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On The Range: Carnitas

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Little bits of meat--that's the literal definition of carnitas, those bite-size morsels of pork that have served as a favorite snack food throughout central Mexico for many years.

However, according to eminent British food historian Rachel Laudan, carnitas are actually the preferred food of rural weddings in places such as the south-central Mexican state of Michoacan, where an entire pig is often slaughtered to feed hungry masses. These traditional feasts are prepared in huge copper pots and use massive amounts of lard for flavoring...although in today's more health-conscious environment, pork butt (shoulder) is used and the meat is often braised or roasted.

Too bad, says Laudan. You may be inadvertently missing the juiciest and tastiest bits. Here is her description of how to order carnitas in a restaurant in Mexico, specifically El Ricas in the booming town of Silao, Guanajuato:

"If you are not Mexican, you will immediately be asked, 'macizo'? Do you want solid meat, basically meat from the leg. You can answer yes and get tender, delicious chunks of leg pork. But you'll be missing the best bits. What you want is surtido, the mixture. "

This last can include ribs, intestines, cueritos (skin), buche (stomach lining), adilla (pork belly), and carne jugosa (juicy meat, codillo, elbow, shoulder, knuckle. "Try to get lots of this," she advises. "The crispy edges and juicy middles are mouthwatering."

In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy agrees that the pork should be well-marbled, noting that the home cook should "choose pork that has a fair amount of fat or you will have to add some lard for it to brown properly." If browned correctly and doused with salsa cruda and wrapped in a hot, floppy tortilla, you will have "the simplest and most delicious taco." Indeed, in The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh allows as how "the crunchy pork...boiled in its own fat, is one of my favorite Mexican meats."

Tucked away on a sleepy side street in a converted Whataburger in Carrollton, Tacos Plus is truly worth the effort it takes to find it. (Hint: Look behind the Midas Muffler Shop on Misty Lane, near the corner of Belt Line and Webb Chapel.) Burritos, sopas such as menudo and posole, tortas, nachos, quesadillas, and tostadas are all on the bill of fare but, needless to say, tacos are given the starring role. You can fill them with barbacoa, lengua, chorizo, or fajita meat, but you can certainly order the carnitas tacos, as well. The meat in question is identified on the menu as "pulled pork," by the way.

Yeah, they bow to the health conscious. The owner joyously asserts that all the meats are "lean, lean, lean." But the carnitas tacos remain quite flavorful, if nontraditional. She also suggests that the rather quiet weekday atmosphere becomes more lively on Saturday nights, when karaoke and dancing erupt.

Sounds to me like a scene straight from a wedding reception in Mexico.

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