When my family first moved to San Diego, the extent of my experience with Mexican food had been confined to gringo joints in the San Fernando Valley like El Torito and Sagebrush Cantina. Once I hit San Diego State University, I found myself in a new world of carne asada, rolled tacos (taquitos, if you will) and al pastor. While I took to these new delights with beer-fueled relish, the one thing I rarely experimented with was carnitas-mainly because it often wasn't very good.
Carnitas, from the Mexican state of Michoacan, is boneless pork shoulder (known as pork butt), deep-fried whole. This is such a labor-intensive process that most taco shops don't bother with it. Instead, shortcuts such as pre-baking, pre-boiling and marinating in sugary liquid like Coke or orange juice are employed, with the pork deep fried quickly in small chunks prior to serving to give it a crispy crust.
Such shortcuts might fool the novice carnitas eater, but once you've had the real deal, these cheap imitations simply will not suffice. And, unfortunately for me, snob that I am, I had my expectations set very high with my first taste of real carnitas 16 years ago, courtesy of Carnitas Uruapan. I remember the experience vividly-it was the first time my white ass had been to a Mexican restaurant with a predominantly Latino clientele, and the intense flavors were a revelation.
Named for the city in Michoacan where carnitas was born, Carnitas Uruapan has two locations, one in Tijuana and one in Lemon Grove, both owned by the same family. The Lemon Grove location is pleasantly low-key and homey, with four display cases up front filled with hundreds of ceramic and plush pigs that have been sent from all over the world by grateful customers. People from as far away as Germany have been here and fallen in love with the authentic flavor of true carnitas.
Margaret Rodriguez, who owns Carnitas Uruapan with her husband Rogelio, says true carnitas has no seasoning at all. The flavor should come solely from the cooking method, with no phony enhancements like sugary marinades. Deep-frying creates a lot of pressure inside the food, forcing moisture and fat to travel through the meat to the surface, producing a rich flavor.
Besides carnitas, Carnitas Uruapan also serves standards like chile verde, enchiladas, carne asada, milanesa and chiles rellenos, but I've never deviated from the same two dishes I had there on my first visit-carnitas and barbacoa. Why mess with perfection?
The carnitas here are quite different than what you might be used to if you've only had the crispy, brown variety. Here, the pork is pale pink and tender. It's hard to describe the flavor, and similarly hard to believe the carnitas are unseasoned.
I recommend the barbacoa just as enthusiastically. Carnitas Uruapan's barbacoa is made with boneless chuck roast, cooked for several hours with tomatoes, onions, red wine, oregano and other seasonings until it's falling-apart tender. Served in a shallow bowl along with a generous helping of the cooking liquid, this could well be the ne plus ultra of beef stew. It's hard to decide which of the two is better, so the best bet is to order both and share them.
Both the barbacoa and carnitas come with creamy-textured, lard-enriched refried beans and thick corn tortillas that are custom-made for the restaurant. Additionally, the carnitas come with a platter of onions, tomatoes, cilantro and lime wedges for making your own tacos. The house salsa, served with the standard bowl of chips when you sit down, is pleasantly spicy with a tangy fresh tomato flavor. You can also get a dish of carrots and jalapeños, but be careful-they are truly spicy, and not watered down to please gringo palates.
Carnitas Uruapan is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, serving breakfast until noon. It's closed Monday and Tuesday. Prices are reasonable, with carnitas starting at $5.95 for a single serving, up to $23.80 for a dinner for four. Dinner dishes top out at around $10 for shrimp entrées.