While everyone has their opinion on where to get the best carnitas in Michoacán, Quiroga is widely acknowledged as the hometown of carnitas. “But everyone has a different idea of who makes the best,” said a cafe owner when we stopped for an espresso in town. It gets more confusing when you get to the plaza and see that half the carnitas stands— facing the road as if they’ve replaced a stoplight— are called Carnitas Carmelo, although each with different branding.
My parents have long been going to the restaurant Carnitas Carmelo across from a big, quiet garden several blocks to the left from the street stands. Passed down for generations since the 1900s, the floor is checkered in black and white and the walls are sparse except for a few love poems to carnitas and a photo of the original Señor Carmelo. In an empty dining room, a Mexican flag takes up an entire wall, the bright red matching the Coca-Cola branded folding chairs. There’s a glass cabinet with a plastic pink pig on one shelf. Above it a bottle of William Lawson whiskey, clamato mix, and a few mostly empty bottles of tequila are displayed like an altar (to the pig, to day-drinking, hopefully to all of it).
The matriarch of the family hacked away at the carnitas and ladled out its juices while half listening to two little girls tattletale on each other. Carnitas is made by basically slowly frying a pig in its own fat until you get little brown crisps of caramelized meat. Pigs originally came when the Spanish arrived, and while carnitas are one of Mexico’s most loved tacos, the technique of frying the animal in its own lard is not unique to here. It’s that new world genius of wrapping things in corn tortillas, plus the salsas, that make it the kind of thing you write poems about.
In Michoacán carnitas are traditionally made in a large copper pot, made nearby by artisans in Santa Clara de Cobre. Besides that, every cook has their particular method and ingredients, things like soda, milk, orange juice and herbs. Afterwards, a bunch of pieces are put on a chopping board and hacked to bite size, and unless you’re specific about what you want you’ll get bits of everything: ear, offal, ribs, and more. “I recently learned about the waist,” my step-dad said while excitedly picking up the translucent, fatty belt and putting it into a tortilla.
There were five table condiments here: pickled yellow chiles, nopales, pickled veggies, a pico de gallo, and a mild orange salsa. Guacamole, lardy pinto beans, a corunda (a Michoacán tamal), and freshly made tortillas—perfectly puffed and browned—made it to the table as well. Between the varied bits of meat on the plate and the condiments, every taco we made was different.
When I asked the cook what they add to the meat she said, “Time, water and salt,” which I’m certain is an understatement, although I couldn’t make out any of the traditional seasonings I can usually taste. She did say that they have their own pigs, and that the freshness of the meat (how quickly it goes from farm to pot) is important to the flavor. We paid $210 pesos for ¾ kilos (a little more than 1 and 1/2 pounds). That’s about $10, or what you would pay for two fancy tacos in San Francisco.