They called him Güero, which means "blondie," but he looked nothing like a Californian surfer. He owned a nameless taco stand in El Olivo, one of those ugly Mexico City neighborhoods that stand at the tense border between rich and poor. The place consisted of a small kitchen where four aproned men sweated in close proximity, cooking tortillas over an open fire and butchering whole pigs. Close by, on the sidewalk, sat a giant copper vat where vaguely discernible pieces of pork boiled away in a broth of lard and Coca-Cola. Everything was filthy — flies gathered over the wet-fresh cilantro and the finely chopped onions and the yellowing lime wedges. People ate on their feet, holding bright plastic plates close to their chins. For a city where pale and dark-skinned people generally do not mix, it was a diverse crowd — there were bureaucrats in ill-fitting suits, construction workers covered in paint splatters, and private-school boys in Lacoste polo shirts. On any given day, the line went around the block.

I ate his food every week for years, and yet I know nothing about Güero. People told apocryphal stories about him. Some said he had been born into a rich family in Michoacán and gone to culinary school in France but had dropped out, preferring the simple life of a taquero to the chef's pursuit of cultural capital. Others insisted he was a former narco, and that he'd learned to wield his butcher's knife in the darkest corners of Culiacán. Still others said he was just a kid from the neighborhood with a gift for braising pork and blending chiles. Güero cultivated an air of mystery: I never once heard him speak. People would yell orders at him; he would nod, chop the appropriate amount of meat, and hand it to the customer over two tortillas — all without a word. He also refused to handle money, insisting that people give their crumpled pesos to a teenage assistant.

My friends and I went to see Güero every Friday after school, before we went drinking. We were young at the time — 15, 16, 17 — but we drank like sailors with a death wish. I still don't know what compelled us to do such damage to ourselves. Part of it was the culture of excess of wealthy Mexico, but in our case there was a deeper existential crisis at play. The course of our allotted years seemed to stretch in front of us with hopeless inevitability. We would go into the family business. We would marry women who had been taught never to raise their voices. We would raise children who would develop a drinking problem before graduating high school. We would never lack for anything; we would somehow manage to be miserable. My grandmother would have said we were in desperate need of a priest, but we were faithless, and so Güero became our minister.

And yet those afternoons were also full of that Mexican joy that comes from basking in your own heartbreak. It is an exuberant, redemptive sadness best captured by a group of punch-drunk teenagers stumbling on a deserted street in the gray light of the morning, singing sorrowful rancheras at the top of their lungs, having the time of their lives. That's what carnitas are really about: the paradox of celebrating and mourning at the same time. They are sacrificial food — you butcher and braise a pig when you have a reason to feast, and those occasions tend to be bittersweet moments of parting. You eat carnitas when your daughter turns 15 or your father dies; when you graduate from college or you retire from the civil service. You eat carnitas the night before you set out for the north. You eat carnitas once a week, because even though you are too young to understand the passing of time, you can already feel your life slipping away.

I left Mexico when I was 18, because I was unhappy and believed that my unhappiness had roots in history and geography. I chose to come the United States because I was privileged enough to be able to secure a student visa, and because from a young age I had been fascinated with America. It was a place, I imagined, where things were mutable, where each person was allotted more than one life, in case they chose to start again. My America was the opposite of Mexico, which I thought of as a place where everything was fixed, where memory was inescapable and history ran in repeat. I applied to 10 colleges in New England and packed all my books. I did not intend to return.

Of course, once I actually arrived in the United States, I discovered that my America was nothing but fantasy. Still, I tried my hardest not to look back. This meant, among other things, that for a long time I did not eat much Mexican food. I began to approach the meals of my childhood like a gringo would: as a welcome variation on pizza and hamburgers. Güero's carnitas and their metaphysical significance became a distant memory, much like the faces of my high school friends.

And then, last winter, I found myself in desperate need to feel at home. I had just turned 23 and had recently moved to New York. The woman I loved had settled on another continent and found another man. I had a month-to-month contract writing for a news agency, but the company would not sponsor me for a visa, and the prospect of having to return made me nauseous. It had been snowing for weeks, and the windows in my apartment near the Gowanus Canal wouldn't shut properly, such that I woke up each morning covered by a thin blanket of snow. Everything felt ungrounded and fleeting, but not in the lighthearted, liberating way they advertise at the immigration desk at John F. Kennedy Airport. I got off the subway one afternoon after work and felt a deep craving for a heaping plate of carnitas and half a bottle of mezcal.

I set out to look for a taqueria. I wandered aimlessly around streets lined with abandoned factories, auto-shops, and crumbling row houses, feeling the snow leak into my sneakers and soak my feet. And then, by one of the large avenues that run north-south in that part of Brooklyn, I stumbled upon the Country Boys Restaurant. The place has since shut down, but on that afternoon it had just opened for the day, and the windows were covered in handwritten signs that advertised, in Spanish, a taco-for-a-dollar special.

