The rumor was enticing. “Go to El Pueblo on Jefferson Avenue,” the rumor went, “for the best carnitas in North Texas.”
With a promise like that, I couldn’t resist. And while I’m not qualified to declare these carnitas the best, the whisperings might be true.
El Pueblo is a cheery, inviting cash-only spot on the eastern end of Jefferson Boulevard, surrounded by long-distance bus terminals. Between Turimex, Omnibus Express and the Tornado Bus Co., El Pueblo’s sombrero-studded interior and lotería card-covered ceiling project an optimism that wins visitors over immediately. Its whimsical attention to detail — the wallpaper between the windows is old menus — only makes the place feel more homelike. This is the kind of restaurant where Valentine’s Day decorations are still charming.
But we’re here for carnitas. This shredded pork specialty is slowly braised for hours in oil or (better) lard, then fried for texture. It’s famed for its rich flavor and seams of fat, but inferior Tex-Mex restaurants can turn out dry carnitas, or batches so greasy and fat-laden that they become downright stomach-turning after a few bites.
The carnitas plate at El Pueblo lives up to its praise ($7.99). It comes with rice, refried beans, lettuce, an avocado slice and choice of corn or flour tortillas, but the pork is, by itself, dazzling. These carnitas aren’t greasy, and they don’t hit the stomach like an anvil; there’s a nice balance of fat morsels and bits that have been crisply seared. This is juicy, hugely flavorful meat that could face down the pulled pork at any Dallas barbecue house, but it is also a carnival of textures.
Assembling a taco can elevate these carnitas into the stratosphere. El Pueblo’s flour tortillas have sear marks from quick time on the griddle, to my mind as important a component of taco flavoring as salt. Squirts of lime and peppery orange salsa complete the picture.
As good as that dish is, there are other reasons to visit El Pueblo, and many of them. The restaurant’s barbacoa, richly tender and bright red from its spiced marinade, stars in good tacos and a generously stuffed quesadilla where the meat is blanketed in a gratifying double layer of cheese (tacos $1.50 each, quesadillas $5.99 each).
The taco plate ($6.99) acts as a sampler, since it comes with four to an order. Try the good-quality chorizo or, even better, the lengua, which arrives as tender as filet mignon. El Pueblo’s lengua might be even better than its carnitas. Not one of the meats is the least bit greasy.
Gorditas ($2.50 each) aren’t gut-bombs either. They’re light, not greasy, the kind with a pocket of meat filling, unlike the bizarro creations at Taco Bell. A picadillo (ground beef) gordita has diced potatoes and carrots mixed into the filling. A fresh shrimp tostada ($3.50) makes for a light appetizer, the shrimp cooked until barely pink and served on a cascade of avocado, tomato and cilantro. The king of the fried food list, though, is the platter of flautas ($8.99); they bring the crunch despite being thinner, lighter and crisper than the flautas at most other restaurants.
El Pueblo offers the memorable option of either four enchiladas with rice and beans, or a monster platter of six enchiladas with no side dish (each option is $8.99). Enchiladas rojas are garnished with thin, crisp slices of potato and carrot, their tortillas rubbed with guajillo chile powder rather than buried in sauce. On the other hand, enchiladas verdes are doused in tomatillo salsa, and they’re fantastic: spicy but not overwhelming, garnished with a not-absurd amount of cheese and deeply hearty.
True spice fiends, however, should opt for the camarones a la diabla ($9.99), in which tail-on shrimp are coated in a famously spicy chipotle chile sauce. It doesn’t taste too hot when it first hits the tongue; instead, the richness, complexity and subtle sweetness make their own positive first impressions. Then, a minute later, the afterburners kick in and the shrimp leaves a trail of pure fire in its wake.
Rounding out the menu are solid rice, with peas and diced carrots, and good refried beans that are more liquid than solid. The soup list includes menudo, pozole and a filling caldo de res (small bowl $6.99, large $8.99), the beef soup with additions like half a corncob. The beef El Pueblo uses is fork-tender and includes big ribbons of fat.
There’s a breakfast buffet on weekday mornings, and the regular breakfast menu is served all day long for diners who get an evening craving for huevos machacados. El Pueblo might not serve alcohol, but the horchata ($2.50) is good, and glass bottles of Mexican Coke are on hand too. Service is relaxed but very friendly.
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The cuisine here is lighter and less cheese-laden than most of the famous Tex-Mex institutions in Dallas. The meats aren’t greasy, the flavors aren’t bogged down in excess oil and the seafood is fresh. Hot salsas are flavorful in addition to bringing the heat. The fact that my table overate to excess on every visit is a testament not to heavy foods, but to how good El Pueblo is.
With the Dallas Zoo just two blocks away and Jefferson Boulevard’s busiest district not far off, this restaurant feels like it should be immensely popular. The word is out; the rumor is spreading. But, for now, El Pueblo is one of Oak Cliff’s underappreciated gems.
El Pueblo, 525 E. Jefferson Blvd., 214-946-3070. Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday.