Traif's Jason Marcus Has a Special Place In His Heart For Loteria's Carnitas

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Loteria's Tacos Carnitas Photo: Tatiana Arbogast

Each week on the Food Chain, we ask a chef to describe a dish he or she recently enjoyed. The chef who prepared the dish responds and then picks his or her own memorable meal. On and on it goes. Last week, chef-owner Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia's Zahav gave some profanity-laced love to the bacon doughnuts at New York's Traif, as made by chef Jason Marcus. What dish really moves you, Mr. Marcus?

Who: Jason Marcus, chef at Traif in New York
What: Tacos Carnitas
Where: Loteria, L.A.

"Loteria is one of the first places I ate when I moved to L.A. - a friend got me a Zagat guide and I saw that this taqueria had a 27, and I was like "whoa, I have to check this out, this is ridiculous" It's a stand in an open market with all these different food vendors, and it's just amazing, amazing Mexican food. Usually carnitas is braised in fat, shredded, and crisped up, but here it's big chunks of pork stewed in a salsa made from merida chilies. It's really spicy, smoky, deep, and complex. [Chef Jimmy Shaw] hand-makes the tortillas, everything is handmade and very meticulous. He puts a lot of care into the food, and this dish is a serious, special dish for me."

Loteria chef Jimmy Shaw explains the dish:

"It really starts with the pepper, the chile morita. In Mexico, peppers are really used more for their flavor, rather than for their heat. You know, you'll have a side of serrano or a brightly colored salsa with your meal. A couple of months after opening Loteria, people kept telling us, "we need a spicy salsa!" So when I was cooking with my mother and my brother, Andy, at home in Mexico, just south of Mexico City, we were playing with this chile, which is sort of like chipotle in that it's smoked, in fact, I call it 'the elegant cousin of chipotle.' It has a slightly later harvest, and it's sweet with an incredible flavor and full heat. So we asked what kind of salsa we wanted to make with it and eventually prepared a salsa that uses roasted tomatoes and tomatillo, with onion, garlic, and the chile morita. So the first thing was the pepper.

Often in the U.S., the carnitas you find here are roasted, which can make them kind of gamy. But carnitas is basically pork confit. I find that roasted carnitas can be very greasy, but when cooked in lard, funnily enough, they are a lot less greasy. And we also want them to be slightly sweet. To do that, we marinate the pork overnight in milk and orange juice, which is actually more orange slices and orange rinds than it is juice. We also sweeten the lard, which allows for the caramelization of the carnitas. That's the true way you find it in Mexico.

One thing about the carnitas, one trick, is the way you chop it. We serve it as a platter and we also serve it as a taco. For the tacos, you have to chop the pork finely, so it's not big chunks, but so it's also not saw dust. Then we finish it with salsa and a slice of ripe, fresh avocado. When you bite into it, the avocado coats the palate of your mouth and makes the heat more tolerable. We introduced the carnitas sometime around our second year. Our steak and shredded mole are the most popular, and the carnitas is a huge seller, along with our shrimp tacos."