If you walk through the rows of houses and apartments in East Los Angeles at about 5 p.m. on any given day, the warm smell of pork cooking in lard might waft through the air and tingle your nose with familiar warmth. Carnitas, or pork shoulder fried in lard, have always enjoyed a special ubiquity in Los Angeles, where hungry denizens flock to their favorite taqueria or taco truck to get the semi-crisp, golden-fried bits of pork shoulder, onions, cilantro and salsa all piled on top of soft tortillas.
For many members of the Chicano community in Los Angeles, that smell of rendered lard is the smell of "home," but for mother-daughter team Norma and Jasmine Zamora of Zamora Brothers, "home" has been carnitas experts Zamora Bros. on Cesar Chavez Avenue for almost 45 years.
The East Los Angeles community staple was first opened by Norma’s father-in-law Chato Zamora, who started out selling carnitas at neighborhood soccer matches at the football fields at the intersection of Soto and Whittier.
He never imagined that it would explode like this
"He’d make them at his yard at home and sell them in the soccer fields in a cart," Jasmine said. "He never imagined that it would explode like this."
The storefront was home for Zamora’s granddaughter Jasmine, who spent her childhood playing hide-and-seek in the store’s wooden walk-in refrigerator and attending family dinner at the restaurant, since her family was constantly working.
Today, the Zamora Brothers storefront in Boyle Heights looks similar to how it did when it opened — workers stand elevated behind a large refrigerated display case containing various raw pork products. Across from the counter are heated cases filled with batches of carnitas, offal and baked bolillos that have been prepared throughout the day.
Patrons can take a pair of tongs and a metal tray lined with wax paper and pick out which piece of prepared meat they would like to take home, or made into tacos, tortas or burritos back of house. Unless you have a family that makes the world’s best tortillas at home, you might want to opt for the latter option — Zamora Bros.’ steamy tortillas are handmade and have a sinfully soft texture that would put average flat-top cooked corn rounds to shame.
Their carnitas maintain their structural integrity and slightly crunchy exterior
In theory, the Zamora method of keeping carnitas seems less fresh than preparing carnitas to order. In reality, very few, if any restaurants prepare their carnitas to order — rather, they usually lie in a steaming pile on steel chafing trays that rob the fried bits of their texture. The usual result of these carnitas is usually a texture that lands between that of pulled pork or, heaven forbid, the stringy strands of vaguely edible pork at your local Chipotle. Instead, the Zamora Brothers fry their pork in massive iron kettles in the back of the restaurant and ensure that their carnitas maintain their structural integrity and slightly crunchy exterior.
A similar self-serve philosophy is employed with the chicharrones. A case to the left of the carnitas is stocked full of massive shields of pale golden pork rinds. To the naked eye it’s a bit intimidating, but the chicharrones are actually organized according to how much meat is left on the pieces prior to frying. Fans of the restaurant’s chicharrones over the years have included the family of a certain head of state who had an affinity for pork rinds.
He said he was buying chicharrones for the President.
"There was this gringo coming into our store, we had no idea who he was but he said he was buying chicharrones for the president," Norma Zamora recalls. "Of course we didn’t pay him any mind because people come through here saying stuff like that all the time, but we found out it was actually for [former U.S. president] George Bush Sr. [Former First Lady] Barbara Bush would come by, too."
Perhaps more importantly than occasional jaunts from former heads of state is the fact that Zamora Bros. has been a mainstay in East Los Angeles for 45 years and served members of the community tirelessly.
In 2008, Chato Zamora passed away and left the storefront to his children, and for all intents and purposes, Norma Zamora seems to be carrying on a tradition that began in the soccer fields on the Eastside. Despite a couple negative reviews on Yelp about changes since Chato Zamora’s passing, the efforts of Norma Zamora are not easy to dismiss.
The latter’s helming of the family business is not simple nepotism masquerading as family pride — Norma Zamora has no problem getting her hands dirty in the same way her father-in-law did. The stern-faced matron of the Zamora empire sharpens a knife and goes into a side of pig separating the shoulder meat, belly and skin for carnitas and chicharrones with surgical precision.
Separating the shoulder meat, belly and skin for carnitas and chicharrones with surgical precision.
"I would race the butchers to see who was the fastest at preparing the meat," the elder Zamora recalls fondly. Zamora takes significant pride in her knife skills, and despite having completely separated the unwieldy pig (replete with step-by-step explanations, no less) in just under five minutes, bemoans that she’s out of practice.
In Dec. 2013, the Zamora Bros. location on 4773 Cesar Chavez Avenue was damaged by a fire. The family plans to re-open the restaurant and resume operations this spring, but in the meantime, the location on 1503 Cesar Chavez Avenue remains the "home" for not just an unassuming immigrant family, but for countless East Los Angeles residents craving an excellent rendition of a humble and satisfying dish of pork. The Zamora family takes the cliché of restaurant patrons being "part of the family" and lets their warm, homey carnitas infuse the phrase with meaning.