The Best Carnitas Ever

The Best Carnitas Ever was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

We are in search of authentic? Mexican cuisine without the upset digestive track that we have been warned of multiple times before arriving in Cabo. The last few evenings, we grilled steak and giant red and yellow bell peppers on the oversized grill by the pool; the Costco down the road makes it relatively inexpensive to cook for ourselves. But we have heard of a local eatery that specializes in carnitas and have been assured by Miguel that the food is safe to eat, despite being outside of the tourist zone. A tiny advertisement stuck in between the pages of a photo album in our condo proclaims Los Michoacanos 2-for-1 Tacos Wednesday!? and the handwritten note that accompanies it says, Best Carnitas EVER!!!?

We drive north out of Cabo San Lucas on the road to Todos Santos, just past the new CCC supermarket and Soriana the Cabo San Lucas equivalent to Kmart – and hang a sharp u-turn in front of the American-sized shopping center. Matt guns our little rental car and amid angry horns honking, crosses two rows of oncoming traffic, and veers into a dusty parking lot filled with old Toyota pickup trucks, American made minivans, and micro-cars not so different than our rental cookie-sheet on wheels. There are no lines on the postage-stamp sized dirt parking lot, but Matt notices a car leaving what appears to be a parking space, and guns the engine again to grab the lone spot before another car claims it.

It is Wednesday at Los Michoacanos, and even though the lunch hour is over, all but a few of the tables in the open-air restaurant are full and a line of people 6 or 8 deep waits in the To Go? line for tacos. We stand at the entrance and watch as half a dozen wait staff, dressed in jeans and bright red t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs gathered around a large cooking pot, run from table to table, to the open kitchen, to a work station where a woman stands and cooks tortillas, back to the customer. They run the maze of tables over and over again, bringing soda in a can, bottles of Mexican beer, steaming plates of carnitas filled tacos, to the families and locals who sit at the plastic covered tables in white plastic chairs.

We find an empty table near the front of the restaurant and almost immediately, a waiter somewhere in his mid-20s, brings a carousel of traditional salsa, avocado salsa (not guacamole, but a thinner, pale green, almost milky sauce), and chunky pickled peppers and carrots. He takes our drink order and returns a few minutes later with a cold can of soda for me and a slushy bottle of beer for Matt.

We give our order of carnitas tacos to the waiter, and from our vantage point in the center of the restaurant, watch as he takes our order to the man behind the long counter who yields a cleaver as effortlessly as an executive does a pen.

The man behind the counter stands while he works, fetching large chunks of fried pork from a glass display-warming case that holds freshly cooked meat. He drops the ham-sized pieces on a well-worn hard plastic cutting board and with blurring speed, chops the pork into bite-sized carnitas. He picks up a handful of the shredded meat and drops it into a metal scale, sometimes adding a few more pieces to the scale, other times, taking back a few shreds before scooping the meat onto a plastic-lined piece of parchment and wrapping the package expertly. Every few minutes, the cashier handling the To-Go? orders walks to the man, retrieves a package of carnitas, and exchanges it for a few hundred pesos with a waiting customer.

But we have decided to eat at the restaurant and after bringing bowls of bean soup to our table, the young waiter returns to a table a few feet from our table and waits while a woman kneads a large round of dough across a concave stone. She pulls golf-ball sized pieces of the white cornmeal into her greased hands, smooths and rounds it until it is nearly a perfect sphere, then drops it onto the base of a metal press and brings the top of the press down quickly, flattening the ball into a 6-inch round disk no more than an eighth of an inch high. She tosses cooked tortillas into small cloth-lined baskets and returns to rolling the dough over and over.

The waiter picks up a basket full of tortillas, places three or four on each plate, and takes the plates to the man behind the counter, who drops a few ounces of shredded carnita meat on each tortilla. The waiter sprinkles the tacos with chopped onions and cilantro and within 3 or 4 minutes of placing our order, our steaming plates of carnitas tacos arrive.

Los Michoacanos serves nothing but carnitas tacos and bean soup; no rice, beef, chicken, fish or shrimp. No enchiladas, taco salads, burritos, or dessert. No chips. Nothing I am used to in California except for the carnitas. Even the beans are different.

They put a lot of faith in these carnitas,? I tell my husband. He shrugs his shoulders as he scoops four different types of salsa on his tacos. I dont understand how he can taste the food under all that salsa.

I inspect my taco before taking the first bite, looking carefully for anything that shouldn’t be in the meat, but find nothing suspicious. I drizzle a spoonful of avocado salsa over the meat and lean in to take a bite.

I realize, almost instantly, that there is no need to serve anything at Los Michoacanos but carnitas.

We return to Los Michoacanos the following Sunday and are treated to live music three men dressed in matching jeans, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats who sing and dance in choreographed unison. We arrive just before 3 pm to mostly empty tables but less than 30 minutes later, every table in the restaurant is filled with families in Sunday-clothes, just in time for the rich-Spanish music to fill the open-air restaurant. We eat several tacos each and then order one or two more and extra tortillas. The woman making the tortillas smiles when we watch her fill our order.

We make one last trek north out of town, just past the Soriana, loop a quick turn against traffic, on the Wednesday before we go home. It is late in the afternoon, early in the evening just after the sun goes down, and as we pull into the little parking lot, we realize we have made an error arriving so late on 2-for-1 Wednesday at Los Michoacanos.

Although the restaurant has no doors or windows, its lights are dimmed and the kitchen is empty and we realize it is closed, sold out of food for the day. We have been told there is no need to lock doors here even though it is in the barrio, but we have not witnessed the trust that exists, the unwritten respect here for local people and businesses, until now. It is something that cannot be legislated. We stay in the car and watch as a potential customer walks through the darkened dining room and checks behind the counter for an employee, then heads back to her car.

We could stop at Hard Rock Cafe on the way back to the condo, or pick up food to go at McDonald’s or Dominos Pizza, but we decide to make no stops at all. There are still a few tortillas left over from our excursion on Sunday and since its our last night, we decide to clean out the refrigerator. Maybe we’ll use the tortillas and cook some quesadillas on the grill.

Maybe we’ll just heat the tortillas and dip them good salsa.

I stand at the outdoor kitchen by the pool and heat the tortillas until they soften and darken against the heated bars of the grill. I slide a tortilla off the grill and feel the heat of the fire on my palms, feel the womans hands, the ridges of the press embedded on the dough. I place sliced pieces of soft Mexican cheese on half of each tortilla and remember the woman who kneaded the dough against the dark stone, rolled the ball of dough in her palms, flattened each into a disk and cooked it just before it came to my plate.

I imagine the people she must have fed, standing behind a table in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of the barrio in Cabo San Lucas.