Inocencio Carbajal stands at a massive cauldron of bubbling lard, stirring in sheets of pork skin with a darkened wooden paddle. Another cook reaches into a second pot of lard with a stainless-steel meat hook to retrieve racks of deeply browned pork ribs, pork shoulders, and finally a few slabs of pork belly. The small kitchen is cramped, and the air is thick with a low-hanging cloud of vaporized pork fat.
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Everyone in the kitchen moves with focus and intent while the radio blares out a chorus of Mexican trumpets in the background. Three men stand scoring sheets of pork skin, quietly and quickly. It seems impossible that this tiny kitchen could sell 8,000 pounds of pork each week.
Inocencio opened Carnitas Uruapan in 1975; it was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Pilsen, a neighborhood just west of downtown Chicago. He came to Chicago in the late 1960s to work in the meatpacking industry, part of a wave of immigration that helped establish Pilsen as a regional hub of Mexican culture and food in Chicago.
Inocencio's son, Marcos Carbajal, grew up in this shop and used to trade his carnitas for other kids' school lunches. The family business helped him pay for school, including an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Northwestern. After working in finance for several years, Marcos returned to the restaurant to help his father.
He explains that carnitas is a specialty of Uruapan, a city in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Styles vary from region to region; the Uruapan style is distinctive in that it is tender and juicy, not crisp. “There should be no sharp shards of crispy meat if you're going after the Uruapan style,” he tells me, adding that the recipe comes from Inocencio's father and uncle, who owned a famous butcher shop in Uruapan.
“My dad grew up working there in the '50s and learned how to make the carnitas. The original dish, and the way we present it, is ribs, shoulder, belly, and skin, or a mix of all of the above.”
In the yellow-tiled dining room, which is big enough to hold only a half-dozen formica-topped tables, people filter in and out, and everyone is greeted like family. Inocencio is known to his friends and customers as El Güero, “the fair-skinned one,” and the nickname is so ingrained that most people don't even know his real name. Squirt bottles of salsa are stationed on the tables, and waiters deliver chopped onions, cilantro, and pickled jalapeños along with caddies of warm tortillas to accompany your meal.
Pork CarnitasIt took 86 pounds of meat (and 26 pounds of lard) to crack the deceptively simple code.
As the lunch rush picks up, Marcos leans in and tells me, “This food is by and large a big weekend staple. If you're in Mexico, you get up, go to church, and then you buy carnitas afterward. That's the routine.” As in Mexico, so in Chicago.