Hungry Hound: A crispy, tender taste of home at Carnitas Uruapan

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Spend any time in Pilsen, and you'll soon realize how important carnitas are, especially to locals who have roots in the region of Michoacan.

One of Pilsen's legendary carnitas restaurants has opened a second location in Gage Park, where they can really increase their production.

EXTRA COURSE: Tacos Dorados at Carnitas Uruapan
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In Steve's Extra Course Video, he talks about the Tacos Dorados, a special, fried taco that's sealed, for a snack on-the-go.

The Carbajal family started making and selling carnitas in Pilsen in 1975 and the recipe for their beloved dish hasn't changed a bit. But by moving to a larger space a bit further southwest, they're able to satisfy demand that hasn't slowed down one bit.

What are carnitas, you ask?

"They're essentially the main staple dish that comes out of our hometown of Uruapan," said Marcos Carbajal, whose father started Carnitas Uruapan 44 years ago. "Carnitas is essentially a catch-all term for ribs, shoulder, pork belly and pork skin."

It's fried pork. As in, the entire animal. Nothing is wasted.

That deep, dark fat that everything cooks in? It's rendered fat from the skin, fried twice: first, to firm it up, then a second time, to create the bubbly, misshapen chicharrones that are prized by carnitas lovers. That fat then forms the base of each enormous cazo, where the rest of the animal is fried.

"Different parts of the animal go in at different times during the cooking process," Carbajal said.

The results are delicious. Golden brown and crispy on the outside; moist and tender within, all are laid out in a glass-walled box. You tell the guy what you want: lean or fatty or a mixture, which he'll happily chop and weigh.

"It's meant to be shared and eaten family style. At street markets in Mexico, it's common to go out there on a Saturday or Sunday morning before it runs out, buy carnitas by the pound, then place it at the center of the table. Everybody makes their own taco and you try to get some before it's gone," he said.

The only two sides here are refried beans and nopales - cooked cactus paddles - sliced thin and doused with cheese.

You can opt for some guacamole, homemade salsa, of course, and the best part of all: homemade tortillas, an almost unheard of bonus, since most places are too small. Besides, you can order them from any number of factories in town. But the warm, soft tortillas here are a game-changer.

Carbajal said don't be tempted to order only the familiar ribs or loin.

"Where you really want to go to get the full experience is adding some of the skin and some of the pork belly - that adds a little bit of fat but a lot of flavor," Carbajal said.

Carnitas Uruapan
2813 W. 55th St.
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