It’s early Saturday evening, day leaning into dusk. The barbershops and nail salons are full; patrons spill out onto the street drinking from plastic cups and preparing for whatever the night may bring. Mott Haven residents making the rounds always end up at El Atoradera, a well-stocked bodega by weekday, a carnitas outpost by weekend, the requisite stop to chat, gossip, and refuel. There are no tables and chairs, just a cauldron dragged into the center of the room, trays of moist corn masa, and the culinary expertise of a cadre of women.
The short menu features a panoply of Latin American hits. There are Mexican tacos, picadas, huaraches, and quesadillas; Salvadoran pupusas served with the tart slaw, curtido; crumbly Guatemalan tamales; and Honduran baleadas, tender, hand-stretched flour tortillas folded over a schmear of beans and salty cheese. But it is the carnitas that you came for.
Nowadays, carnitas—”little meats”—are a standard dish served in cantinas, fondas, and the streets of Mexico. From Chihuahua to Ixtepec, it is a quotidian protein choice that fills tacos and complements plates of rice and beans. But making carnitas once was a cherished event, an annual whole-hog cookery anchored by a copper pot large enough to boil a week’s worth of laundry or feed a village. The celebratory feasts of a freshly slaughtered pig, chopped to bits and submerged in its own fat—pork confit, really—signaled the bountiful effervescence of the postcolonial period. Once pigs proliferated throughout the country, the carnitas technique spread as well. Recipes were traded, adapted, riffed on. You can imagine a patient, hungry crowd standing around watching the pot. Add in a little beer? Sure. Some tequila? Why not? Coca-Cola? Yes, please.
Up in the Bronx, El Atoradera proprietress Lina Chavez has returned carnitas to an end-of-the-week indulgence. She is the owner and curator of the bodegas’ wares, traveling to her hometown of Atlixco, in Puebla, every three months or so to source the products that line her shelves: locally grown oregano, dozens of dried chiles, and esoteric herbs. Her husband hails from Michoacán, a northern state well known as a hotbed of carnitas mastery. Her mother-in-law generously passed on her family’s recipe.
In the pot, chunks of pig simmer away in their own liquidized fat, imbued with black pepper, two kinds of soda, tequila, orange, and hierbas de humo—bay, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. The dish cooks for hours in a melting heat that prompts an occasional slow-rising bubble to burst at the pot’s surface. Patrons gaze; it’s as mesmerizing as a lava lamp.
Upon order, the chunks are dredged from the bottom of the cauldron with a wire basket, ready to place on freshly pressed tortillas and mantles of toasted corn picadas with a slip of bean patted inside. They are then doused in cream and topped with one of three house-made salsas: one brick red, bitter as a well-pulled espresso; a fiery green tomatillo version; and salsa en molcajete, which is made by eschewing the modern blender for the stone mortar and pestle. Serrano chiles and chile de arbol are pounded to a garlicky, incendiary pulp that will have all synapses firing rapidly. The pork has condensed into crispy marbles and glistening fatty hunks, well-seasoned and infinitely more porcine than any living swine. Leaving the shop without ordering the carnitas is like eating at Per Se and declining the oyster-and-pearls course.
“How many pounds of pork do you go through every weekend?” we asked Lina on our last visit. She contemplates, “Eh, about 100, 150 . . .” She laughs, “Just about one small pig.”