When I was just a sprout, living deep in the mountains of Tennessee, my dad owned and operated a no-frills BBQ restaurant called Choo-Choo BBQ. Every day he would make pound after pound of glorious chopped pork and lace it with his own spicy homemade BBQ sauce. Being the little rascal that I was, I would hang out in the tiny kitchen and watch him tear the tender pork from the bone, place it in an unruly pile and chop it to smithereens; when his back was turned to innocently deal with a customer, I would shove it down by the greasy fistful and race out of the kitchen before I was caught red-handed, indulging in half the day's serving of meat. Years have passed since my dad proudly ran his one-man shop, but to this day I voraciously hunt for pulled pork that's just like he used to whip up in a rusty old black meat smoker.
Over the decades, I've had really good pork all across the world, but a few years ago, while working on a Latin-themed movie on the South Side, I ran across some bloody delicious pork that threw me straight back, square into my potbellied childhood. I'd haven't spent much time on the South Side since, but the memory of that mouthful has haunted me. This past weekend, I decided it was high-time to see if the goods were still in place locally.
Hauling ass down Cermak and into the area of Little Village is like heading into the shady back alleys of Tijuana. Don't let the area turn you off, though: This part of Chicago's South side is loaded with authentic Mexican restaurants serving carnitas, just like they roll them out in Michoacana, the Mexican state renowned for their method of braising a whole pig in a huge pot with nothing but lard to cook it down in. La Michoacana is just one of the many cafeteria/butcher shop/take-out joints lining the street, but it doles out the most addictive, intensely flavored chopped pork in the area. In business for 18 years, it's a family owned establishment that knows when not to mess with a good thing, smartly keeping the huge vats of tender, falling-off-the-bone pork rolling out twice a day.
Beware: If you come between just before lunch, you might not beat the frenzied pork rush that starts lining out the door at 8 a.m., and you'll have to try and patiently wait 'til Round Two. Speaking very little English, the staff is most sweet and helpful, understanding that even if they screw up your order, as long as they bring out carnitas in some form (be it stuffed in a grilled quesadilla, loaded down onto a soft taco with fresh cilantro and chopped onion or packed tightly into an order of gorditas), you will leave happy, content and not too shy to ask the butcher up front for another huge sack of pork to go.
The Final Rave: The no-fail way to eat carnitas is to order up a pound or two, roll it into a steaming tortilla, squirt it with a bunch of lime and chow til the sun goes down.
KEEP IT GOING:
Read It: The Chopping Block
Yep, he's Chicago's super chef and you can see him on the telly and in print with his ruggedly authentic book on Mexican cuisine, "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen."
Eat It: Ixcapuzalco
Hidden among the dregs of Milwaukee Avenue is this little gem of a neighborhood restaurant, serving up authentic Mexican cuisine cooked to order in the tiny jam-packed kitchen.
Drink It: Matchbox
This little off-the-beaten track bar produces some of the most lethal margaritas in the city, shaken like a martini and served with the rim loaded down with crunchy sugar. Careful the "margarita goggles," cause after one or two of these and they're a comin'.
Get Crazy With It: Cooking classes in Mexico
Chill with the expats deep in the mountains in the beautiful colonial village of San Miguel de Allende, where you'll cook yourself silly with the true superstars of Mexican cuisine, sweet little ole' grandmas!