When my father's family ate pork when he was a kid, his dad, who'd been raised kosher, called it "zebra." When Hanis Cavin, who was "raised in a Jewish household where I couldn't eat a cheeseburger, shrimp or pork," opened his Temple-to-All-Things-Pork it probably never occurred to him to call it zebra. But Carnitas Snack Shack is named for Cavin's pet potbelly pig, not the Mexican pork dish. And while the restaurant has some of the trappings of a casual roadside shed eatery, it brings far more than that to the table. Carnitas Snack Shack is never what it seems. Indeed, Cavin's game of illusions is only deepened at the Shack's slick new Embarcadero location (1004 North Harbor Drive).
When Cavin left the Kensington Grill, just about everything in his resume shouted "fine dining" (or what passes for it in San Diego). Triangles, Mixx, Dakota Grill, Pacifica Del Mar never, on paper, suggested the casual atmosphere or depth of soul that is Carnitas Snack Shack. Nor did they ever suggest the level of entrepreneurship that he and his wife, Sara Stroud (the GM at Kensington Grill) undertook—and nailed—at the Shack.
My favorite dish at Carnitas Snack Shack is, without a doubt, the Pork Belly App: braised duroc pork belly with a sweet-spicy glaze on one side of the plate, a frisée salad with apples, radish and a lemon vinaigrette providing a bracing, acidic counterbalance on the other. It's a perfectly, subtly balanced dish that draws, in equal parts, on Cavin's soul and his chops. If you got it at one of the highest-end restaurants in town for twice the price you'd be happy.
While the place may not be named for the classic Mexican dish of pork braised in lard for hours until tender and unspeakably juicy, the Shack does carnitas well. The torta, in particular, is special, with the grease dripping off the sandwich in arrogant, glorious disdain for annoying doctor's orders or spousal urgings. There's always the gym tomorrow. But the telera bread, crisp lettuce and tomato make the thing—like all good sandwiches—more than the sum of its parts.
The Shack's signature sandwich is the Triple Threat: pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork and bacon with pepperoncini relish and aioli. It's good—very good—but I prefer the Snack Shack BLT featuring bacon and ham with lettuce, tomato and aioli on brioche bread. It's not quite as over-the-top as the Triple Threat and, in my view, that's part of what makes it better.
Cavin doesn't ignore the vegetarians. His beet terrine features alternating layers of local beets, goat cheese and spinach topped with a balsamic glaze. It's another legacy from his fine dining days and it's a good one. The funkiness of the goat cheese balances the sweetness and earthiness of the beets. It is the richness of the dish, though, that makes it something distinctly more than rabbit food at a pork emporium. Compromise? Here? Never.
But at the end of the day the Shack is all about the pork: carnitas, pork belly, bacon, ham, chicharonnes and more. Every one of them good, every one pork. Not zebra.