Down in Tijuana there is a restaurant that employs a contented-looking lavender pig as its logo.
The smiling, aproned porker is bearing a platter, and because the restaurant he represents happens to be Carnitas Uruapan, naturally the platter is laden with that succulent specialty of la cocina Mexicana, carnitas.
Carnitas Uruapan has been a popular destination for a quarter of a century, and despite the impressively growing sophistication of the Tijuana restaurant trade, it remains an excellent place to get a tangible taste of Mexico.
Carnitas, at least as served at this restaurant, are as much an experience as a meal. A visit to Carnitas Uruapan engages the senses more fully (and perhaps too dramatically for some folks) than does a visit to a less distinctive place, because the carnitas can be smelled, seen and even heard before a guest ever passes through the restaurant’s door.
In the simplest definition, carnitas simply are cubes of pork cut from larger chunks that have been boiled (slowly and lengthily) in lard. This sounds easy, and it is, but the process of savoring these morsels is rather more complicated.
It starts the moment the patron steps out of his car, because at precisely that moment the rich scent of pork simmered in deep lard will slide up his nostrils (please note that this cooking process was developed well before warnings about cholesterol came along). As he approaches the restaurant, the patron will notice a brick hearth positioned a few feet from the building; here, in the open air, he will hear the spitting sound made by the vast copper caldrons bubbling over the hot fires. From time to time a pitchfork-wielding attendant will fish out a huge chunk of pork and carry it to the kitchen window, through which he will deposit the meat onto a wooden chopping block.
This chopping block is a solid chunk of wood that must have been cut from a grandfather among trees, and it obviously is of some antiquity, because its center has been hollowed into a crater-like bowl by the action of 25 years’ worth of cleavers. Here, almost more quickly than his eyes can follow, the patron can watch as the meat is unceremoniously hacked into bite-sized pieces and heaped on platters for speedy delivery to the hundreds of guests waiting in the dining room.
Note that the patron has smelled, heard and seen all this before he has entered the restaurant. Thus he still has a great deal in store for him, including the carnival-like atmosphere of Mexican families and north-of-the-border visitors grouped happily at long rows of orange-painted picnic tables. This is hog heaven, in a way, and the dress reflects this, since grease splatters that could ruin fine clothing are a fact of life here, not a mere possibility.
The noise level rises to meet the occasion as hundreds of voices not only struggle to be heard, but succeed so well that the mariachi band positioned by the back-room bar appears to be pantomiming rather than playing.
The menu, rather like a devout member of any political party you can name, takes a single-minded approach that views deviation with some alarm. This restaurant serves carnitas, and that is what guests are expected to eat, although dissenters from the Pork Platform are grudgingly accommodated by the menu’s mention of a couple of steaks and a chicken dish. But other than the single option of guacamole (an option that should be taken because this is the real thing, fresh, chunky and well-seasoned), a carnitas meal follows an orderly and unvarying routine.
When the waitress first comes to the table, she brings with her a bowl of good salsa and a complimentary basket of chicharones, or squares of pork rind boiled in lard, which some people enjoy, as is their right. She then inquires what amount of carnitas is desired; they are served by weight, and a party of three guests should go whole hog and order a kilo, an amount that may also serve four.
The carnitas appear almost as quickly as one can open a can of Tecate (go ahead and squeeze a lime into the brew), along with a basket of corn tortillas, a plate of highly seasoned beans, and another plate of such garnishes as cilantro, onions, radishes and limes. Guests build their own tacos, of course, unceremoniously picking up cubes of meat with their fingers and rolling them inside tortillas with whatever garnishes are desired. The beans are meant to go in the tortillas as well, and frankly have a rather good flavor that probably--here we go again--comes from being cooked with a good bit of lard.
As for the flavor of the meat, it is rich, and while certainly not the sort of thing to wax rhapsodic about, there is a nice, earthy quality to it, and a succulence that is not at all displeasing to the tongue. The cilantro, lime, salsa and other garnishes all complement its hearty character and should be used more or less with abandon.
There are certain caveats about the platters of carnitas. While a kilo should serve four normal appetites, not every platter is, shall we say, the pick of the litter. When the man in the kitchen wields his cleaver, he does so passionately, and every bit of meat he chops is heaped on the platters. Thus a serving may contain large chunks of bone, as well as large portions of fat, neither of which falls into the edible category, but both of which, nonetheless, are included when the serving is weighed. It also is important to watch out for the tiny pieces of bone that may be attached to a nice chunk of meat; these have the potential to play havoc with the teeth and to spoil an expedition to Carnitas Uruapan. A careful picking over for these bits of bone solves the question nicely.
A kilo of carnitas costs about $10, and the price for a half-portion to serve two guests is about $5. With a couple of beers each, tax and tip, a party of four should not find itself spending much more than $25 or so, and that figure may include an extra half-kilo of meat.
The restaurant is a few blocks from the Agua Caliente race track, and is simple to find. The address is 550 Blvd. Diaz Ordaz; this street begins as the famous Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana, turns into Boulevard Agua Caliente, and then, just past the track, undergoes a second name change and becomes Boulevard Diaz Ordaz.
550 Blvd. Diaz Ordaz, Tijuana
Tijuana telephone no. 81-61-81
Meals served daily, from noon until midnight.