I walked in and felt like I had stepped into a mummified soda fountain from the '50s. There was a long bar, and in front of it, 10 or 12 spinning chairs upholstered in pink patent leather. Behind the bar there was a dusty mirror. There was nobody to be seen, so I sat down in one of the chairs and waited. A middle-aged man appeared five minutes later, wearing a black T-shirt and a Yankees baseball cap. In English, he asked me what I wanted. In Spanish, I replied I wanted carnitas. He went into the kitchen and came back, sooner than I expected, carrying my tacos in a bright green plastic plate exactly like the ones at Güero's. I bit into the tortilla and was mildly disappointed. The tacos were good, but they just weren't the real thing. That was my first intimation that "the real thing" may well not exist, except in memory.

The Brooklyn taquero and I talked about soccer for a while. And then, as I was finishing my last taco, he asked me a question out of the blue.

"So, do you have papers?"

I stared at him for a second. I finally answered that I did.

"That's great," he said.

I then tried to explain that I had only a yearlong work permit and that it was about to run out.

He interrupted me. "That's still great."

I tried to pay him the five dollars I owed him, but he refused to take my money. I walked out of the restaurant and went home. I still felt lost and alone, but the world seemed a shade more tolerable. Soon afterward everything improved. I found a job that sponsored me for a visa. I met someone else. Winter ended.

It was around that time that I began making carnitas, using a recipe I cobbled together from dozens of YouTube videos narrated in Spanish by men who sound like they don't like to talk. Once a month, I invite my American friends to my apartment and feed them the food of my adolescence. The tacos I make are but a pale ghost of Güero's — the store-bought tortillas you find in the Northeast are always a little rubbery, the chiles are never quite as varied, and a Dutch oven over a Brooklyn stove is no match for a copper vat over a roaring fire. Still, they do the trick. They induce that same kind of melancholic joy I felt when I was in high school.

So, in case you ever have something to mourn or something to celebrate, here's the recipe. It should feed 20 people.



For the pork:

8 pound pork shoulder, de-boned

2 pounds pork belly

1 cinnamon stick

1 piece star anise

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

2 cups lard*

1 white onion, coarsely chopped in rough ½-inch pieces

10 garlic cloves

1 bottle of Mexican Coke (or any cola made with real sugar)

2 sprigs dried epazote leaves (or a big pinch, if they're crumbled) (epazote is a Mexican herb, like an anise-y tarragon)*

2 dried bay leaves

2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano*

1 orange

For the smoky red salsa:

5 dried guajillo chiles

5 dried chipotle chiles

5 medium, ripe tomatoes

½ white onion, peeled

10 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

For the tart green salsa:

8 tomatillos

4 fresh serrano peppers

4 jalapeño peppers

½ white onion, peeled

6 garlic cloves

4 limes

¼ bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped (leaves and stems)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 ripe avocado

For the spicy pickled onion:

1 red onion

2 habanero chiles

2 cups apple cider vinegar OR distilled white vinegar

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

Kosher salt

For the beans:

1 pound dry pinto beans

3 cups chicken stock

1 white onion, divided

2 dried bay leaves

1 tablespoon lard

1 pound raw chorizo sausage

5 tomatoes

6 garlic cloves

4 jalapeños

1 red onion

For the rice:

2 cups uncooked white rice

12 fresh poblano chiles

½ white onion, peeled and cut in large chunks

4 garlic cloves, peeled

4 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon lard

1 bay leaf

1 sprig dried epazote leaf

For the garnishes:

½ pound of chicharron (that's fried pork skin, gringo)

1 white onion

2 ripe avocados

5–6 limes

3 pounds small corn tortillas

Special equipment:

1 very large (at least 3-gallon) stockpot or Dutch oven, for the pork

2 medium (at least 4-quart) sauce pots or Dutch ovens, for the rice and beans

For the ingredients with an asterisk (*) like chiles and herbs, you may need to go to a Mexican grocery store. For the lard, call a butcher.

Special equipment:

1 very large (at least 3-gallon) stockpot or Dutch oven, for the pork

2 medium (at least 4-quart) sauce pots or Dutch ovens, for the rice and beans



At least 12 hours before you start cooking:

Soak the your beans: Put 1 pound of pinto beans in a large bowl or Tupperware container, and cover them with water by at least 2 inches. Let them sit out at room temperature to soak overnight, 12–24 hours.


