The food comes plated to our table soon after ordering: carnitas, Michoacán style. It’s served fast, but only after a slow cook. The process started days ago when a whole pig was butchered. Then, virtually every piece of it was poured into a giant stainless steel cauldron and fried in its own rendered fat for two to three hours, stirred for evenness of cooking with a large wooden spatula bearing a handle that’s nearly as thick as a human wrist. According to the owners, the pig, its fat, and salt are the only substantive ingredients in this preparation. It’s choice product, broken down expertly and then slow-cooked. The result is clean, full flavor and complex texture from a small number of ingredients, painstakingly prepared. That’s the Michoacán way.
Carnitas Don Pedro restaurant (1113 W. 18th Street) in Pilsen features this style of carnitas in the typical style of Michoacán, the Mexican state known for producing Mexican “soul food.” Don Pedro’s founder, Pedro Duarte Vega, grew up in the region.
Duarte’s widow, Magdalena Duarte, and her family continue to operate Carnitas Don Pedro since his passing in 2017. She joins us during our meal of Uruapan-style (a city in the state of Michoacán) carnitas and side orders of refried pinto beans, corn tortillas, and garnishes of wedged lime, minced cilantro and onions, and pickled carrots and jalapenos.
The ribs shred easily — tender and mild. The pork skin tastes bolder, having absorbed more salt into its tissue. It’s sticky and soft, reminiscent in texture to a thick chow fun rice noodle. The stomach bits are curled, rounded, and slightly caramelized with a snappy chew.
James Beard Award-winning chef, author, and television show host Pati Jinich tells Eater that dishes from Michoacán are often typified by having fewer ingredients than those from other Mexican regions.
Yet “Food from Michoacán is much more complex,” she says. “The carnitas from Michoacán are top of the world, and they make them in the simplest way possible — pork, lard, salt.”
Jinich also emphasizes the quality of produce found in Michoacán, with its tropic “Tierra Caliente” sub-region, as well as cooking processes typical of the state that rely on simple, good ingredients, labor, and little else. “Michoacán is a hidden gem in the universe of Mexican food,” she says. “It hasn’t received the attention cuisines from places like Oaxaca, Puebla, and the Yucatan have. Even food from Baja California is on the rise… I think [food from Michoacán] hasn’t been exported yet, and there’s no label for it.”
Back at Carnitas Don Pedro restaurant, Duarte echoes the sentiment. “The fruit, the vegetables, the stalls on the street, the restaurants — food is huge there,” she says. “Everything in Michoacán tastes good.”
In many ways, non-Mexican Chicagoans are discovering the food from Michoacán, whether or not they know it. Carnitas is becoming more popular across ethnic and demographic lines, but a lot of patrons may not realize that a good portion of the carnitas they’ve either loved for decades or just recently developed a habit for come from Michoacán recipes.
It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to go 10 blocks in any direction in many neighborhoods in the city and not run smack dab into an ice cream store with “Michoacana” in the name. If you’ve yet to try anything new in ice cream since Italy’s gelato became more widespread in Chicago, you owe it to yourself to sample the fruit-churned flavors in Michoacan-style neverias (ice cream shops) or paleterias (popsicle shops) — both typical of the ice-cream obsessed state.
In all, it makes a lot of sense that certain comidas michoacanas have become so popular in Chicago. When immigration from Mexico to the U.S. began to spike after the Mexican revolution in the early decades of the 20th century, many people from cities in Michoacán jumped on the relatively accessible rail in California and headed to Chicago in particularly large numbers.
Family-based immigration patterns led many more people originally from Michoacán to move to the Chicago area in the decades that followed. As a result, even though Michoacán is only Mexico’s ninth largest state, a remarkably big chunk of the Chicago area’s Mexican-descent population has ties to the area.
Chicago has also long had the second-largest Mexican population in the U.S., behind Los Angeles, and ahead of any city in Texas or elsewhere in the Southwest. If you search for “Michoacana” or “Michoacán” on Yelp for Chicago, you’ll see over a dozen food stores with these words in their names.
Food from Michoacan can be found in pockets all over the city, from the North, South, and West sides. In this way, it, and Mexican food general, defies the usual ethnic and racial segregation that divides up Chicago. In certain city geographic hot spots, like in and near the Northwest Side neighborhood of Albany Park, one can find a notable amount of grocers and butchers branded as Michoacana. Still, Chicago restaurants serving Michoacán-style foods other than traditional special-occasion fare like carnitas and ice cream are rare.
