Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant – Minimalism at Its Finest

May 07 2012 - 12:29 PM

I now work on the South Side of Chicago. Well, not really the South Side, but certainly the near South Side, just south of the South Loop. It’s a different environment from a restaurant perspective. Well, it’s different in many perspectives. But, after years of working downtown and having lunchtime and happy hour accesss to various Loop, River North, and West Loop spots, a smorgasboard of new possibilites has presented itself, across an area ranging from Bronzeville to Pilsen to Little Little Italy, Chinatown, and University Village.  Except on occasion, I’m far too busy to get out for lunch, but have visited a few spots that are reasonably close to the office. Sometimes my visits to a new-to-me place have been on the way home. My explorations have inlcuded new establishments, such as Davonti Enoteca, small bistros toying with food trucks, such as Flavor 180, and mainstays, such as Joy Yee Noodles. Quite a few spots have been rewarding.

One long-rumored establishment that is finally within relative striking distance of me is “that carnitas place on 18th and Ashland.” That’s how it’s been described to me over the years, the mysterious Mexican restaurant in Pilsen, off Ashland, that allegedly serves carnitas and only carnitas. Even simply finding this establishment, Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant, was a bit adventurous. Squeezed between a menagerie of shoe stores, clothiers, mercatidos along 18th Street, its understated, slightly italicized signage barely distinguishes itself.  But for that key word in the title, “Carnitas”, it could easily be mistaken for just another Pilsen taqueria.

Right away you know this place is different as you’re greeted by a giant hulking pile of fried carnitas heaped in the window as you enter. It lays there, with a reddish-brown skin and a pinker interior, inviting you to gorge on its cheap, simple succulence. Truly, all they do at this place is carnitas. They have a few other offerings on weekends and they always carry house-made pork rinds. But if you’re there on a weekday and fried, battered pork fritters disgust you, carnitas is all you’ll get.  And why would you want anything else? A golden rule with restaurants should be that if you are not good or great at versatile cooking, then do one thing and do that well.  As such, it’s hard to chide Carnitas Uruapan’s business model.

A gentleman who was cutting up the carnitas into smaller strands handed me a newly-cut piece while I parsed the menu, posted on the wall, looking for a burrito offering.  You won’t find burritos as Carnitas Uruapan, just as you won’t find beef or chicken there. Your carnitas order comes as a taco.  They have quite an unusual assembly line.   Like a sow in sweltering heat, that pile of carnitas I mentioned never moves its general area near the storefront where you place your order.  The gentleman shouts your order in Spanish to the kitchen area in back, and, eventually, a guy in a grease stained undershirt brings up a red basket full of tortillas.  Hunks of newly chopped carnitas are lumped into these doubly rolled whitish corn tortillas, and rolled into little pockets of processed carb goodness leaving oil on their tight wrappings.

He stared at me blankly when I asked him about available toppings. Your topping option is salsa.  And even that comes in only one variety. It’s kind of a mix between a salsa verde and a pico de gallo, a bit green with sizeable chunks of tomato and onion. It’s there for an extra kick, and marvelous one at that, but you don’t need it. The carnitas is succulent. Its juicy and savory, and the sinewy, chewy chunks are a glorious gnaw. It’s not overly salty, allowing the natural meaty and fatty oils to permeate your palate.  Packing tremendous flavor, these could easily be eaten cold and would still delight.

Odds are that Carnitas Uruapan is well out of your way.  Trust me on this: it’s well worth the drive. The folks at Carnitas Uruapan have mastered the craft of carnitas and they’re quite the outstanding minimalists.

Carnitas Uruapan
1725 W 18th St
Chicago, IL

–M. Sheppard