Working long hours at a butcher shop in Salamanca, Guanajuato, a young Romulo Acosta learned the craft of making carnitas from his father. That meant frying pork in its own fat, low and slow during a predawn vigil before sifting uneven cuts of varying cook times to produce springy, tender bits of well-seasoned meat for tacos. Even after learning carnitas, Acosta knew that would never be enough. “I wasn’t given the chance to grow my own business apart from my father and take care of my family, so I headed to the United States,” says Acosta, who goes by Momo.
Decades after serving carnitas to garment factory workers at 60th and Avalon in South Park, Carnitas El Momo ascended to become one of LA’s most popular street food operations, debuting a trailer in Boyle Heights in 2015. Now, the 82-year-old taquero, a recent heart attack and stroke survivor, is realizing a dream that he formed after leaving his family behind years ago in Salamanca. “I wanted the carnitas business to provide a living for my children, and their children,” he says.
Located in the former Z’s Crazy Good restaurant in Monterey Park, Carnitas Momo opened on May 13. The primary operators will be Momo, his wife Inocencia, and their son, Billy, who has helped his father carry on his legacy ever since Momo suffered a heart attack and stroke while visiting Israel in 2018.
Before he retired due to health issues, Momo spent six decades mastering carnitas and mentoring his sons Luis “Wicho” Acosta and Juan “Billy” Acosta, using the recipe he learned from his father Felix Acosta in Salamanca. Carnitas El Momo serves tender, golden carnitas that are slightly sticky and sweetened by a seasoned lard. Impurities are skimmed off the cook before adding fresh lard, as well as secret ingredients that create Momo’s signature flavor. Carnitas El Momo offers pork skin, hog maw, and pork shoulder tacos, plus cheesy mulitas, tortas, and birria. Spicy tortas ahogadas (drowned sandwiches) are a new addition to the restaurant, which will be open from mornings to early evening, Tuesday through Sunday.
The space, which Billy Acosta demoed and remodeled himself, with some help from other family members, features murals of Momo, Inocencia, Felix, and iconic Mexican singers Vicente Fernandez, Pedro Infante, and Javier Solis. Paying tribute to the restaurant’s founders and homage to Mexican singers felt like an appropriate visual addition to the space. “It feels a little weird actually cooking in a restaurant, so having the artists on the wall reminds me of the music we played at the house while cooking with my father,” says Billy, who learned to cook the traditional way carnitas using an imported copper cazo in his Boyle Heights driveway.
Outside the Monterey Park building, there’s a mural of David “Titi” Gonzalez Jr., Momo’s godson, who passed away recently. Gonzalez had been the catalyst for this new operation, helping to find the space, assisting in the remodel, and encouraging the Acostas to take the risk. Everyone has chipped in, because each batch of delicious carnitas gives hope to a working-class Mexican family.
Family members Adriana Acosta and Luis “Wicho” Acosta run their own Carnitas El Momo stands, with Wicho selling at 12th and Stanford on Wednesdays and at 315 S. Concord on Sundays, while Adriana is taking over truck operations in Boyle Heights, which will be open in the evenings after the restaurant in Monterey Park closes.
Billy and Wicho were the only trusted carnitas cooks at the time of Momo’s heart attack and stroke, but since then their cousin Chris Torres, as well as nephews Beto Sandoval and Danny Rodriguez, have been trained in the family business. Sandoval now sells carnitas at the same place his grandfather began in Los Angeles at 60th and Avalon. Still, all the family members have offered their support to come help out in Monterey Park, which gives the patriarch many reasons to keep smiling. “With these carnitas, my family will always have a job,” says Momo.
Carnitas El Momo is located at 1470 Monterey Pass Road in Monterey Park, California. Open Tuesday to Sunday from mornings to early evening.