There are a couple restaurants using the state’s name in or near Albany Park, another in Archer Heights, and others scattered about that serve a couple traditional dishes from the state or a sauce typical from the region. Birrieria Zaragoza (4852 S. Pulaski) shows off its Michoacan version of the goat stew often associated with Jalisco. Lindo Michoacan (3142 W. Lawrence) has a mostly pan-Mexican menu of familiar dishes but also advertises a fish filet plate in what it describes as a “Special Michoacana Sauce.” In large part, however, everyday Michoacan home-style food isn’t widely available outside of people’s homes, even in Chicago.
Mercedes Cruz grew up in Michoacán surrounded by great food. It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago two decades ago, however, that she “had the opportunity to eat in restaurants.”
Cruz and her husband Jesus Quiroz own and operate the Pilsen restaurant Taquería Sabor y Sazón (2018 S. Blue Island). Their restaurant’s tasty menu of tacos, tortas, and enchiladas doesn’t currently include the type of home style Michoacan food Cruz loved in Mexico.
An off-menu taste of some of these dishes shows off some of those tastes. There is morisqueta, a roasted rice dish served with pinto beans prepared “de la olla” style (slowly stewed whole) on the side.
To make it, Cruz cooks white rice alone in a pot, without even a pinch of salt, then tops it with a roasted tomato-based sauce that includes dried serrano chiles and sauteed onion. White cheese — thick, salty, and relatively low-fat queso panela — is laid atop the rice. The morisqueta itself is sublimely simple. Each ingredient gets its own slow treatment before it’s combined with the others.
Next, Cruz prepares aporreadillo, an incredibly flavorful scrambled egg dish. The red version she makes includes eggs pan-simmered in a sauce made from roasted tomato and tomatillo, two chiles (serrano and chile de arbol), and finely chopped and seamlessly integrated tender steak called bisteck de pulpa de res.
Our final dish is uchepo, a sweet corn tamale, full of contrast between salty and sweet, sour, and richness. Instead of using the savory maiz corn common in many other Mexican regional cuisines, Cruz says that the uchepo is made from elote, essentially a sweet corn, when it is in season in Michoacán. The sweetness of the unfilled dough is balanced with a salsa verde made with the slightly sour tomatillo, and salty white cheese is crumbled on top along with a dollop of rich, white sour cream.
In food-loving Michoacan homes like the one she grew up in, Cruz says dishes like these are designed to be eaten at any time of day. After enjoying the vibrant, deep flavors of this rustic meal, diners may find it strange that Taquería Sabor Y Sazón and other restaurants with Michoacán roots don’t choose to offer full regional menus.
Mercedes feels the reason is that the “soul food” found in many Michoacán homes requires time and space not often associated with the quick Mexican staples people have come to expect.
“A lot of what people get in Mexican restaurants is quick food — tacos, tortas, enchiladas,” she explains. “All of that is great, but it can be made fast. Homemade food traditional of Michoacan is more labor-intensive and takes more time, more labor, and more space to make.”
The off-menu Michoacan regional dishes served at Taquería Sabor y Sazón don’t contain as much expensive meat as carnitas restaurants’ meals often do. Meat-filled dishes like carnitas and menudo are special-occasion meals in Michoacan, Cruz says.
In the homes of working-class people, there’s often less meat, but no less effort with and careful consideration of ingredients. Lunch features home-style cooking typical of Michoacán, she says, and as is the case with so much of traditional food from the state, it features simple dishes that use sparse (often seasonal and native to the region of Michoacán) ingredients elevated in flavor by slow, careful cooking.
Cruz is clearly passionate about this food she grew up on. But even a cook and restaurant owner like Cruz — as proud of Michoacán food as she is — has yet to include the state’s regional cuisine on her menu.
A larger kitchen would help, she says, along with more time, different workflow structure, and certainly customers willing to sit down and enjoy slow-cooked Mexican soul food instead of just grabbing things to go. The time might very well be worth spending, however, for cooks, restaurants, and patrons alike.
At a moment where street and working-class food from all over the globe is being increasingly explored and accepted, one has to imagine a place for the slow-cooked, few-ingredient home-cooking style out of the “Soul of Mexico” is possible, especially in a city with so many families hailing from Michoacán.
Before the last of the sauce is lapped up, an idea begins to percolate inside Taquería Sabor y Sazón, a way to give the well-read and adventurous, those seeking sumptuous experiences at a Mexican table more than a quick hit, a chance to sample Michoacán soul food.
“I’d love to serve this food more often,” Cruz ends, with a clasp of her hands. “Maybe we’ll have to try that ‘secret menu’ idea.”