Today I am enlisting the help of my BF, Trilo. We are making one of our favorite meals: crispy carnitas street tacos. Yes, we do them street taco-sized. In general, our diets are completely opposite. I eat lots of veggies, and enjoy varied cuisines and trying new things. His preference, on the other hand is to stay with familiar foods: keeping to meat, cheese, and potato type dishes. So when we find a meal we can share together, we like to make a feast of it.
That’s where tacos (as well as nachos) become such a great meeting place. We can share a meal, and still each follow the style of eating we prefer. He can have his meat and cheese toppings, and I can pile on the avocado, tomato, and crema! The street taco size keeps the portions small (which I love), and if you are hungry, you can just go back for more. You can also change up toppings on each one if you want. Needless to say it would be a huge crowd pleaser if you are serving this for a party.
Big to Small, Tortillas Rule
As a child growing up (looong ago) on the east coast, we had “tacos” a few times a month. That version was largely ground beef (never carnitas tacos) with seasoning out of a packet, and taco shells that were hard “U”-shaped things that crumbled when you bit into them. Doesn’t sound great from where I am sitting now, but nevertheless it was one of my favorite meals. I enjoyed helping to make the meat filling and chopped the lettuce and tomatoes.
When I moved to the west coast, I discovered burritos “as big as your head”. Large pizza-pan sized tortillas filled with beans, meat or shrimp, rice, and whatever else I wanted to pile into it. Sauce on top? It’s available if you want it! So big, so yummy. So much food. Again, one of my favorite meals. Tortilla + filling = yay!
Viva La Revolución
Then I found out about the ‘food truck revolution’. Consequently we could find food trucks in corrals, festivals, and street corners serving up amazing food in small portions that can be easily eaten standing up. Kind of like the food court at the mall, but outdoors (and with much better food!) The food was geared towards things that are fast to prepare, and easy to eat standing up. Turns out, the taco is the perfect configuration for this setting, especially a small-sized taco. The trucks serve 2 or three in a take-away bowl, and the fusion chefs offer up all types of proteins and toppings. Carnitas tacos are one of our favorites. It’s a food-lovers heaven!
The Home Version
Making them at home didn’t seem the same. Trilo pointed out that street taco-sized tortillas were available in the market, and in the last year or so you can even flour tortillas in a street taco size. BAM! That was the turning point for me. The small tortillas, holding just a few bites, don’t let you overfill the taco. That gives you the right ratio of filling to bread. And Trilo insists on lightly toasting the tortillas on a cast iron pan. (I forgot this step once, and he is absolutely right! I won’t forget that step again.)
It’s your choice whether you do corn or flour tortillas. Trilo likes corn, I prefer flour (what a surprise!) so we serve both. Corn tortillas absolutely need to be heated before serving (I found out the hard way). Flour are more forgiving, but still are better warmed.
Enter The Instant Pot
I have historically made my carnitas in the crock pot, leaving it to do a super low and slow cook for 12 hours or more. It always turned out amazing. So you can understand my distress when (after 14 years) I decided that I may need to replace my crock pot (the horror!) It was at that point that Trilo started pointing me to this new appliance “the insta-pot”. I took a look, but I was most concerned that I wasn’t going to get a good carnitas out of it. But because it had a slow-cooker setting on it, I figured I would give it a try. I started reading about it after I ordered one, and started seeing all sorts of posts about how it was amazing at pressure cooking.
As huge fans of cooking shows around the world, I was intrigued by pressure cookers. How were people able to make those ‘long cook, low and slow’ recipes under such short time constraints? And then have the judges rave about how tender and juicy the meat was? Hmmm. Needless to say, when my “Science Pot” (as Trilo calls it) arrived, one of the first recipes to test (anxiously) was my Tasty Pulled Pork. I was prepared to order a crock pot if it didn’t turn out as good as the original. Boy was I impressed! In 40 minutes of cook time, this machine made for tender pork that rivaled the 12-hour version! I was sold.
Changing Up The Spices
I decided for this version of my Crispy Carnitas Street Tacos I would change up the spices a bit. I wanted to use some fresh herbs, and a bit of onion. And Trilo had been suggesting that I give it a squeeze of orange, which sounded like a great addition.
While Cooking, Prepare The Toppings
Since the meat takes 40 minutes to cook (plus resting time), it gives you a lot of time to prepare your toppings. I like to do them in small, covered ramekins to keep things fresh. My usual selection includes finely-sliced lettuce, small-diced avocado, tomato, and cilantro. Trilo added some finely-diced red onion. And in place of the sour cream I usually choose, we found Mexican Crema at the market. Turns out this was an awesome addition to the collection! Definitely will be sticking with that choice in the future. I also added a sliced lime, and a bag of shredded ‘taco blend’ cheese (cheddar and Monterey Jack). You can, of course shred your own cheese, and add whatever toppings you prefer.
The other thing that was new this time around: those zig-zag-shaped taco holders! I have been wanting those for years! (Thanks foodie blog for giving me a reason to splurge!)
You can easily make a large batch of Crispy Carnitas (which I highly reccommend), but you don’t want to crisp it up until you are serving. If you are only making a few tacos for your meal, just take out the amount you will be using. Store the rest of the meat (along with some of the juices and fat) in the fridge in an airtight bowl. That way it’s quick and easy to use for the next meal (whether it’s nachos or a yummy burrito bowl), and the meat doesn’t dry out. You can also use the same cast iron skillet you used to heat the tortillas, so there are no added pans to clean.
