Have you ever had carnitas that made you reevaluate everything you thought you knew about life?
If your answer to that question is "no" and you consider yourself a fan of slow-braised, caramelized pork, then you are sadly missing out. Because deep in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, lies Carnitas Jaimes, home to the best carnitas in the entire universe. And, friends, the time for a carnitas (and tequila) pilgrimage is now.
I've made the trip from Los Angeles every holiday season for the past five years, just for a kilo of their porky gold. It's been a well-kept secret among locals and a handful of lucky booze enthusiasts who come in search of super-smooth tequila.
And what makes the carnitas from Carnitas Jaimes so damn special?
In a word: meat. No matter which cut you ask for, every bite is meltingly tender on the inside, and crispy and deeply caramelized on the outside, yet it's never heavy. Even tougher, stewing cuts like pork butt, shoulder, and shank all fall apart under their own weight.
Naturally, the restaurant's staff is tight-lipped when it comes to revealing the recipe. The cook, however, revealed that the carnitas are simmered low and slow for ten hours, and the meat is locally sourced and never frozen. (In fact, the pigs are slaughtered only the day before the meat arrives at Carnitas Jaimes.) The tortillas are hand-made to order from a local variety of white corn; their guacamole, salsas, nopales salad, beans, and micheladas are just as full-flavored as the carnitas.
The restaurant is beloved in the small town of Arandas, Jalisco, which is also known as the epicenter of highlands tequila. It was opened by undisputed carnitas master and Arandas native Jaime Jimenez Hernandez in 1983, and clearly still going strong. It's among the first businesses on the side of the road when you drive into town, but you'll never miss it—the toasty, porky smell of the carnitas is so penetrating that it will always find a way to get into your car.
I will admit that before Carnitas Jaimes, carnitas was at the bottom of my taco filling preferences. In many big cities in the US, when you order carnitas, you will most likely be given what is called maciza in Mexico, which is usually loin, leg, and other lean parts of the pig. In Mexico, when you order carnitas, your server or taquero will often ask you, "Que parte quieres?" ("Which part do you want?")
Therein lies the secret of an unforgettable carnitas experience, especially if you are a pork belly lover. Pancita is the carnitas version of pork belly, and it is heavenly.
This celestial experience gets better still, because after you are done eating your body's weight in pork, you will be presented with a tequila menu and partake in the tradition known as el desempance—the Mexican version of enjoying a digestif. The tequila menu at Carnitas Jaimes is filled with top-shelf brands, but because you're within walking distance of some of those brands' distilleries, you'll pay a fraction what you'd be charged back home. Hello, $3 shot of Don Julio.
It also doesn't hurt that, as of right now, one measly American dollar gets you 21 pesos in Mexico.
Welcome to paradise.