100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 7, Chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex
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 Chilorio tastes surprisingly complex for how simple it is to execute.
"Is there mint in this?" I mused aloud.
"No, not mint," said my friend. "Maybe Mexican oregano?"
"Right, because it almost has a licorice flavor. And I definitely taste cumin."
"I thought I was getting cinnamon, but I could be wrong."
We looked over at the server delivering another giant margarita.
"What's in this? It's delicious, but we can't quite figure it out."
"It's a secret," he said mischievously. "It's a great mystery." And then he walked away.
Ahh, the great mystery of the chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex.
OK, so it's really not that much of a mystery. After all, a quick Google search of "chilorio recipe" turns up more than 5,000 hits, many of which are very similar.
Like the online recipes, Pico's chilorio starts with pork butt that's been slow cooked--often in orange juice--for hours to produce maximum tenderness. Then the spices come in--varying in number according to different recipes, but always rich with cumin, oregano, garlic and dark, smoky ancho chiles. They're blended into a purée, then stewed with the pulled pork until the meat has taken on a ruddy color and completely absorbed the spices.
The result is a dish that's hot, but not too hot for people who are less inclined to crave spicy food. It's got enough heat to provide a tickling burn in the back of your mouth and to make you salivate just a little more, but the flavor of the pork still comes through. Too much heat, and you'd lose the taste of the pork completely. Pico's gets it just right.
In looking back at the menu to write about this, I noticed that the dish is served with pico de gallo, avocado slices and fresh tortillas. Perhaps it's because I always have a margarita in my hand when dining at Picos, or perhaps it's because the chilorio itself is so good, but I was surprised to see it comes with extras that I vaguely remember. Sure, the tortillas and pico de gallo at Pico's are great--no doubt about it. But whenever there's a cast iron skillet of chilorios in front of me, I tend to attack it head on with a fork, ignoring anything else around me.
The Napoleon de Ceviche at Pico's is also heavenly.
I've never been to Sinaloa, the Mexican state where chilorio originated, but every time I eat at Pico's, it's like I'm taking a little vacation. A plate of Napoleon de Ceviche, a plate of chilorios and a tart margarita on the rocks, and I might as well be on the Mexican coast.
Sidenote: I'm really, really happy that Pico's Mex-Mex now has a location inside the Loop, and that it happens to be walking distance from my abode. Many thanks to whichever culinary gods made that happen. And if I gain ten pounds in the near future, you'll know why.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.