100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 32, Carnitas at Molina's Cantina
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg There's an extra step in the prep of these carnitas that makes them irresistible.
The Molina family opened its first restaurant in Houston all the way back in 1941, and today, Molina's Cantina is still making top-notch food that they're proud to call Tex-Mex. The three Molina's Cantinas in town are now helmed by the three grandsons of the original owner, Raul Molina, who moved to Houston in the 1920s to escape the Mexican revolution. He brought with him some of the same recipes that are still used at Molina's today.
I cannot say whether the carnitas on the "Special Combos" section of the menu are an original recipe. I doubt they are. But I can attest to the fact that they're some of the juiciest and most flavorful chunks of pork in town.
Unlike most carnitas, which are usually served shredded inside tacos or burritos, the carnitas plate at Molina's comes with a half dozen or so good-sized cuts of meat, as well as refried beans, Spanish rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, green salsa and fresh tortillas--everything you need to make soft carnitas tacos, just deconstructed.
See that perfect crust on the outside? That's the flash frying.
What makes these carnitas better than most, though, is the way they're prepared. First, the meat is marinated in citrus and spices for several hours. Then it's sautéed in a peppery sauce long and low to keep it tender and juicy, before finally being flash-fried. It's the flash-frying that makes the chunks of meat so irresistible. The outside gets an almost crisp, spicy finish, while the inside stays moist and captures all the flavors.
Fried, the pork is still tender enough to easily shred with a fork, but the texture is more dynamic than your average carnitas. The emerald-green salsa served with the carnitas provides the perfect dose of citrus and heat to bring out the best flavors in the fatty pork.
Put all that plus some beans and guac in a steaming hot tortilla, and you've got one heck of a Tex-Mex taco. And the best part? The whole plate (tortillas and all) is only $10.95. That much tender meat at that price is one of the best deals in town.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.