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On the Road
Forty-Plus Years of Pork Perfection
Discover how a tiny kitchen in Chicago sells 8,000 pounds of pork each week.
08-24-2018
Bryan Roof

INOCENCIO CARBAJAL STANDS AT a massive cauldron of bubbling lard, stirring in sheets of pork skin with a darkened wooden paddle. Another cook reaches into a second pot of lard with a stainless-steel meat hook to retrieve racks of deeply browned pork ribs, pork shoulders, and finally a few slabs of pork belly. The small kitchen is cramped, and the air is thick with a low-hanging cloud of vaporized pork fat.

Carnitas Uruapan
Owner Inocencio "El Guero" Carbajal uses a large wooden paddle to stir sheets of cross-hatched pork skin in a large vat of lard in the back kitchen at Carnitas Uruapan, a restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, IL.

Everyone in the kitchen moves with focus and intent while the radio blares out a chorus of Mexican trumpets in the background. Three men stand scoring sheets of pork skin, quietly and quickly. It seems impossible that this tiny kitchen could sell 8,000 pounds of pork each week.

Carnitas Uruapan
A worker places a pan stacked high with chicharrones on a windowside counter.
"Styles vary from region to region; the Uruapan style is distinctive in that it is tender and juicy, not crisp." — Marcos Carbajal

Inocencio opened Carnitas Uruapan in 1975; it was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Pilsen, a neighborhood just west of downtown Chicago. He came to Chicago in the late 1960s to work in the meatpacking industry, part of a wave of immigration that helped establish Pilsen as a regional hub of Mexican culture and food in Chicago.

Inocencio's son, Marcos Carbajal, grew up in this shop and used to trade his carnitas for other kids' school lunches. The family business helped him pay for school, including an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Northwestern. After working in finance for several years, Marcos returned to the restaurant to help his father.

Carnitas Uruapan
Marcos Carbajal (left), second generation owner, and executive food editor Bryan Roof (right), photographed in a booth at Carnitas Uruapan.

He explains that carnitas is a specialty of Uruapan, a city in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Styles vary from region to region; the Uruapan style is distinctive in that it is tender and juicy, not crisp. “There should be no sharp shards of crispy meat if you're going after the Uruapan style,” he tells me, adding that the recipe comes from Inocencio's father and uncle, who owned a famous butcher shop in Uruapan.

“My dad grew up working there in the '50s and learned how to make the carnitas. The original dish, and the way we present it, is ribs, shoulder, belly, and skin, or a mix of all of the above.”

Carnitas Uruapan
Detail of a carnitas platter, including lime wedges, cilantro, onion, pickled peppers, chicharron, refried beans, empanadas, and confited pork and pork skin.

In the yellow-tiled dining room, which is big enough to hold only a half-dozen formica-topped tables, people filter in and out, and everyone is greeted like family. Inocencio is known to his friends and customers as El Güero, “the fair-skinned one,” and the nickname is so ingrained that most people don't even know his real name. Squirt bottles of salsa are stationed on the tables, and waiters deliver chopped onions, cilantro, and pickled jalapeños along with caddies of warm tortillas to accompany your meal.

As the lunch rush picks up, Marcos leans in and tells me, “This food is by and large a big weekend staple. If you're in Mexico, you get up, go to church, and then you buy carnitas afterward. That's the routine.” As in Mexico, so in Chicago.

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What’s your favorite Mexican dish? Let us know in the comments! If you’re looking to read more about our on-the-road trips in the name of recipe research, check out our article about Tasting Fajita History at Ninfa’s in Houston.

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