Enjoying Tacos de Carnitas

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1164.)

There is more to tacos than simply a corn or flour tortilla with a filling. Given the many available varieties, one could easily spend several days enjoying Mexico’s favorite dish. One such variety is carnita tacos. 

Carnitas literally means ‘little meats.’ It is a pork dish that originated in the state of Michoacán but enjoyed throughout the country. Pork carnitas are made by braising different sections of the pork in large copper or stainless steel pots for several hours. Once cooked, the meat is finely chopped and usually served in tacos, although not exclusively. There are different types of carnitas, depending on the part of the animal you choose to taste, and aficionados swear by their favorite types, which can come from unexpected places—let’s just say nothing goes to waste!

As the dish has migrated to different parts of the country, its preparation has evolved. For example, in northern states such as Durango and Chihuahua, they are usually braised longer, resulting in a crunchy outside texture and darker meat, whereas in Guanajuato they are served en su jugo, or in the broth that they were cooked in, resulting in more tender meat. In Guadalajara, carnitas are used to prepare tortas ahogadas, an emblematic dish popular in our state capital that consists of a sliced bolillo, a type of savory bread traditionally made in Mexico, stuffed with meat and literally drowned (hence the name, ahogado means drowned) in a brothy sauce.

Just as there are people that swear by their traditional method when it comes to specific dishes (apple pie, barbeque ribs and chili come to mind) most carnitas makers swear by recipes passed on from generation to generation, and heated discussions can take place among fans about the best places to enjoy them. Fortunately for us, there are several choices available to us here in Puerto Vallarta. 

As mentioned above, there are many different types of tacos to explore and enjoy, and many vendors (stands or restaurants) specialize in specific types, such that, with very few exceptions (see below) you must go to a carnitas vendor in order to enjoy them. In that regard, you pretty much have three options, described below:

Parados (Standing)

Eating tacos parados, or standing up is usually done at street food stands, and this is arguably the most authentic way to enjoy tacos de carnitas. Given the scenario, many foreigners feel a bit leery of street food in general, and rightly so. For a trustworthy opinion, we contacted Eric Wichner of Vallarta Eats Food Tours, a local tour company that has been helping foreign visitors connect with Puerto Vallarta’s colorful street food scene since 2011. “We offer several walking tours around colonia Emiliano Zapata and when it comes to street tacos, a required stop is Carnitas Lalo, at the corner of Aguacate and Venustiano Carranza Sts.,” comments Eric. “They feature a nice variety of salsas, they are always packed with locals, and they work until they sell out, which can happen early in the day.”

Taco makers keep different meat parts separate, finely chopping what’s needed for each individual taco order.

Para Llevar (To Go)

It is also possible to purchase the shredded meat para llevar, or to go, and fix your tacos at home. This can be done at a taco stand, which will sell you the meat, tortillas and salsas, or at a butcher shop, although butchers usually only sell you the meat. This means you need to find salsas and tortillas elsewhere, but know that it is not written in stone that you must enjoy carnitas in tacos, exclusively. Eric recommends Carnicería Colin (Venustiano Carranza St., between Naranjo and Jacarandas) if you only wish to purchase carnitas.

Different vendors offer their own unique salsas and condiments to enhance the flavor.

Sentados (Sitting Down)

If you wish to enjoy your tacos de carnitas sitting down, a great option is Tacos Neto, in Pitillal (Juarez 219, one block away from the main plaza). Owner Ernesto Meza began his venture in 1988 with a street puesto, or stand after owning his own butcher shop. Realizing that not everybody eats pork, he began offering beef tacos and quesadillas as well. Eventually, he opened a small, 7-table eatery which he ran for 14 years, after which, he opened his much larger, current location. Aside from tacos de carnitas, you can enjoy other taco varieties there or at three satellite locations, one of which is conveniently located at Plaza Caracol. An added plus: tortillas are handmade on the spot!

Tacos Neto Owner, Ernesto “Neto” Meza

Some Helpful Tips

Tacos de carnitas are morning tacos. That is, vendors usually prepare enough meat for the day and once they run out, they stop selling the tacos. If you get to a taco stand or restaurant in the afternoon or evening and ask for carnitas, chances are you’ll be eating leftover meat.

As mentioned above, there is more to carnitas than simply carnitas, and since tacos are prepared from many different parts of the pork, it helps to know some of the lingo. First-timers will probably want to order tacos de maciza, which is usually lean pork meat. However, keep in mind that some of the most flavorful tacos are prepared with fattier parts of the animal. So, order tacos de surtido, which includes finely chopped pieces of everything. 

Some taco stands serve their tacos with tortilla doble, or two tortillas. This is helpful sometimes as fresh tortillas are prone to breaking. However, two tortillas will fill you up faster than ordering your tacos with tortilla sencilla, or single.

Not all vendors offer sliced lime unless you ask. A few drops of freshly squeezed lime juice will bring out the combined flavors of the meat and your salsa of choice.

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