Santa Ana, CA: Try the Whole Pig at Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo
For all the uncertainty that comes with opening up any restaurant, starting a 'nose to tail' dining operation can certainly seem overwhelming at first. To help get you moving in the right direction, may I humbly offer the following advice: start with the nose and chop your way down. Frankly, you don't even have to take my word for it. Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo in Santa Ana, California, is already doing exactly that —chopping from end to end, that is—at such a high level that they're proving my point for me.
See, rather than concern themselves with overwrought interpretations of what a taco should be, the fine folks behind Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo are simply doing what they do best: chopping up every part of a pig, cooking it to near perfection and then letting you put those pig parts in your mouth for a small fee, using a simple tortilla conveyance. If you think it's any more complicated than that, you should head to Santa Ana with a pen and paper, because you're going to need to take notes.
First-timers to the shabby storefront on West Pomona Street, be advised: this place is no joke. If you don't speak Spanish, let's at least hope you can accurately point at a menu board or feel comfortable mimicking the order of the person in front of you. If you're averse to all things swine, you also might want to stay away. Better yet, don't come within 50 feet of the front door.
If you're going to take my advice and start at the head, the first thing to order are the orejas, or pig's ears. Rather than the whispy, salty, crunchy ears you'll find on certain offal-inspired menus around town (Umamicatessen, anyone?), these orejas are served up in wide, thin triangular cuts. The edges will have curled slightly from their time on the plancha, but a singular taco arriving on a warm, thick hand-patted tortilla is a salty, slightly firm delight. The taste has a thin funk to it, a touch of earthiness that will let your tongue know that it hasn't ventured down this path before, but certainly doesn't mind the landscape.
The continually ambitious should move on from there to the trompa, or pig's snout. Nose to tail, indeed. You'll actually find whole sniffers, still intact, fresh from their slow chile-infused simmer and glistening under the fluorescent lighting. These are much fattier bites than the orejas, and their soft, almost gelatinous texture certainly won't be for everyone. But for those hearty folks who don't mind a thick layer of fat with their pork belly, the trompa at Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo could be the sort of thing that appeals to you.
Moving further down the pig means running into carnitas territory, which is never a bad thing (especially when it's right there in the name of the restaurant). Like any other proper porkmaster worth their snout, the carnitas is boiled and bubbled in an oversized cauldron of fat, cooking the pork through while still imparting crispy fried edges to the meat. The carnitas here is a bit more substantial than you might find at other operations throughout Southern California, with large fleshy bites tossed into your waiting tortilla.
You will still find crisp bites hidden where you least expect them, and when you do you will curse the rest of your taco for not tasting exactly like that. Then, you will sink your teeth into a light pink hunk of tender pork, juicy and salty and tasting faintly of the fatty, oily vat it came from, and you will realize that life is all about that ying and yang and you can't have the crunchy without the tender and then before you know it your taco is gone and you're at the counter ordering another.
You'll notice that these porky glamour shots aren't drizzled with salsa. Frankly, you don't need any at Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo, although no one would blame you if you brought some back to the table. Most of the options are even-tempered, imparting just enough mild heat to offset the taco's fat content. Those of you with something to prove can ask for the special salsa they keep behind the counter, but don't be fooled by the vibrant green salsa's looks. This stuff is deadly, and absolutely not recommended for anyone who wishes to remain alive.
One could, conceivably, head to Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo and play it safe. There are those mild salsas, and you are certainly within your right to order the rather pedestrian carne asada from behind the counter. But you would be doing a disservice to everything that this place is about, and perhaps more importantly you'd be cutting yourself off from an approachable offal experience that is prepared with heart and history. It's not 'nose to tail' cooking at Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo. Around here, it's simply the way things are done.
Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo
165 W. Pomona St., Santa Ana, CA 92707 (map)