Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

At the eastern end of Long Island City, past the Sunnyside Yard train facility, there’s an unlikely suburban shopping center, with a Home Depot, a Marshalls, a car dealership next to an auto-parts store, and, across from the H-Mart, one repurposed school bus — painted gray like a flying saucer — called Carnitas el Viejon.

Every Saturday and Sunday, Oscar Vazquez and Jazmin Méndez wake up at 5 a.m. to start chopping radishes and slicing cucumbers. They pickle onions, mixing them with habanero and cubed pineapple. Méndez makes the salsas, one with tomatillo and serrano, the other with chile de arbol. Vazquez prepares the pork, which cooks for hours in a cazo, the conical vat filled with a bath of bubbling fat, Coca-Cola, beer, and brandy. Seasoning is simple: cinnamon, Mexican oregano, and salt. By 11 a.m., the couple is ready to open. To find them, just look for the school bus.

The cazo is next to the window. Steam rises from the meat, as a cook chops away with his cleaver. Tortillas, all made fresh, are freckled with burn marks and fragrant. Tacos are priced at three for $15; a pound of the slow-cooked pork is $20. The chop here is rough, which gives shape and texture to each part of the animal: tender shoulder meat with jiggly, see-through skin that’s sticky to the touch; crunchy strips of ear; and chewy bits of stomach. Every piece is sheathed in fat from its long soak in the cazo. On Mondays, Vazquez goes back to his day job as a contractor.

This is real carnitas, and it is to the stuff sold at Chipotle what Lucali’s wood-blistered pizzas are to Domino’s. With few exceptions, what typically passes for “carnitas” in this city is made only with pork shoulder, and lacking the appeal of the real thing: a carnal frenzy of textures, smells, and tastes.

“When you cook an entire pig in a pot, there is a flavor that you can’t get with a singular cut of meat,” says Rick Martínez, the cookbook author and video host. Proper carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in seasoned lard for several hours. Some cooks keep it simple, with salt and pepper only; others add cinnamon, oregano, orange, Coke, beer, or condensed milk. The ancestral home of carnitas is Michoacán, in western Mexico, where it’s often made with no liquid at all — slowly bubbling away in fat like a French confit. Martínez says he prefers a wetter style usually found in Mexico City: “They call it carnitas suave,” he says. “Just really, really smooth, not crispy — it’s fall-apart pork.”

For years, carnitas fans have looked at what’s available in New York with an air of general resignation.  “It used to be rare, but now a lot of other restaurants and even street vendors are doing it like this,” says Myrna Crespo, whose family owns La Espiga, the Corona restaurant that has been breaking out its cazo on weekends since 2007.

Carnitas in the cazo — with orange, bay leaf, and everything else — at El Viejon.

Oscar Vazquez says they go through 140 to 150 pounds of pork in a day.

Pork skin, fresh out of the manteca.

Mark Antonio Garcia chops the meat at Carnitas el Viejon.

An order of three tacos: skin (top), ear (bottom left), and stomach (bottom right).

More ribbons of cueritos, or pork sin.

Photographs by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

One reason for New York’s carnitas scarcity, Martínez explains, is space: Who has room for a cazo, or even slabs of whole pig? The labor involved is another issue, but for the operators who are willing to undertake the task, the sight of meat, submerged in a cauldron of bubbling fat, is the draw: “I think there’s a cool performative aspect to it,” says the chef Efrén Hernández, who runs Casa Susanna, a popular modern-Mexican restaurant in the Catskills.

In the city, many newer operations opened over the last couple of years, and operate as street vendors. They can be found in Sunset Park, Longwood in the Bronx, and along the 7 train in Queens, the true hive of carnitas activity in this city, all using a greater variety of cuts — like at the Jackson Heights street vendor Carnitas Tommy, where there’s nose, cheek, skin, stomach, tongue, ear, and shoulder.

In early 2023, Eduardo Cuautencos and Jose Miguel Rosas started Tacos el Lobo, originally running it out of a house. In December, they upgraded to a food truck, decorated with slogans in Spanish and English, an illustration of the 7 train, and their logo: an orange wolf wearing a scarf and brandishing a knife. “They have the best buche” — stomach — one customer said, while waiting for his usual order of five tacos.

A few blocks away is Chilango’s Taqueira, a food truck that parks across from Corona Plaza. It’s owned by Luis Santos, who grew up in Mexico City and was previously an executive chef for the company that ran Heartland Brewery and Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. “I know how to do this — my family has been doing it for more than 60 years,” he says. He points to his copper cazo —  “Because it’s the real way they do it in Michoacán” — for cooking skin, ear, stomach, and shoulder. His carnitas are crispier, and more finely chopped than some others. Their flavor is also richer and deeper.

Santos, like many vendors, started the business during the pandemic, after restaurants shut down. “My wife had been saying to me for years, ‘Let’s open a taqueria,’” he recalls. “I would say, ‘Unfortunately I can’t — my job is 24/7.’” Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Around the same time, Juan Luis de Jesus started selling tamales to make money — but so did a lot of other people. As his sales dropped, he started thinking of what else he could do. In early 2023, he began selling carnitas at the northwest corner of Grand Concourse and East Fordham Road in the Bronx. At Tacos de Carnitas El Hidalguense, de Jesus cooks skin, shoulder, ear, stomach, and, on the weekends, adds ribs to the mix. His pieces are cut on the bigger side, with large, crunchy chunks of ear. “I’m trying to make them exactly, exactly how my dad showed me,” de Jesus says. He runs the stand with his wife and brother; on weekends, they bring in a couple more people to help. Business has been good enough that he’s bought a food truck, which he’ll roll out in a few weeks. “Both tamales and carnitas are a lot of work,” he says. “I like carnitas much better now, of course — it’s busier.”

The same is true at Mi Lindo Teopantlán, on the corner of 42nd Avenue and 111th Street in Corona. They fry chicharrones seemingly by the ton, and add a little bit of milk to the cazo. Here, they cook the head, ears, tongue, stomach, skin, shoulder, belly, and more. All the customers are regulars, to the point where the workers and owners know each of them. I ask one person waiting to eat if he comes every week and he shakes his head: “More like three times a week,” he says, taco in hand.

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