  1. Before you start cooking, you need to cut your meat. Start by cutting the pork shoulder into rough 2-inch cubes. The size doesn't matter so much, as long as all the pieces are pretty consistent. Leave all the fat on. Yes, all of it. Cut the pork belly into cubes the same size, but keep the cubed pork shoulder separate from the cubed pork belly.

  2. Heat a large (at least 3-gallon) stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add the ground cumin, mustard powder, star anise, and cinnamon.

  3. The moment the cumin becomes fragrant, add the lard. Two cups may seem like a lot, but push your lard tolerance as far as it will go.

  4. When the lard is completely melted and quite hot, add the chopped white onion. Fry the onion in the lard until it becomes soft and translucent, but not brown, about 3 minutes.

  5. Add the cubed pork shoulder all at once, and season generously with about a tablespoon of salt and some freshly ground pepper. You want some browning, but no need to work in batches or be elegant about it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the cubes of pork are mostly cooked on the outside, about 5 minutes.

  6. Add the pork belly and whole garlic cloves, then stir everything together.

  7. Slowly add the bottle of Mexican Coke, then add just enough water to cover everything. Add epazote leaves, bay leaves, and dried oregano. Give the whole thing a good stir.

  8. Chop the orange into thick slices and place the slices on top of the meat.

  9. Cover the pot and bring the braise to a boil over high heat. As soon as the liquid starts to boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer and half-cover the oven.

  10. Cook the braise for two hours, stirring it maybe once just to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. The less you touch the braise, the better. After 2 hours, remove and throw away the orange slices, otherwise they'll make everything bitter.

  11. Continue to simmer the braise for as long as it takes for the broth to evaporate almost completely, the meat to become impossibly tender, and the pork belly to become a glorious pig goo, about 6–8 hours more. There will still be some liquid in the pot, but it will be mostly fat. Which is delicious.

  12. In the meantime, start drinking and make the salsas, toppings, and side dishes.

  13. When you are ready to serve, use a slotted spoon or strainer to take your carnitas out of the pot while draining some of the excess fat. Fish out the leaves and the whole spices and throw them away.

  14. Preheat your broiler to high, and line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.

  15. Use a pair of tongs to toss and shred your pork, until you have little pieces of meat — carnitas. What did you think that meant, gringo?

  16. Take about half of the carnitas, spread them over a baking sheet, and broil them until they get crispy — 8–10 minutes.

  17. Serve warm tortillas and all the garnishes below. DO NOT ADD CHEESE, SOUR CREAM, CHOPPED TOMATO, OR, GOD FORBID, LETTUCE. Why? Because if you were foolish enough to eat lettuce at el Güero's, you'd be setting yourself up for a weekend in the toilet. And we're going for the real thing here, right?

Smoky red salsa

  1. Preheat your oven to 500°F.

  2. Cut the top off the dried chiles, cut them in half lengthwise, and use a knife or your finger to scrape out the seeds. Throw the seeds away.

  3. In a cast-iron skillet without any oil or lard, toast the dried chiles until they are lightly blackened on all sides, about 3 minutes.

  4. Fill a small sauce pot about ⅔ of the way with water, and bring the water to a simmer. When the water is simmering, turn off the heat and submerge the blackened chiles in the water. Let the chiles sit for 15 minutes, until they're soft and mostly rehydrated. Drain and discard all but half a cup of the water.

  5. While chiles are soaking, place tomatoes, white onion, and garlic cloves in the cast-iron skillet. Roast in the hot oven until the vegetables start to blacken, 15–20 minutes. Be careful not to burn the garlic.

  6. While they are still hot, transfer the tomatoes, onion, and garlic to a blender. Add the chiles and about 2 tablespoons of the chile soaking liquid, then add the apple cider vinegar. Season with a teaspoon of salt and some freshly ground pepper.

  7. Blend until there are no large chunks, adding a little bit more of the chile-soaking liquid if the mixture is too thick. Pour the finished salsa into a bowl or Tupperware container, and refrigerate until you're ready to serve.

Tart green salsa

  1. Take the husks off the tomatillos and cut the stems from the serrano chiles and the jalapeños.

  2. Fill a medium (at least 3-quart) sauce pot about ⅔ of the way with water, and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the serrano chiles, jalapeños, tomatillos, white onion, and garlic. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the tomatillos and the chiles turn a bright green and start to soften, 10–15 minutes.

  3. With a slotted spoon, take the veggies out of the water and place them in a blender.

  4. Cut the limes in half and squeeze the juice out of them, directly into the blender.

  5. Add apple cider vinegar and chopped cilantro, then season with a teaspoon of salt. Blend until everything is evenly combined and the salsa has no large chunks. Taste for salt, and add more if you need to.

  6. Pour the salsa into a bowl or Tupperware container. Peel the avocado and cut it into rough ¼-inch cubes, then mix the cubes into the salsa. Refrigerate until you're ready to serve.