Crispy Carnitas Tacos Are Great As Lettuce Cups
For my diet, I try not to eat too much (or any) bread products. So one of my favorite ways to switch-up tacos is to use lettuce in place of the tortilla. I do small portions that can be contained in one leaf rolled up, using red leaf lettuce or butter lettuce (any lettuce works, really). Turns out the taco holder works great for holding the leaves upright while assembling. Bonus!
An additional element I like to add as a topping when doing them this way is to lay in a slice of my Preserved Meyer Lemons. The tang of the lemon cuts through the fat of the pork in such a great way. For my lettuce cups, instead of dicing the toppings, I like to do everything in thin slices that mirror the lemon slices. With some of the crema and a sprinkling of cheese with a small pile of the crispy carnitas it is the perfect 2-3 bites!
Okay, I can hear you shouting: “Get to the recipe already!” Here it is.
- 3 lbs Pork shoulder roast boneless
- 3 cloves Garlic
- 1 Tbsp Red Hawaiian sea salt
- 2 Bay leaves fresh or dried
- 1 sprig Oregano fresh
- 1 Yellow onion
- 1 Navel Orange large
Toppings (Choose Your Favorites)
- Flour tortillas Street Taco size
- Corn tortillas Street taco size
- Lettuce finely shredded
- Cheddar cheese or Taco mix, finely shredded
- Tomato cut in small dice
- Avocado cut in small dice
- Mexican crema or sour cream
- Limes cut in wedges
- Note: You can make the carnitas in advance, and have the meat ready to serve for a future meal. You can reheat and crisp up the pork while you heat up the tortillas.
Cook The Carnitas In The Instant Pot
- Gather the ingredients.
- On your cutting board, with a sharp knife, cut the pork roast into several large chunks. The chunks should be around the same size, but don’t cut too small.
- Jab a hole into a chunk and push a slice of garlic into the hole. Each chunk should have at least one piece of garlic in it. Larger chunks should have two.
- Use one tablespoon of red Hawaiian sea salt. The Instant Pot intensifies salt, so you don’t want to add too much. You can always adjust the salt level after the cook.
- Sprinkle the salt on the pork chunks, covering all sides. Turn them over to make sure all sides are coated.Place the pork chunks in the inner liner of the Instant Pot, placing the larger chunks at the bottom.
- Cut the onion into quarters, and put on top of the pork. Place the sprig of oregano on top, along with the Bay leaves.
- Cut orange in half, and squeeze the juice over the meat. No additional liquid is needed, as the pork will add juices as it cooks.
- Cook on high, manual pressure for 40 minutes. Let pressure release naturally after the time is up. I like to let the pin drop completely. (And often keep it on warm longer, this time it was on warm for 40 minutes.)
- Remove the meat to a bowl or colander, reserving the juices in the pot.Remove the onion, bay leaves, and oregano sprig. I also like to remove the garlic pieces from the meat, but if you like lots of garlic in your carnitas, you can keep it in.
- Take each chunk of pork, and slice it roughly, against the grain. Put the chopped meat into a second bowl.
- Using a strainer, pour the pan juices from the pot into a measuring cup with a spout. If you have a lot of fat on your drippings, you can pour it off. I like to keep the fat, because I think it helps in keeping the meat juicy when reheating.
- Pour about a 1/2 cup of juices into the bowl of chopped meat.
- Put the rest of the pan juices into an airtight container to use in other recipes. You will also want to add some to the meat when reheating.
Preparing The Toppings
- Note: If you are planning on making tacos the same day you make the carnitas, you can work on preparing you’re toppings wile the meat cooks. That will make serving much easier.
- Prepare your toppings in advance of reheating the meat and heating up the tortillas.Cut your toppings into small pieces, making small dice out of avocado, red onions. If you are preparing them in advance, put them in small bowls, and cover them to keep them fresh.If you are serving this for a party, put the crema into a bowl so guests can spoon it out. Do the same with the shredded cheese.When you are ready to start crisping up the meat, have all of your topping set out and ready to go. Once the meat and tortillas are ready, it’s a mad house! (just kidding) You want to be able to just start assembling your taco.
Crisping the Carnitas and Heating Tortillas
- In a hot cast iron skillet, spoon the amount of meat you will be serving for the meal. Let it start crisping a bit, then pour in a splash more of the pan juices you reserved. Let the meat get browned on one side, then flip it over.Note: Don’t use more than you need, since reheating again will dry it out. You can always crisp up more meat during serving if you need it.
- You are looking for crispy edges. Don’t overcook or the meat will dry out.Transfer to a bowl for serving.
- As soon as the meat is out, place tortillas in the pan one by one. Let it heat up on one side and then flip it over. This is a quick process. The tortilla will get a bit of browning as it heats. Don’t leave them too long.Note: Trilo does this with his bare hands, but you can use silicone tongs if you prefer.
- Remove the heated tortillas to a tortilla warmer, or put them out on a plate for people to grab as they come out (the way we usually do it!)
- By the way, my new favorite tool for this meal is the Taco Holders. You can assemble three tacos at a time, keeping them upright and open. Perfect! You may want to have a bunch of these if you are serving a crowd.
- That’s it. When you are done getting tortillas out, you can step back and enjoy one (or many!) yourself. Enjoy!