"Not everyone knows the difference between the taste of pork cheeks and jowls," says Andrés Martínez, one of our carniteros (carnitas experts), who we affectionately call "Don Carnitas." "You have to be an expert on both making and eating carnitas."
Andrés is definitely an expert. He handles the pot of simmering pork with grace and confidence. He is the emperor of the carnitas kingdom. That pot is his throne, his grease-and-sauce covered apron is his crown; the knife is his reign, it's where all the power lies to transform a muscle, leg, ear or nose into a glorious carnitas taco.
Carniteros such as Andrés master the art of nose to tail, or "the art of cooking and eating the entire animal from head to tail." They don't need to read Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating to know that the pancita (pork belly) is the perfect cut between meat and fat, or that the ears have to be well fried and crispy for them to taste better.
Nothing goes to waste when you make or eat carnitas.
Nevertheless, you have to know what and how to order, according to your preferences. For example, if you want to get the pork's maximum taste, you have to order a surtido de nana, buche and pancita taquito. If you like crunchy textures, the ears, fried guts or achicalada tacos are ideal for you. And if you're one of those who enjoy chewing bones like cavemen, you have to go for the rib.
We consulted Don Carnitas to help us make this quick guide to identify every delicious part of the pig that you can find in carnitas. The key is to leave your comfort zone (I'm talking to you, maciza lovers) and take a chance—go after the entire hog, and don't be afraid to get your hands, mustache and even clothes dirty from the dripping taco grease.
After all, tacos are not a dish, they're a way of life.
Maciza (lean meat)
Let's get this over with first. Eating maciza means not taking any risks. The lack of fat in the loins, legs and shoulders (lean parts) gives the meat an uninteresting flavor. It's not that it tastes bad (pork could NEVER taste bad), but there's a whole world of flavor waiting in other parts of our dear little piggy. Still, according to Don Carnitas, maciza is the most popular choice. That's great; more jowls for us.
The meat attached to the bone is delicious. It's more tender and juicy than maciza. Besides, this cut has another bonus: taking apart the meat from the bone is an irreplaceable and seductive pleasure. You start enjoying this taco even before the first bite.
The pig's soft skin has a unique texture: it's chewy, gelatinous, silky, and slippery when you bite it. You have to get used to its taste. Eating carnitas cueritos is not the same as eating the classic stadium cueritos —pickled and served in a plastic cup with lime and Valentina sauce—the former are more tender and you can taste the fat. You have to be careful not to confuse cueritos with chicharrón, which is also pig skin, but fried in a different way. The best way to eat cueritos is to combine your choice of other meat with a bit of cueritos, because if you eat a taco with nothing but skin, your lips will be super sticky and covered in grease.
The pig's stomach has a light gelatinous texture (though more consistent and less sticky than cueritos) and a considerable amount of fat. It is very tender and it has one of the porkiest bites of all. Make sure to put a lot of lime juice on it.
This is a mix of everything you find at the bottom of the pot, so you'll never quite know what you're eating. It sounds filthy, but don't overthink it. Achicalada has a very interesting, nice, flavor. Just imagine a mix of marinated and fried meats in their own juice and fat.
Only a food connoisseur can tell the difference between a pig's and a cow's tongue. The pig's tongue has more flavor. The restaurant industry has turned this muscle into a star in many dishes, but when it comes to carnitas, simplicity is the key. It has to preserve that intense and uniform pink color. If you want, you can add some cilantro, onion and a few drops of lime to the tongue. No one should die without eating eating a tongue taco first. By the way, we recommend that you ask the butcher not to chop it very much; its texture is very tender when you bite into it.
If you're one of those who still resists the intense flavor of the liver, then the kidney is for you. It's has a similar, but more subtle, flavor—less earthy and more fresh. It's delicious, as long as the carnitero cleans it up perfectly. If it's not cleaned properly, the only thing you can taste from this organ is a trace of urine.
Some people call it pera, others rabo. This part between the tail and the anus is not good for a taco. You have to eat it in small bites and its gelatinous consistency resembles that of the pig's feet, although the tail has more fat and less flavor.
It's the most attractive part of any leg. In one bite, you take away both a piece of fat and meat. It doesn't quite have a vibrant flavor, but it does have a lot more character than a maciza taco.
Suck on them, bite them, get as much meat, cartilage, fat and skin as you can.
It has a porous texture and its flavor preserves the animal's pure essence. A chopped lung in a tortilla isn't very attractive, but if you take a closer look you can see some small holes and grey tones that remind you of an anti-tobacco ad.
Let's not forget liver. It has a very strong and invasive flavor, and its texture is tender and earthy. Either you love it or you hate it.
The pig's uterus is tender and light, and it doesn't taste like anything you've ever eaten before. Although it's not very strong, it stands out over all the lime, cilantro and onions you can possibly put in the taco.
When cleaned and fried properly, the guts are a delicacy. You don't find them that much in carnitas because they're very expensive, so they're more often used in cold cuts.
If you look at the face long enough, it's very easy to imagine how cute and happy the pig you're about to eat used to be. But sentimentality is not tolerated when it comes to using a pig for tacos, so ask the carnitero to chop it very well so that it's easier to eat. It's greasy, gelatinous and it has a ton of flavor.
Truth be told, you might as well avoid the ear and save room in your stomach for a tastier taco. Ear confit doesn't have a memorable taste, although its texture—a mix between crunchy and cartilaginous—is quite fun.
Just like pig's eyes, brains sell like hotcakes. They melt in your mouth and their flavor is very intense. No one is (that) afraid of cysticercosis anymore, or are they?
This is one of most precious parts of the pig. The tenderness of the glans and the greasiness of the meat feel like velvet on your tongue.
It's not very popular, and quite rare, but according to Don Carnitas, there are people that only eat penis tacos. Its flavor is not that different from the pig's viscera.
Just like the penis, only a few people eat it. Its taste and consistency are similar to the liver, but for some unknown reason, it is not that flavorful.
Nothing but love for the pork's heart. It tastes better than it looks. Make sure you order it next time you're at your favorite carnitas place. It's totally worth it.
Pancita (pork belly)
The pork belly might be the perfect cut. Carniteros cut in between the meat and the fat of the belly with precision, so it turns out to be an absolute delicacy. Having the best pork belly is priority for any chef.
After we overdosed on carnitas tacos we concluded two things: 1) We will never order a maciza taco, and 2) The best taco of all is the campechano, but we will have to try a lot more tacos until we find the perfect combination.