This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.
How does a place become an institution? The kind of restaurant that people will travel to regardless of how obscure the location, and will then queue around the block to get a table at? You know the vibe: "There's this great little place that's been there for years and years and they do [insert name of cool world cuisine here] food exactly like you'd get in [insert name of cool world destination here.] You've got to check it out."
Carnitas Uruapan in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen is one of those places. Walk along West 18th early on a Sunday morning, and you'll see families lining up around the block for the traditional breakfast of carnitas on the sabbath.
Inocencio Carbajal, a.k.a. El Guero ("the light-skinned one"), has been making and selling the carnitas he learned to make as a boy in Uruapan with his father and uncle to the Mexican community of Pilsen for more than forty years.
WATCH: Chef's Night Out: Carnitas Uruapan
"Uruapan is in the state of Michoacán, and it's the birthplace of carnitas," explains Carbajal's son Marcos. "Every region has its own recipe and every family has its own version. Ours is fall-off-the-bone tender, where other styles might be drier but crispier."
Forget all the food trend-led hype around pulled pork; Carbajal wasn't thinking about what would be cool when he opened up shop in 1975.
"This area was full of gangs," he remembers. "It was dangerous. There were fights outside and no one came in. When I started I might have made four dollars in a day."
Despite the less-than-enticing location, Inocencio knew he had a good product and that it was worth the risk. Pilsen was Chicago's first and largest Mexican community. In the 50s and 60s, thousands of people came to work in what was then a huge industrial hub for steel and lumber for the American Midwest. Inocencio was one of these immigrants coming to Chicago to work in the meat-packing industry. After five or six years, he opened Carnitas Uruapan directly opposite Chicago's first Mexican supermarket. The gangs might have been fighting on the street outside, but he was eyeing his target clientele beyond them as they did their weekly shop.
First, Inocencio lured them in by letting them use his toilets and giving them a free sample. What they tasted was the flavor of home, exactly as they remembered it. Word spread.
"At the start, it would take three days to get through one pig. Now we use maybe 80 in that time?" he says.
It was a tight call though.
"I was down to my last few bucks and needed to buy kitchen equipment," he continues. "All I had left was a gold medal that I wore round my neck. I pawned it so I could buy a big cooking pot to make the carnitas in."
Marcos confirms: "He literally put everything into this. He'd work from 10 PM until 6 PM the next day to make sure everything was done."
Making carnitas is a slow process.
"You first have to make chicharrón," Marcos explains. "It starts out as big slabs of pork skin but we render it until it's almost like cardboard, completely dried out like jerky. We lift that out and flash fry it which makes it explode up into pork scratchings."
The fat from the skin is then used to slow-cook the pork shoulder and pork belly for two hours.
"The guys in the kitchen start at 4.30 AM to have carnitas ready for the breakfast crowd," he adds.
And just as you'd find at a carnitas stall in a market in Uruapan, once it's gone, it's gone. Which means some days if you turn up at Carnitas Uruapan for carnitas around 6 PM, you'll be disappointed. In spite of the fact that they cook around 6,600 pounds of pork every week. That is a lot of carnitas, and a lot of hungry carnitas eaters.
For a long time, Carnitas Uruapan's customers were the Mexican community who lived locally, first and second generations of families whose old habits died hard when it comes to eating meat.
"We've spent over 40 years here," says Marcos. "My parents live over the shop. We've been here so long that when people mention Pilsen, we are one of the two or three places that come to mind."
Sticking to delivering the real deal, and really good service, is what Inocencio believes gave them this reputation.
"When the sun rises, it rises for everyone," he says, quoting a Mexican proverb. "I hope what keeps people coming back is our family recipe, and our attention to service."
And possibly, the simplicity of what they do. At Carnitas Uruapan, you order meat by the pound and it comes with refried beans, salsa, soft tacos, and chicharòn. Pile it up on the table to share and eat tacos to your heart's content.
"We've never altered our recipe," Marcos adds. "We've not modified our food for the American market at all. A lot of people have asked us why we don't do a carnitas bowl, or serve it with salad. That just doesn't line up with tradition."
So, although Pilsen is gentrifying ("It's good for customers that people aren't fighting on the streets anymore," notes Inocencio), tacos are "cool," and the make-up of the community is changing, Mexican Americans still come to queue for Inocencio's carnitas, and the father and son feel no pressure to change for a potentially more hipster crowd.
"We have people coming from all over the city," says Marcos. "Now we're into the second and third generation of customers, people who came here as kids with their parents in the 70s and 80s now drive in from the suburbs with their kids."
"Not much has changed in 40 years," he continues. "All the stuff on the walls—the Mexican masks and the photographs and the pig memorabilia—I wouldn't change that."
These days, word of mouth might spread about Carnitas Uruapan via social media, and the kitchen equipment might be a little more sophisticated, but the food is the same. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
Which is exactly how legendary places like these are made: authentic food, made with perseverance, the grit of hard work, and an unshakeable confidence that though trends may come and go, there are people out there who will get up at 7 AM on a Sunday to queue for carnitas.
So, yeah, there's a great little Mexican place, and I have to tell you, if you're ever in Chicago, you've got to check it out.