It was a sad day when Carnitas Uruapan closed its doors last year. The Lemon Grove sit-down restaurant always seemed busy when I'd drop by, sometimes just for my favorite snack food—a bag of meaty-crispy-crunchy chicharones, to which no other pig skins in San Diego can compare.
After my first meal there years earlier, I called my mom to tell her about the best carnitas I'd found in San Diego. She was surprised by the name, which happened to be the same as the place we'd visited many times in Tijuana when I was but a wee-grubby. I remember a mariachi band playing inside the restaurant, and lots and lots of pork.
It turned out the same family was behind both places. Thankfully, the restaurant reopened last November, this time in La Mesa (4233 Spring St.), with the brilliant addition of a drive-thru.
This past visit, there were three of us, so I ordered the pound-of-carnitas combination and a half-pound of chicharones. It was a nice day, so we opted to sit outside, where there are two large tables under an awning in a nearby parking space.
Chips and salsa came first, followed by the mound of glistening carnitas, six warm corn tortillas, rice, beans, cilantro, onions and lime wedges—for $11. The chicharones are also served with lime. Squeeze it on and dig in.
I like to take a tortilla, spread a layer of beans—refried and creamy, with whole pintos throughout—which serves as an adhesive for the chunks of carnitas, followed by some lime and then cilantro, onions and salsa. The vibrant veggies and tangy salsa verde are the rich carnitas' best amigos; the fresh tortillas are moist, the perfect carrier for all the goods.
On other occasions, I've skipped the tortillas altogether and simply dug in with a fork. No matter how you eat it, you're going to enjoy yourself.
As for the chicharones, one of my dining companions took a bite and said it was too rich; the other made me proud and put some in a taco instead of carnitas. I like to pick up a hunk and just go for it. It's very rich—similar in experience to eating the sloughed-off coating of fried chicken—and each bite yields different flavors and textures. Some of the pig's skin fries up so that it dissolves on contact with your tongue; other parts you have to gnaw at, but the depth of porky flavor is your prize. Pork fat fried in pork fat, anyone? It's heaven, in my book.
Finding carnitas in San Diego is as easy as locating a taco shop. So, what makes Carnitas Uruapan superior? I asked one of the girls inside the shop. "It's my dad's recipe," she said. "He uses a lot of salt."
Nostalgia can cloud any eater's judgment, but I assure you this isn't the case with me and my childhood favorite, Carnitas Uruapan. Every chunk is moist and tender without all that gummy fat you probably associate with the Mexican dish. Go grub for yourself, and let me know if it was worth the drive.