Carnitas Don Raúl-USA—as it is called on social media to distinguish it from its progenitor in Mexico—sits in a food trailer park along Broadway Street in San Antonio. There is a constant but quick-moving line at the ordering window. Patrons have to wait their turns at the garnish station. Spanish and English are heard as commonly as lime wedges are squeezed over cuts of maciza (lean pork butt), orejas (ears), aldilla (pork belly), trompa (pig snout), buche (stomach), cueritos (pork skin), and more–all of which are displayed behind the trailer’s window.
Order them separately or combined (surtido), served in tacos of doubled-up corn tortillas. But first, request the quesadilla moreliana with carnitas surtida. The mixture of pork cuts offers a glimmering array of textures and flavors—crunchy maciza and curled ears against slick and salty cueritos, cracking chicharrones, and chewy trompa—broken up with beans, smoothed over with cool guacamole, and held together by cheese between two fragrant corn tortillas. The assembly makes for an excellent introduction to carnitas and to one of its great practitioners.
If the name “Carnitas Don Raúl” sounds familiar, you probably saw the carnitas episode of Netflix’s Taco Chronicles. “Carnitas” translates literally to “little meats.” However, pork is the meat traditionally used in the hours-long preparation, braising in its own lard. It’s a regional specialty in the Mexican state of Michoacán, especially in the cities of Uruapan and Morelia.
Carnitas Don Raúl was established in Morelia, Michoacán’s capital, in 1991 by Raúl Pérez, his wife, and his parents, as little more than a mobile stand. “The police used to force them to move,” Raul’s daughter, Michelle Muñoz, told me. “It was difficult, but the customer base grew slowly. Some people came to see my grandfather. He loved to visit with customers. Then people would bring their families, including university students and the police.” Eventually, the family opened a taqueria in the Vasco de Quiroga section of the city. “Little by little, my father fixed up the place and turned it into what it is today. People celebrate birthdays there now.”
In Morelia, the carnitas are prepared two doors down from the shop. I found that out when I arrived at Carnitas Don Raúl at opening time and was told the carnitas weren’t available yet. The pork was being finished just down the way. Patience was difficult, but once I was seated in a booth near the front of the restaurant with a platter of a mix of cuts, a serving tray of bright salsa verde, a deep salsa roja whose heat is constant but never overpowering, pickles, and lime wedges, the stress melted away.
Michelle and Martin Muñoz operate the San Antonio outpost. They chose the Alamo City after considering Chicago, where Martin has family and which has a large population with Michoacán roots, and Los Angeles, where Michelle has family. “San Antonio is a great market,” says Martin Muñoz, who is responsible for preparing the carnitas. “There are many Mexicans who pine for the flavors of Mexico, not Tex-Mex. We also like San Antonio because there are U.S.-born Mexicans—second-generation Mexican Americans, interested in reconnecting with their roots—and Mexicans who are looking for more security and work than there is in Mexico. San Antonio is the nexus of the two. People are familiar with carnitas, but they can’t find the flavor of home.”
Carnitas Don Raúl-USA offers exactly that. Tasted alone, the carnitas at the food trailer carry precisely the same salty wallop as those at the original establishment. The addition of pickled chiles, onions, and carrots cuts the salt and transforms the dish into a glorious exemplar of the preparation. Crammed into the quesadilla moreliana, the meat results in a brilliant snack that will have you, to paraphrase Don Raúl himself in the Taco Chronicles episode, falling in love with the magical pork preparation—from snout to tail.