More than 20 years have passed since I ate perhaps the single greatest taco of my life, and I can still taste it in my memory.
I remember ordering two tacos from a little stall in front of a bank building in Mexico City. The young man working the stall grabbed what looked like a small machete. He speared a couple of chunks of browned pork and plunged them into a vat of boiling oil. After a few seconds, he pulled them out of the bubbling cauldron.
With a skilled, practiced motion, he flicked his wrist to release the meat onto a cutting board that looked like a small tree stump, then used that machete to scoop up a couple of nearby corn tortillas and plopped them onto an oil-moistened comal. As the tortillas heated, he used his machete to chop the larger chunks of meat. At that point, I could see some darker crisp edges on his board. Another quick flip of the wrist to flip the tortillas, and he grabbed a plastic plate topped with a sheet of waxed paper. Holding the plate with his left hand, he scooped the tortillas with the machete, plopped them on and then scooped up the chopped meat with his right and then handed the plate to me.
I scooped a spoonful of salsa, chopped cilantro and minced onion from the bowls assembled on the counter of his stand. The first bite rocked my world. The contrast of the crisp edges of the meat, the juicy interior, the freshness of the cilantro, the crispness of the onions and the bite of salsa all combined to form a sensation I never had experienced before. When I finished my tacos, I asked the owner about the tacos.
His response: “Carnitas, estilo Michoacán.” Carnitas, in the style of the Mexican state of Michoacán.
Michoacán style in S.A.
After all these years, I finally experienced carnitas in the United States that took me back to that little stand in Mexico City.
At Carnitas Lonja on the South Side. Even the logo says “Estilo Mich.”
Of course, you can never have carnitas for the first time again, but the carnitas at this shop are incredible. It’s the focus of the menu and nearly its entire contents.
At Carnitas Lonja, chef Alex Paredes doesn’t plunge his pork into a vat of oil outside any more, but he gets the same textures with his setup inside his renovated kitchen. And his carnitas are gorgeous. Only a few flecks of the deep-fried edges enliven his creations, but the familiar flavor and juiciness is all there. His creations come with bowls of pickled vegetables and two fierce and flavorful housemade salsas.
And what does lonja mean? Literally, it means a “slice,” but it usually refers to love handles. So enjoy your carnitas responsibily.