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When Alejandro Paredes opened Carnitas Lonja in south San Antonio in the spring of 2017, it was a shock to the local culinary scene. Even though the city is packed with taco joints, it didn’t have anything like this tiny taqueria, which focused almost exclusively on carnitas. Locals lined up for the luscious, slow-cooked pork topped with crispy chicharrón and served on fragrant house-made corn tortillas. National accolades started pouring in.

For Paredes, it was a long road to open the restaurant, whose name translates to “love handle carnitas.” He didn’t start out seeking to be a standard bearer of traditional Mexican cuisine, but Paredes has been cooking almost his whole life. He traces his passion for food back to his upbringing in Morelia, Mexico. “I started cooking in the house, cooking the rice, and helping out in the kitchen,” he says. When he was about eighteen, he was captivated by the Portugal episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show A Cook’s Tour. “Me and my cousin … were watching that episode, and we were like, ‘Man, can you imagine doing all this?’ ” he recalls.

Paredes, whose mother is American, affording him citizenship, studied at San Antonio Community College, where he hoped to go into culinary program. His family had other plans. They pressured him to transfer to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he graduated with a business degree in 2009. But at age 26, he finally entered the food industry as a busboy and worked his way up in two restaurant kitchens at the same time, Liberty Bar and the Blue Star Brewing Company. About nine years ago, he started doing his restaurant pop-up, Gallo/Toro. Eventually he became a sous chef at the fine-dining restaurant Lüke, which closed in February 2017.

At Carnitas Lonja, Paredes uses five hotel pans, which can hold forty pounds of pork apiece, to prepare his namesake product (he also serves house-made chorizo and menudo). Over the past two years, he has expanded the taqueria’s dining spaces and in 2019 opened a seafood shack on the property called Fish Lonja. Although he’s closed Fish Lonja for now and has converted to takeout-only during the pandemic, there’s been one bright spot this year: he was named a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas.

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of  Texas Monthly with the headline “The Year of the Taco.” Subscribe today.