I have a longtime friend of a certain fleshy girth who, one Saturday morning, stood outside the window of Pilsen's great Carnitas Don Pedro, in front of its famous mountain of steaming, glistening porky goodness, and thoughtfully observed, "This is what I look like when I get out of the shower."
The sustaining power of those hot, lard-simmered chunks of pork, slabs of skin, and ribbons of offal—especially exceptional on weekends, when the line goes out the door and turnover is high—is such that I can usually block this horrifying image when I'm confronted by them. They're so good when they're at their prime that it's hard to imagine wanting to go anywhere else.
Of course, carnitas, "little meats," are widely available, for better or worse, all week long, in hundreds of supermercados all over the city, where they serve their vendors as a useful means of avoiding losses on unsold pork. But specialists like Don Pedro, Carnitas Uruapan, and Carnitas Don Rafa—what you might consider the big three—are relative rarities, especially on the north side.
Or maybe they're just not widely known. For almost six years my own hyperopia led me to believe that consistently excellent carnitas were unavailable north of 18th Street. I can't count the number of times I've passed by Carnitas La Esquinita, an unassuming corner spot in Irving Park, without a second look. The dim storefront windows do tend to obscure the weekend rush and the passable weekday lunch crowd that occupies the handful of tables in front of the register, which also handles a brisk carryout business.
Earlier this summer I was introduced to jackfruit "carnitas" at Mini Mott, and the less said about those the better. But balance was restored to the universe when friend of the Food Chain Kristina Meyer clued me in to the delights within Carnitas la Esquinita, where 29-year-old chef Oscar Hernandez makes extraordinary carnitas during the day shift before he heads north to his second gig in the kitchen at Khan BBQ (from which no pork has ever come).
Hernandez grew up in Hidalgo, in northeast Michoacan, cooking at his mother's side. He landed his first job in Chicago in 2005, as a dishwasher at the late La Cazuela in Rogers Park, and was thrown into the fire on his second day when the chef didn't show up for work. By the time his sister-in-law, Angelica Guijosa, opened Carnitas La Esquinita in early 2013, Hernandez was well equipped to handle the usual suspects produced in a professional Mexican kitchen.
CLE covers a lot of those bases, but there's a reason the carnitas are especially touted. Hernandez starts the pork low and slow in the lard, according to the accepted method, gradually increasing the temperature to achieve exterior crispiness.
The restaurant may not do the traffic of Carnitas Don Pedro, but the pork stays consistently moist anyway. That's because once it's done cooking, Hernandez doesn't keep it under heat lamps, but instead leaves it in the pan, effectively making confit, a meat cooked and preserved in its own fat. When an order comes in, he chops it up on the flattop, achieving an ideal matrix of tender shoulder and chewy skin, a perfect balance of the fatty, meaty, and crispy. Cilantro, raw chopped onion, and a squirt of lime are all that's needed to check the exquisite richness.
CLE isn't a specialist, but it certainly performs like one. Even so, there are other standouts on the menu. Posole rojo makes use of larger-than-usual chunks of spoon-tender pork that swim in a brick-red, full-bodied brew smoky with guajillo chiles and thick with hominy. Caldo de pollo is similarly teeming with whole legs of fowl and big pieces of potato and carrot, while the beef barbacoa nearly rivals the carnitas in disintegrative tenderness.
Maybe if Hernandez made a mountain of little meats in the window, Carnitas La Esquinita would be spoken of in the same breath as the big three—or maybe they would just suffer from exposure. Hiding in plain sight certainly hasn't hurt their source. v