While all 3.8 million (and counting) residents of the city of Los Angeles are still wrapping their heads around the concept of always bringing your own bag when shopping for groceries, the philosophy of bringing your own container to carry your food home from a restaurant or party is not new for a small subset of Eastern Los Angeles residents that have been following a similar practice for over 30 years now. In these cases, it's not artsy canvas bags or freebie supermarket-branded tote bags that they're hauling out of the car, but five-gallon aluminum pots and deep tin stockpots. Both to be filled with fresh menudo, the slightly spicy, full-bodied Mexican breakfast stew made with assorted beef stomach, hominy, and dried red chiles.
Menudo in itself has become something of the official go-to breakfast for a lot of Mexican-Americans after a night of drinking here in Los Angeles. It's available virtually everywhere in eastside communities, from every single Mexican restaurant to every single Mexican supermarket, to every single Catholic church, to Mexican bakeries -- even most of the local burger chains carry it on Saturdays and Sundays. As you'd probably expect from a stew made of beef stomach, it can be pretty intense stuff, both flavor, texture and aroma-wise. But that doesn't seem to stop the Mexican masses of all ages from gorging on the stuff week after week. But the reason for that chewy offal phenomena is another story.
I grew up on menudo. It never, ever failed to make an appearance at my table every single Sunday morning after church. My family loved it, but I didn't. Except for the hominy, and that's the only part I would eat. The way it arrived to our table was the most interesting part: my older brother would grab one of our banged-up old pots and take it to a local Mexican deli to get filled up with hot stew. Not unlike how a Starbucks regular takes their own thermos to fill up with a cup of joe instead of relying on an eco-unfriendly paper cup with extra double insulating sleeves. Judging by the line filled with pot-touting customers outside our local place by 9 a.m., this is how everyone else in the neighborhood also got their menudo fix.
Trying to find out why or how this tradition of bringing your own pot started was harder than I thought, since a lot of small business owners in East Los Angeles can be a little paranoid and evasive when a stranger asks a few direct questions about their operation. The place I grew up on refused an interview. Fortunately, Esteban Sotelo, the second-generation owner of perhaps Boyle Heights' most popular carnitas- and bring your own pot menudo-specialists, Los Cinco Puntos, was able to at least tell me that it's a multi-generation tradition. According to him, the "bring your own pot" policy was around even before he took up the family business 32 years ago.
Where most menuderos eyeball the amount of money that is charged for the estimated pour, Sotelo charges a consistent $3.50 per "cucharon," his term for a heaping ladle-full of fresh menudo. Each ladle is about one cup's worth of luscious stew. His reason? It's easier for them to serve it that way. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that he doesn't have to spend extra money on jumbo styrofoam cups, though he still carries and uses styrofoam cups for the slew of new customers from outside the community that want to try his menudo and don't bring a pot.
Here is a list of other places that also have pot service to get you started, in addition to those already mentioned. There are a lot more, it's just a matter of asking your favorite menudo place how much they charge to fill up your pot.
Los Cinco Puntos
3300 E. Cesar E Chavez Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
La Indiana Tamales
1142 S. Indiana St.
Los Angeles, CA
Noemi's Mexican Food
14350 Pioneer Blvd.
14346 Pioneer Blvd.