Spicy pickled onion

  1. Chop the onion into rough ¼-inch pieces. Cut the stems off of the habeneros, then finely mince the flesh, leaving the seeds in.

  2. Transfer the mixture to a bowl or plastic container, and cover with distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Add dried oregano and a pinch of salt, then stir together just to combine.

  3. Leave the mixture out at room temperature for at least an hour before serving, so that the onions pickle slightly.


  1. Drain the beans from the water in which they soaked overnight, and put the beans in a medium (at least 3-quart) pot or Dutch oven.

  2. Add chicken stock and 3 cups cold water. Add bay leaves and half the white onion (peeled but not chopped) cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook with the lid ajar for as long as it takes for the beans to become tender, about 2 hours.

  3. Meanwhile, remove the chorizo from the sausage casings and crumble it into bite-sized pieces. Chop the remaining half of the white onion, tomatoes, and jalapeños into rough, ¼-inch cubes. Mince the garlic cloves.

  4. Heat lard in a large skillet over medium-high heat, the add the chorizo, and fry until it's almost cooked through and starting to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the chopped onion, and fry until it starts to get translucent and soft, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped tomato, jalapeño, and garlic, stir everything together, and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook until the tomatoes are broken down and the onions are very soft, about 30 minutes. (This is called a sofrito, gringo.)

  5. When the beans are nearly done, taste for salt and add more if needed. Remove the onion half and the bay leaves, then turn the heat up to high just to boil away the excess liquid, no more than 3 minutes.

  6. When you are ready to serve, heat the sofrito until it starts to sputter, then pour it over the beans. Give it a good mix, then serve.

Green rice

  1. In a large bowl or container, cover the rice with cold water by about an inch. Soak the rice for 20 minutes, then drain it into a strainer or colander and rinse until the water runs clear. Shake the rice in the colander to get rid of excess water.

  2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over high heat, then add the poblano chiles. Let them sit in the skillet until the underside has started to blacken, about 3 minutes. You should hear popping noises. Turn the chiles and repeat until they are blackened on all sides, about 12 minutes total. Place the hot, blackened chiles in a ziplock bag, seal the bag and let them "sweat" for about 15 minutes, until they are deflated and cool enough to handle.

  3. When the chiles are cool, slice off the stem and about half an inch from the top of each chile, then throw away the tops. Slice the chiles lengthwise so that they lie flat on a cutting board, then scrape out the seeds. Try to peel off as much of the gooey skin as you can. It's no big deal if you can't get all the skin off.

  4. Put the chiles in a blender along with the white onion, garlic, chicken stock, and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Blend until the mixture is a thin liquid with no large chunks. This is the cooking liquid for your rice. Set the liquid aside while you fry your rice.

  5. Heat lard in a medium (at least 3-quart) pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat. Dump in the rice and toast it, stirring constantly so that it doesn't burn. You want it to become the color of hay, like the hair of gringos from the Midwest.

  6. Once the rice is golden, add the blended liquid. Stir, add bay leaves and epazote leaves. Cover and cook over high heat until the mixture boils. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook, still covered, for 20 minutes.

  7. After 20 minutes, turn off the heat and let the rice steam for 15 more minutes. Do not take the cover off. If you like a slightly crispy crust at the bottom (which I do), leave the pot on the burner, even if it's off. If you don't, move it off the stove and let it cool.

  8. To serve, fish out the epazote and the bay leaf, then fluff the rice with a fork or spoon.


  1. To heat your tortillas: Heat a large griddle or a couple of large skillets over high heat. Add a single layer or tortillas and cook until the tortillas are starting to blister on the underside, 1–2 minutes. Flip the tortillas and repeat on the other side. When the tortillas are heated, transfer them to a large basket or bowl lined with a towel or cloth napkin, to keep them warm. Repeat until all the tortillas are warmed.

  2. To prepare the chicharron dust: Put the chicharron in a large ziplock bag and roll over the bag with a bottle or rolling pin until the chicharron are crushed to a coarse dust. You will dust your carnitas with this glorious star powder. It has all the healing properties of unicorn horn.

  3. Coarsely chop the rest of the cilantro, leaves, and stems, and place in a bowl for people to sprinkle upon their tacos.

  4. Slice the avocado in impossibly thin slices.

  5. Cut the limes into quarters.

A note on building tacos:

Proper tortillas have two sides to them — one that is more resilient, and one that will peel away easily if you rub the tips of your fingers against it. The latter is the inside of the tortilla — it will absorb the pork juices much better, granting your taco more structural integrity.

Lastly, you don't want to overstuff your taco. It's like trading in mortgage-backed securities: It sounds like a great idea at first, but your greed will result in catastrophic consequences.

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