South of Jalisco on the Pacific coast, Michoacan is the traditional home of the Tarascans, an indigenous people who flourished in this region before Europe came a-knocking. Millions of monarch butterflies migrate to the northeastern tip of the state each year, coming from as far away as Canada to spend mating season in the warmth of the Mexican sun.
HUARACHES AND HUITLACOCHE
When cruising for la cocina Michoacana, I keep my eyes peeled for signs with names like Michoacan (obviously), Uruapan (second-largest city in the state), or Morelia (the state capital). When I spotted Morelia Taqueria (150 N. Broadway in Melrose Park) I stomped on the brakes. At this tiny storefront, its windows papered with phone-card ads, the huaraches (thin masa bases practically the size of snowshoes) and sopes (same thing, only smaller, thicker, and shaped like little boats) are made from cornmeal hand pressed on-site. The resulting polentalike platforms are fried and topped with cheese and pork, steak, chicken, or chicharrones, crispy little bits of pork skin. The crunchy crust has the fresh smack that's possible only when cornmeal is griddled to order. I detected some pineapple and orange mixed into the cheese topping, and the chef, a native of Morelia, told me that citrus fruit is common on huaraches from Michoacan.
At the Maxwell Street Market, a mecca for Mexican food from all regions, Ricos Huaraches serves up a rendition with black beans worked right into the dough. The huaraches are fried on the spot, topped with beef, and sprinkled with salsa verde, salsa rojo, and white cheese to evoke the green, red, and white of the Mexican flag. Rico means "rich," and, sure enough, once griddled these huaraches are rich with grease--but hey, it's really fresh grease. Taqueria los Mogotes de Michoacan (4959 N. Kedzie and 2069 Green Bay Rd. in Highland Park) serves another kind of corn product: huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ears of maize. Mushroomy, inky purple, and usually cooked down to a lavalike puree, huitlacoche often shows up in quesadillas. Translated from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the name means "raven shit."
Carnitas ("little meats") are pieces of pork slow cooked in lard, much like French confit, to preserve the flesh and intensify the rich flavor. Typically everything--ribs, loins, ears, whatever--gets tossed into huge cauldrons to cook. You can sometimes catch a peek of the vats steaming away in the back of Carnitas Uruapan (1725 W. 18th), where the result is exceptional, rich but not fatty. Carnitas here are sold by the pound ($6.50); owners Abby and Marcos Carbajal serve them along with tubs of salsa, pickled jalapenos, and tomatoes. On weekends you can also get menudo and delicious nopales, cactus leaves cut into long strips, boiled, and served with a slightly vinegary sauce that provides an excellent foil for the pork.
Carnitas el Paisa (3529 W. Fullerton) offers chicharrones, barbacoa (meat slow cooked over a fire), and cochinita pibil (pork in salsa) as well as carnitas. Try spritzing a little lime juice and hot sauce on the chicharrones, and check out the cabinet filled with little pink porcelain pigs. Tucked into a grocery store, Taqueria el Nuevo Mundo (5901 W. Roosevelt in Cicero) offers a tempting hot table where you can select some carnitas for tacos or help yourself to some guisado, a stew of beef or pork with salsa verde. For the carnitas connoisseur, La Michoacana (2049 W. Cermak) offers gorditas de boronas, a Sunday special of tortillas filled with tiny, gnarly, lard-saturated scrapings from the giant carnitas pans. Like Japanese okage (rice burned hard at the bottom of rice cookers), boronas are considered a special treat because they offer a familiar thing, done differently.
ATOLE AND CHAMPURRADO
Since the days of the Tarascans, the corn-loving folks of Michoacan have enjoyed atole, a maize-based gruel flavored with chocolate, fruit, tamarind, or herbs. At Maiz (1041 N. California) atole with various types of fruit is a regular menu item, along with champurrado, a blend of cornmeal, chocolate, water, a little milk, and sometimes aniseed. Substantial and served hot, it's a perfect beverage for winter. You can sample champurrado at Tacos Bernardo (at the Maxwell Street Market and at 4326 W. Division) or pick some up on the street--many tamale vendors sell it. Just look for the telltale thermos.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elizabeth M. Tamny; photos/A. Jackson.