Letters, though arbitrary by themselves, sometimes mash themselves together in intricate patterns to form things called words. Those words are then inserted into things like books, and conversations, and—in this instance—restaurant menu boards, and are used to convey specific emotions, feelings, and expectations. When it works, it’s a hell of a system. Whoever thought to invent written language totally nailed it.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the system fails you. Sometimes those “words” trick you into buying $16 worth of infuriatingly mediocre tacos and you end up driving down to a local carniceria, buying 5 lbs of lard, and rage-cooking until 4 a.m. Hey, unnamed West L.A. taco joint, carnitas is not the Spanish word for “unseasoned shredded pork that was shoved in a warming drawer for hours until it’s somehow sopping wet with condensation but still inordinately dry.”
No, carnitas literally translates to, “little meats”—or “little bits of meat” to be contextual—and it’s miles away from that marked-up shit you plopped in a tortilla and topped with “chipotle aioli” (more commonly known as store-bought mayonnaise mixed with hot sauce).
The dish originated in Michoacan, Mexico, and was typically made using the whole pig immediately after slaughter. The carnitero would use a giant copper pot called a cazo, render all the pork fat down, and gently fry the various pig parts for hours on end, until tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, and perfect to be topped with spicy, vinegary salsa.
You can do it too. First, head down to a local carniceria. Grab about three pounds of pork butt and equal parts manteca, or rendered pork fat.
Take the large chunk of pork, and without trimming any of the fat off—that stuff is flavor gold right there—cut it into two or three inch cubes, then season heavily with salt and lime juice. Not only will that season the pork, it will draw out some unnecessary moisture. Let the cubes sit covered in the fridge for at least an hour.
Heat up all your manteca in a large, heavy bottomed pot on medium heat. You probably don’t have a solid copper cazo laying around (that’s rad if you do though), but a cast iron dutch oven works beautifully. Once the lard reaches 275 degrees, drop in a cinnamon stick, some bay leaves, a few whole peppercorn, and all that delicious pork. The oil should drop temperature to somewhere around 225 degrees, so drop the heat to medium low and keep it there for a while. That’s the sweet spot.
Gently turn the pork chunks every 20 minutes or so, and after about 3 hours all the collagen in the meat will have broken down and it will be all roasted and tender. For the final caramelizing step, crank up the heat to high, and remove the pork when it’s a deep chestnut color. Slap the pork on a cutting board, hack it to pieces with a large knife or cleaver, then season with a little more salt, lime, and a splash of the cooking lard for good luck. Throw the little meats into a tortilla, top with some cilantro, onions, and an avocado salsa verde, then—I don’t know—go start a million dollar carnita empire or something.
Still hungry? Check out the other installments of Bite Club here.