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Andres Tovar searched for swine stomach everywhere. When he moved to Miami seven years ago, he visited grocery stores and butcher shops. He perused supermarket signs, talked to meat vendors, and gazed at pork cuts such as jowl, ribs, and belly through glass display cases. But Tovar was looking for what he knew as buche in Spanish. He nearly gave up in despair.
But then he learned that the common word for buche in Miami is actually estómago and that beef tripe is chinchulín, not tripa. Now he knows that to find pig parts, he needs only to call a supplier. He still marvels at the idea of buying offal by the pound.
See the slide show "Closer Look: Con Sabor a Mexico in Little Havana."
"In Michoacán, you buy a whole pig and you get two ears, one stomach, and one tongue. You are limited to the parts of a single body," he says. "My friends back home laugh when I tell them I can order 30 pounds of pig ears."
An affable man with chocolate-colored eyes and a deep tan complexion, Tovar was raised in Michoacán, a state in central Mexico where hogs are purchased whole and pig parts are prepared in a cooking process called carnitas.
Tovar has strong feelings about his carnitas, and it shows at his teeny, cash-only restaurant on 12th Avenue in Little Havana, Con Sabor a México Carnitas Estilo Michoacán. His slogan is "las únicas y las mejores" — the best and the only ones. No other restaurant in town proffers authentic carnitas, at least according to Tovar. (He does admit there's a group of Michoacanos doing a fair job in Homestead, though.)
Tovar believes authenticity is the sole key to his success. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, while sipping on a Sidral Mundet apple soda and reclining on a plastic Lifetime-brand table outside his restaurant, Tovar asks whether I've ever heard of Yelp. "A group of Japanese tourists told me about it," he says. "We are the only taquería in Miami with five stars on there! And you know why? Because this is authentic carnitas."
What began as a resourceful way of consuming whole hogs has evolved into a distinct classification for Mexican taquerías. Carnitas, Tovar explains, is most popular in Michoacán, Guadalajara, and Guanajuato. It is not just a dish. The process involves layering various cuts of pork in a heavy pot: the shoulder, tongue, stomach, ears, ribs, and rind. The swine sections are stacked in order of cooking time. They are then immersed in lard. Cooked over low heat in a method similar to the French confit, collagen breaks down. Tough meats become moist and tender. After two hours, the hog's flesh oozes with the pure flavors of unadulterated swine.
Some carnitas-makers add Coca-Cola to the pot. Others opt for wine or beer. But Tovar uses none of these. His method involves a marinade of milk, salt, and sour orange juice. Prior to stacking up all the meat, he browns each pig part individually in lard. "Pork doesn't need anything else," he says. "Carnitas gets its signature flavor from time and lard."
There is no guacamole at Con Sabor a México. No sour cream either.
"These toppings work for other types of tacos, but they would ruin the flavors in carnitas," he says. He admits patrons request toppings such as lettuce and avocado. Instead, Tovar proffers salsas: an emerald tomatillo-based sauce with cilantro, onions, garlic, and salt, and a red rendition composed of chile de árbol, guajillo chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and onion. Both are available in spicy and nonspicy versions. He jokes: "A taco without salsa is not a taco in Mexico."
Although the carnitas specialty involves only pork, Tovar concedes and offers steak and chicken varieties as well. Some people don't eat pork, he reasons. But these superfluous items are the least tasty on his concise menu, which is packed with $1.75 pork offal and $2 beef tripe tacos.
His most popular offering is the tacos campechanos, a tortilla filled with a mix of luscious pork shoulder and crisp chicharrón, and the surtido, a variety stuffed with each pork item on the menu: ear, stomach, tongue, shoulder, and rind.
Tovar is proudest of his cuerito (pork rind) taco. "You can always tell whether you are having authentic carnitas by the cuerito," he says. "If the cuerito disintegrates or it's chewy like a rubber band, then it's not good carnitas," he says. "Cuerito is where carnitas cooks show off their prowess. Everyone who makes carnitas knows that."
He realizes that a menu packed with offal — and lacking in pico de gallo — is not attractive to everyone. "A lot of people criticize me because my menu is too authentic," he says. "But many taquerías in Miami list carnitas on their menus, and in reality it's just slow-cooked pork. They put it on their menus to sell."
To Tovar, making carnitas is about more than economic prosperity. He makes carnitas six days a week. He spends nearly 12 hours a day at the taquería. The restaurant business is enslaving. It's worth it.
"I am doing well," he says. "I've had investors come offer me money to open more locations. But I am one person, and I can only make carnitas from one place. I prefer to move forward without so much ambition. To preserve the authenticity in my carnitas, despite what all the critics say, that's what gives me pride."