Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo: Follow Your Nose

The nose have it
Pretty much every Mexican restaurant that caters to Mexicans sells pozole and menudo as specials on Saturday and Sunday. Because every restaurant does, there's usually nothing special about it. At the 2-month-old Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo in Santa Ana, weekends are truly special to fans of Mexican farm-style cooking. Hard-to-find oreja and trompa, pig ears and snouts, are stewed for hours in a perfectly seasoned, chili-enhanced broth along with other pig parts until those otherwise flavorless bits cook up tender and astonishingly delicious. It's soulful food that's as country as a chicken coop.

What should you expect when you take that first mind-bending bite of trompa? Snouts are mostly cartilage and fat, and like a braised pork belly or a barbecued brisket, the fat in the snout turns into silken semi-liquid while the moist heat cooks the cartilage into a still-toothy but soft gelatin. The longer it cooks, the more delicious it becomes.

From left to right: tripas, chicken and snout

Speaking of special: something you don't see much are condiments made with the searing-hot chile habanero. Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo uses it twice--first in the salsa solo para hombres, which is for manly men who want an inflammatory sauce made with habenero plus two other kinds of chile. It's kept safely away from the weak and infirm, so you'll have to ask for it at the counter. But oddly enough, something even hotter than the macho-man salsa is kept without warning at the condiment bar: the lime juice/pickled red onion slathered with nuclear-orange, ground, fresh habaneros. I warned you, and you're welcome.

Habanero-marinated onions

The menu will tout tortillas hecha a mano made fresh to order for about 50 cents more per taco. While I usually advocate the handmade option, here, the masa is flavorless, and you're much better off with the regular tortillas, delivered from Tortillería Ruben.

What else should you order? It depends on what time you show up. The extensive menu and off-menu specials await in the hot line, so there's a ton of choices in varying states of perfection or decline. Let your eyes decide which steam-table pan looks freshly filled, and you'll probably be good. Or if you see something being fried in the gigantic stainless vat, ask for that.

On my latest visit, two kinds of chicharrón were being prepared in the massive cazo just behind the cash register. What this shop calls chicharrón de aldilla is called chicharrón carnudo by other places; it's the skin-on pork belly that's deep-fried until the meat is dark-brown and crunchy and the skin is still crisp and bubbly. Ask for a piece where the skin is still pale-blond, so it's not overcooked and tooth-breaking. Sometimes the skin on the pork belly is overthick and tough, and no amount of skill on the fry cook's part will make it delicious.

The other kind of pork crackling is made from the thinner skin from high on the hog -- the back skin that's sure to cook up delicious under an experienced and watchful eye in a three-step process. First, raw pork skins are salted and air-dried to remove moisture before they're fried in moderately hot lard, where much of the fat renders out. The next day, the browned skins take a quick dip in smoking-hot lard that inflates the skins into thousands of crispy bubbles.

What might you skip? Most days, there's a big pan filled with soricua, a bitter blood sausage as black and intimidating as the expressionless stare of Darth Vader. There's birria, mild chunks of goat stewed in a chili-spiked broth, which, while adequate, isn't a stellar example. Neither is the lengua al vapor, the water-boiled, unsalted and therefore flavorless beef tongue.

From left to right: lengua, cueritos, and soricua

Get instead the carne asada, which is done nicely. Chicken stewed with whole chiles japonesas are fabulous, and when they're fresh, so, too, are the carnitas. Whole, bone-in pork butts that weigh 5 pounds or more are fried in golden pork fat until the outside of the shoulder cut crusts golden and seals moisture inside. But if your arrive late in the evening, after the carnitas are dried out and past their prime, then shift your attention elsewhere. As with most things in life, 90 percent of success is showing up on time.

Birria, carnitas, chicharrón de aldilla

Chicharrón de aldilla and carnitas, both just out of the fryer

Making chicharrón

Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo, 165 W. Pomona St., Santa Ana. Open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

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