San Antonio 100: Succulent Carnitas and Karaokanta at El Chilaquil

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There are many ways to cook carnitas, but most recipes start with pork shoulder cut into large pieces and cooked in water (sometimes with orange and milk) until the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown in its own, rendered fat. Spices such as bay, cinnamon and Mexican oregano may be added, and the pork is sometimes finished off in the oven. Shortcutting all that, a restaurant on West Commerce once cooked its carnitas in huge oil drums in front of the building — the deepest of deep frying. It was an impressive display.

The carnitas crown has since passed across the side street to El Chilaquil. I doubt that they throw a lot of spices into their preparation, nor do I imagine bubbling cauldrons of lard. But the end result is succulent, moist meat, both pulled apart and chopped, that comes to you by the half pound with corn and/or flour tortillas, a soupy, toasty salsa roja and some of the best charro beans you will ever have tasted — spicy, meaty and worthy of their own exalted place in the pantheon of Norteño cooking. (There are also refrieds, but, c’mon …)

Order a couple of sides of guacamole (really just smashed avocado), pile the meat onto the tortilla of choice, add guac and salsa and have at it. Repeat. Other meats by the pound include a terrific carne al pastor, and nobody will fault you for ordering some of that as well.

Should you be there on a Thursday evening, expect a little more Norteño influence in the form of the most entertaining karaoke I have ever witnessed. Called Karoakanta, the show consisted of a music-machine guy with video screens for lyrics, a camera, projected lights, and a repertoire of accordion-fueled rancheras mostly unfamiliar to me (and yet archetypically all familiar). There had apparently been a signup list before the show, as the parade to the stage was constant throughout the hour we were there. And the singers? Somebody’s abuelo in jeans and a cowboy hat; the tia, in a short blue dress and spiky heels, who always wanted to be Lola Beltran; a flashy-cool guy whose spangled belt I totally coveted; and even a Cantinflas-like character — who was one of the best belters.

So were they all wonderful? No, not really — at least in absolute terms. But neither was anyone painful, and the master of the machine occasionally stepped in with support vocals when support was needed. It was puro San Anto’ and needs to be witnessed. I loved it. Go for the carnitas, but stay to cheer, whistle, clap and lend support — unless of course you have your own aspirations.

1821 W. Commerce St., (210) 226-5410.


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