Deep Fried Chicago: Carnitas el Paisa
If you've never been to one before, the concept of a carnitas restaurant sounds like something straight from a tall tale. Giant bubbling copper vats of lard and pork so big they have to stirred with canoe paddles? Chicharrones by the pelt carried from the kitchen on stretchers? Guys in the back with pats of butter strapped to their feet for greasing a merry-go-round sized comal for the tortillas? I may have taken slight poetic license with that last one...
But while places like Carnitas Don Pedro and Carnitas Uruapan unabashedly embrace the porky decadence—lard scented air and illustrations of anthropomorphic pigs cooking themselves and all—Carnitas el Paisa in Logan Square softens the edges a bit. The linoleum floors and florescent lighting common in Pilsen are swapped for a homier sit down feel, and instead of waiting in cafeteria lines to order by the pound, the friendly (and perpetually up-selling) muumuu-clad owner fusses over guests from the time they enter until they leave.
The housemade Tortilla Chips (free) arrive to the table glistening with a sheen of lard. You heard that right. They are rich, they are porky, and they are delicious. More places should be frying their chips to order, and after this basket, I now have a preferred medium of choice.
If the chips aren't enough crunch for you, ask for some of the Chicharrones (free) sitting in the front window. The plate-sized piece is a little overwhelming, but you don't have to eat it all. A few bites of the crispy lard-soaked skin are more than enough to get your fix.
The plate of Carnitas ($10.99 per pound) is varied in selection, with plenty of cuts to choose from. The best approach is get to work making tacos with the accompanying tortillas, cilantro, onion, and limes. If you have any left, crumble some of the chicharrones on top as well. While everything is sufficiently porky, the smaller, juicier chunks are the highlight; the bigger the piece (especially from the shoulder), the drier the texture. And though it's best in small quantities, don't skip the gelatinous skin, which adds a rich chewiness to each bite.
If a whole plate of carnitas seems a bit overwhelming, try the Platillo de Flautas ($9.50). Carnitas are rolled cigar-style in corn tortillas and deep fried in lard until everything is sufficiently crunchy. The pile of iceberg, tomatoes, and shredded cheese on top may seem excessive, but you'll want something light and fresh to cut through this fried on fried on fried dish.
Though not fried in any way, the scratch-made Guacamole ($6.99) also deserves a mention. This isn't your standard already-browning homogeneous spackle: here avocados, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice are potato-mashed to order into a bright, chunky mass. I know because I saw the cook spend five minutes making it through the open kitchen door.
There's plenty to love about the full carnitas experience you get down in Pilsen. But if you want to feel like you're eating in someone's dining room, Carnitas el Paisa offers that, with plenty of pork and lard to spare.
Carnitas el Paisa