8th Street and Irolo in Koreatown.

Don’t mind if I do!

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The menu at Pal Cabron is divided into three sections of Pueblan (and a few non-Pueblan) specialties: antojitos (tacos, tamales, and chalupas), tlayudas (pronounced clayudas), and cemitas. With 8 different tlayudas, and 13 different cemitas it’s not too difficult to dwell on your decision. Thankfully co-owner Bricia Lopez told LAist exactly what first timers should order: “I recommend you come with a friend and order my two personal favorites: La Muy Muy W/ Quesillo, Papalo and chipotle… and…the Tlayuda with chorizo and Quesillo– you cannot go wrong with that. Split the two and enjoy.” So, that’s exactly what I did.

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Even though the owner recommended the super classic #1, I called a late audible when I noticed that the #3 (“La Cabrona”) was essentially the #1 plus head cheese. How could I not? The milanesa de res (beef pounded super thin, breaded and deep fried) was nice and crispy and came topped with panela (slices of fresh mozarella’ish Mexican cheese), avocado, raw onions and a super smoky chipotle sauce. For an extra $2, you can top any sandwich with quesillo (string cheese), and for those of you might balk at the price ($2 for string cheses!?!) know that they import the cheese from Puebla. In other words, just shut up and add the cheese. You know you want it.  I didn’t specifically ask for the papalo (the Mexican herb which, according to the Teenage Glutster, smells as if a thirsty deer walked over it) and didn’t notice if it was there or not (possibly a good thing, considering the description!)  The slices of head cheese also didn’t add much, and got drowned out a bit by rest of the toppings, but I kind of love head cheese. And just knowing it was there, made me feel all good inside.

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Even though I was tempted to order the combinada tlayuda, with 3 different meats, I kept it simple (as instructed) and went with the chorizo and quesillo. For $8.50 the “Mexican Pizza” was much bigger than I expected, and could actually be shared as a single lunch between two people if you weren’t completely starving. The black bean spread, chorizo, and cheese combines with the super crispy dough (also brought in from Puebla) to make for a completely unique companion to the cemita. (Unless you work in Puebla, in which case I’m guessing it’s actually a pretty standard lunch or late night snack.) Their chorizo isn’t too spicy (if that’s not your thing) but if you’re still not down you can get the tlayudas topped with pretty much any other meat Pal Cabron offers. Next time I might have to go for the combinada… (despite its hefty $12.50 price tag.)

With 12 other cemitas on the menu I couldn’t help but try a few others.

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After trying the carnitas cemita at Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, I kind of wanted to try the “La Mamacita”- Pal Cabron’s version of the same sandwich. Tacos Por Favor’s version held up surprisingly well, although Pal Cabron’s pork was way moister, and the chipotle sauce added some flavor that was completely missing in TPF’s version. And, in the end, how can you compete with string cheese!

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If you like stewed meats more than roasted meats the barbacoa (lamb) is another great option. Stewed in a tomato based sauce, the lamb is super moist and super flavorful (in contrast to the milanesa and carnitas which will seem plain and slightly dry in comparison.) Once again the smokiness of the chipotle shined through (and masked some of the gaminess of the lamb) but the rest of the components, like the avocado and cheese, got a bit lost in the sauce. (In other words, stick with the #1 if you want the unadulterated taste of cemita goodness.)

Not satisfied with just adding head cheese to my milanesa, I channeled my inner Eddie Lin and also tried the pickled cow’s feet. Unlike the other sandwiches, this was actually served cold, and the vinegary chunks of gelatinous “meat” provided a nice contrast to the heaviness of the other sandwiches. The chunks were a bit unwieldy, though, making a fork completely necessary. Slices might have worked a bit better (like the head cheese) but I was assured this is the way you’d get it in Puebla (and how can you argue with that!) Somehow I forgot to snap a photo (?!?), so you’re spared seeing the monstrosity, but rest assured this one is for advanced offal eaters only.

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As for antojitos, they’ll make tacos out of many of the meats they offer but by their own admission it’s only to appease those who might wander in randomly looking for tacos. The only one really worth going out of your way for is the tacos arabes, named for its “Arab” like pita bread. Apparently there is a large Middle Eastern influence in Puebla (who knew?) which not only accounts for this style of taco, but also the seeded bread they use on the cemitas.

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More exciting than the history is how the damn thing tasted though… it’s kind of crazy that a Pueblan sandwich joint somehow has better pita bread than half of the Middle Eastern restaurants in L.A. But there we are. The wrap comes stuffed with pork (I guess the Pueblan Arabs aren’t Muslim?), and it’s completely worth trying (even for $3.25.)

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What makes Pal Cabron stand out the most is that you can tell they really care about the details. It’s hip and fun in a way that is inviting to us whities, but has little flourishes that help make it acceptable for those looking for 100% authenticity.

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From the fresh baked bread to the Pueblan sodas (that I was assured are very difficult to find) to the fact that they add nuts and a little bit of jamaica (?) to their horchata. And for adventurous eaters? Pickled beef feet and head cheese. There’s something for everyone.

If you were a big fan of Pal Cabron before, rest assured the Guru says the new location is just as good as the old. And even though all the traces of this branch of Guelaguetza are now gone, they kept Natura Bar- the super awesome juice/shakes/ice cream annex just to the right of the restaurant.

If you’ve never heard of the place, or have been avoiding a trip to Huntington Park, now you have no excuse. Koreatown is pretty central to everywhere, making Pal Cabron worth the trip for practically everybody. My only advice for newbies? Do what the owner tells you.

THE + (What somebody who loves this place would say)

  • I love cemitas, but don’t have time to hit up Huntington Park or East L.A. for lunch.  This is much more central!
  • String cheese FTW
  • I love the smokiness that the chipotle sauce adds to all their sandwiches
  • Their bread is fresh baked
  • Their tlayudas are so good… and surprisingly big for the price.
  • Natura Bar is right next door, so dessert is covered!

THE -  (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • Once you add the string cheese, the sandwiches can get a bit pricey
  • Orders can take a little time if they’re backed up.
  • If you don’t like smokey salsas, you might not like the chipotle sauce they put on everything
  • There was something a bit cooler about this place when it was in Huntington Park

Pal Cabron, 3337 1/2 W 8th St (near Irolo), 213-427-0601

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2 Comments

  • To me papalo tastes a bit like cilantro crossed with mint and I think it’s the best part of cemita. It tends to induce cilantro-like unbridaled hatred in some though. I hope you give it a shot.

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    This is pretty legit if those are the only cons you can come up with. Totally visiting ASAP now that they’re in this location!

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