The lineup at the takeout counter just inside the doorway of Carnitas Don Pedro, on W. 18th Street on Chicago's Lower West Side, starts to form each morning by 6:30. Squeeze your way past, settle in at one of the Formica-topped cafeteria tables, have a look around, and you may notice that a pair of mounted, shaggy black steer heads flank that busy front door. But take it from me – it is pigs and not bovines that lose precious sleep to nightmares about this place.
No pig is safe here – and no part of them either. Snouts and ears float on the surface of the pork braise perpetually simmering in massive copper cauldrons in the back kitchen. No sooner do you take a seat than a cardboard box overflowing with chicharrones de puerco – crisp-fried pork skin – is placed in front or you. Reach for a napkin to clean up a little after scoffing one and you will notice that the dispenser is decorated with a mini-butcher's chart of a pig, divided into its constituent edible parts, identified bilingually. When the waitress turns up again she suggests a breakfast of pork-tripe soup, and adds that Don Pedro's take on carnitas features a bit of braised tripe, skin and stomach folded in with the customary pork meat.
"I'll take that, and three pork-brain tacos, please," I said, to my wife's visible dismay.
According to local chef Rick Bayless, the best-know proponent of Mexican cookery in the United States, and the owner and executive chef of the Michelin-recommended Frontera Grill, his city offers Mexican cuisine of unique authenticity.
The city's Mexican population is well over half a million, and in the United States trails only that of Los Angeles. Strength in numbers has combined with geographic concentration. The Lower West Side neighbourhood of Pilsen, which was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by Germans and Irish, followed by Czechs, has been majority Latino since the early 1970s. Cultural security has spared Mexican food here of the culinary pressures and influences at play across the rest of the country. You will find no Tex-Mex melting pot on stoves; just the same old grub they used to make back home. It has not been diluted to appeal to the local American palate because, well, the locals are all Mexican.
Not skinny ones, either – which is unsurprising when the full extent of the Mexican breakfast makes itself apparent. Even though I declined the tripe soup, which I think of more as an afternoon or late-night snack, the spread was a feast.
The chicharrones bested bacon in crunch and general, oily impact. Then there was a dish of palate-awakening pickled jalapenos mixed with carrots. There was a big bowl of biting salsa fresca with which to dress up the tacos, as well another full of chopped white onion mixed with cilantro. There were crisp-fried brain tacos, and an oval plate mounded with steaming-hot pork and offal. Finally, a plate of large lime wedges, because while the Mexican palate loves fat, that must by necessity be counter-balanced with a brightening splash of acidity .
All the same, I was thinking of tete de veau with sauce gribiche on baguette – the traditional early morning breakfast at Rungis in Paris – as I reached first for a hard-shell brain taco. And although the concoction will not be displacing my poached eggs and croissants any time soon, it was very good . The oregano-spiked brains were soft and creamy, and definitely suited to crisp shell rather than soft. A squirt of tomatillo salsa rendered it near perfect.
The carnitas were just that: the pork meat supple and moist and well seasoned, its texture and flavour enriched with the strips of skin and stomach. We tried a sample of the chile-braised pork on the side, and some braised brisket, too. With two bottles of water and two coffees, the tally for our morning feast came to $14.
Which, now that I think about it, would account for the blank stares we received when asking if anyone could call us a cab. So we chanced it and walked off into the rain. We were full, but not enough to stop us from buying tamales from a cart. We had only wandered a block when we found a charming Mexican café with a stamped tin ceiling, their display cases full of Mexican pastries and panes (breads) that we had no room for. Instead, we sipped espresso and Mayan hot chocolate while reading stacks of fliers for the Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
WHERE TO EAT
Carnitas Don Pedro A ton of delicious food for not much money. Order the brain tacos if you dare. 1113 W. 18th St.; 312-829-4757
Nuevo Leon Restaurant It is one of 20 restaurants in Chicago to have received the local Consulate General of Mexico's certificate of authenticity. Best known for a signature spicy beef stew. 1515 W. 18th St.; 312-421-1517
Birrería Reyes de Ocotlan Best tacos to try: cabeza (a mixture of beef cheeks and jowls), lengua (chopped beef tongue) and birria (shredded goat meat). 1322 W 18th St.; 312-733-2613
La Lagartija Taqueria Go for the queso fundido. Because while most places sell just the basic dish they offer no fewer that five different takes, one of them with poblanos and corn, one with mushrooms and so on. 132 S. Ashland Ave.; 312-733-7772
Tamalli Space Charros This is the best known of the tamale trucks you'll see all over the place. Definitely the best place to procure chicken (in green peanut) mole or flank steak in (black) mole from a charro (Mexican cowboy) in a Mexican wrestling mask.
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo If you want something a little swankier, the standard bearer remains these conjoined restaurants from Rick Bayless, recently anointed with a Bib Gourmand from Michelin. 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434