Marina Ayala has prepared tortillas and tamales at Los 5 Puntos for X years. Photo by Francisco Morales
The smell of carnitas fills the air over the lines of people waiting outside the front door of Los 5 Puntos.
Employees know some of the customers so well that they know their orders before they ask.
Customers watch as employees chop up the tender brown meat, weighing it on a scale before wrapping it up in white paper. The sound of hands slapping masa into tortillas can be heard from behind the counter.
Located on the same corner in Boyle Heights for nearly 50 years, Los 5 Puntos is more than just a carnicería. For many customers, it’s a neighborhood institution, a place where tradition meets the community. And while it’s busy every weekend with locals, the store gears up for even busier times starting in November, when people from all over Los Angeles come for their holiday tamales and masa.
Manager Stephen Sotelo, the owners’ son, says the homemade tortillas and carnitas are the most popular items. The freshness and quality are what sets them apart from other markets’.
“The ladies are right there in front of the customers making them,” he says, referring to the tortillas and tamales. “A lot of people say handmade when they put the masa in those little hand pressers. That is not really handmade.”
Marina Ayala, 68, is one of the women making tortillas by hand day after day. She is a small, white-haired grandmotherly type who has been working for Los 5 Puntos since not long after it was established.
Throughout the day, Ayala works continuously, pounding the masa with her bare hands, constantly moving around her worktable and grill, not even stopping while answering questions. She says she makes between 60 and 100 dozen tortillas a day, depending on how busy the store is, and that the quality and thickness of her tortillas cannot be compared to those that are sold in stores. She also prepares about 40 dozen tamales daily.
Martín González, 53, was raised in Boyle Heights and remembers coming to the store as a child. Today, he lives in Alhambra, but brings his children to the market. “Carnitas are great here,” González says. “Everything is seasoned just right, and you don’t see tortillas made like this anywhere.”
Sotelo, who sells carnitas for $7.99 a pound, says he doesn’t cut corners when it comes to quality. “Sometimes customers ask why our carnitas are so expensive. But if I give you a pound of my carnitas, you never go [elsewhere],“ he says.
Sotelo’s parents, Vincent and Connie, opened Los 5 Puntos in its current location on César Chávez Avenue in 1967. It was their second market. (They had opened their first on First Street in the 1950’s.) With the carnicerías, the Sotelos were trying to recreate the kinds of markets in their hometowns in the Mexican states of San Luis Potosí and Michoacán.
Since the beginning, Los 5 Puntos has always been a family business. Vincent, now 91, retired 15 years ago and left the managing of the store to his son. Connie, 71, still works at the market in the afternoons.
Los 5 Puntos has 11 employees, and Sotelo says there’s hardly any turnover. At least three of the women have been with them since the store opened.
Sotelo’s sister, Sylvia, returns home in December to help with the holiday rush. “The closer we get to Christmas, the busier we are,” says Sotelo. “December is our bread and butter time for the tamales and the masa for the tamales.”
Sotelo says that as long as there are those who want to make their own tamales, he will sell masa. “It’s nice to see third generations coming with their abuelita, buying the masa,” he says. “Their grandma is going to teach them, and that’s a great thing.”