One does not simply walk into carnitas heaven. No; the road is paved with plenty of sad porkers that have given their lives for something wet, flavorless and lacking any of the deep, earthy tones that the meat should be giving off.
To reach the levels of porky nirvana that carnitas can attain takes a mastery of many different elements: the cut of meat, the early seasoning, the deceptively slow simmer, the crispy finish. Skimping on any part of the process will result in something less than perfection.
That being said, taco chain places are already doing yeoman's work. Between the corporate demands to the individual franchise directives and constant price-point battles with competitors, there is little room for the care and technique that carnitas requires.
Still, it's important to stand by any product listed on your menu board. Between Chipotle, Qdoba, Baja Fresh, Wahoo's and Del Taco, there are only a couple that should feel comfortable putting their name behind the carnitas tacos they serve. So, which tacos won this round?
- Carnitas: Carnitas can be measured by degrees. Often, it's a touch too wet, giving off a soggy, mushy mouthfeel. Better prepared pork maintains its structure more completely, leaving more juices inside each bite instead of soaking through your tortilla. Top notch carnitas is a delicate mix of crispy skin bits and meaty chunks of pork, deeply satisfying and with a nice touch of salt. Perfect carnitas is something very close to a miracle on a plate.
- Toppings: Truly great carnitas needs nothing more than a touch of salsa verde to achieve nirvana. However, you'll find all sorts of available options coming standard from most chains, including leaf lettuce, tomatoes and piles of unmelted cheese. If you can't go barebones, crisp diced white onions and some cilantro are a nice option. Beyond that, you might find the carnitas getting overwhelmed under a pile of vegetation and dairy.
- Tortilla: Most carnitas tacos come with soft tacos as a default, although build-your-own spots will always give you options. For soft tortillas, you're most likely to find flour as the default option, although places vying for a sense of authenticity might double-stack some corn tortillas for you. Regardless, the tortilla should be warm and pliable, with none of the pale flakiness or gumminess that can come from poorly steamed tortillas. With as much liquid as you're likely to find in your carnitas tacos, structural integrity is a must.