Carnitas, which translates to "little meats," are hardly diminutive fare. Big on flavor that can only be described as porky, they're a great reason to ditch any diet resolutions you may have started the year with, if you haven't already. Here are a few tried and true spots for carnitas that make the indulgence worth it.
Carnitas Don Alfredo #1. Take the ceramic pigs in a rainbow of colors adorning the counter and shelves at Don Alfredo as a sign: You want the braised and then deep-fried pork at this place. Sure, the carne asada is fine, as is every other meat option on the menu, but you can find just fine barbacoa, chorizo and al pastor tacos, tortas and burritos at nearly every other taqueria. But carnitas is in the name, and it's the carnitas you should eat. There are no tables; only a small bar that lines the windows with no more than a half-dozen stools. And it's noisy, with the buzz of conversations in Spanish, a woman calling out order numbers and a persistent thunking as a man behind the counter cleaves hunks of pork to order.
Prepared estilo michoacano (Michoacan-style, a reference to the region known for especially crisp and flavorful carnitas), the carnitas are available as a filling for tortas ($3.99) or the gut-busting burritos ($3.89) as well as by the pound ($5.79 per pound), but it's the tacos that stand out at this gem ($1.99 each). Enveloped in fresh, handmade tortillas and sprinkled with cilantro and diced white onion that cuts through the richness of the pork, to squeeze the accompanying wedge of lime seems almost unnecessary. It's not. And don't forget to add a drizzle of some of the standout red salsa that burns with the characteristic deep spiciness of guajillo chiles.
2501 W. Lake St., Melrose Park; (708) 388-0844
Carnitas Don Alfredo #3. Separated from Don Alfredo #1 by a chaotic parking lot, this #3 location, which occupies the end unit of a strip mall, serves the same delicious fare as Don Alfredo #1, with additional options.
Space is less of a luxury at this bright, open spot, and on the weekends families are serenaded by a middle-aged man who sweetly strums his guitar and croons in Spanish.
The carnitas here are fabulous, and you can see the golden, sunshiny tortillas as they sear and puff on the griddle behind the counter. (The tortillas are available to go, $0.99 for five.)
2501 W Lake St., Melrose Park; (708) 345-6801
Supermercado y Taqueria Chapala. The name may reference a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco, but it's high-flavor Michoacan-style carnitas you'll find at this taqueria in the back of a supermarket in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
Head straight through the immaculately organized aisles to the meat counter in the back. Hidden behind one of the aisles and a register at the meat counter you'll find a narrow restaurant with about a dozen bright orange booths (usually occupied if it's a weekend around lunchtime). Order at the deli counter or flag down the server running between the restaurant and deli kitchen, from where the sizzle and telltale thunk of a cook chopping carnitas and pollo asada (a spiced and seemingly charcoal-roasted chicken, another Chapala specialty) emanates.
Taqueria Chapala is decidedly no frills; food comes out on plastic foam plates, and the only atmosphere is provided by a blaring Spanish-language radio station pumped through the supermarket's speakers. But the food is remarkable — and inexpensive. Tacos are just 99 cents. The tortillas are not made in-house, but the guacamole is, and only $2.59 to boot.
Supermercado y Taqueria Chapala, 7117 N. Clark St., 773-465-3907
Carnitas Don Pedro. Beloved by Chicago chefs and gourmands, Carnitas Don Pedro tops many food lists for its whole hog offerings. Glistening, juicy pieces of pig have been cooked until crisp in rendered pork fat. Order the meat by the pound ($6.50 per pound) at the front counter. It comes with condiments like salsa, onions and cilantro, as well as tortillas.
Don Pedro is a popular weekend destination for not only its Pilsen neighbors, but also Chicagoans across the city, and the line twists around the entire cramped space. Tables are hard to snag (so the best bet is ordering to go), but the wait is well worth it.
1113 W. 18th St., 312-829-4757