The personal order at Carnitas El Güero (Photo by John Anderson)
You can often find focus and clarity within narrow limits. This is what Mexico City-born Gustavo Reyes found in the tiny kitchen of the Texaco Stassney Foodmart in South Austin when he opened Carnitas El Güero for just $ 200 in December 2016. What began as a take-away launch with no seats in a gas station has slowly grown into a mini empire. There’s a second location with a full kitchen (and an expanded menu geared towards Carnitas) at North Lamar, which opened in early 2021. A third location in San Antonio was only opened in September. A fourth location is planned for the next few months in Dallas.
Tender, rich, umami-laden and greasy without being greasy, the carnitas here are really epic and border on a religious experience. The secret of Carnitas in El Güero is that there is no secret. Much like the great barbecue or sushi in the world, it’s all about keeping it simple and getting it right. Reyes is open about his technique and what’s in his carnitas: It’s lard, meat, garlic, salt and a little sugar. “And cook it slowly, slowly over time,” he explained on the phone.
Papel Picado in Carnitas El Güero (Photo by John Anderson)
Carnitas usually consists of a mixture of different cuts of meat, and at El Güero Reyes uses a combination of pork, ribs, belly, stomach and skin slowly cooked in lard in a cazo, the huge pot in the middle of the kitchen. It is similar to the French confit cooking technique. The standard and best way to order the carnitas here is “surtido,” and you get a mix of everything chopped to order. Or, you can get it however you want: skinny, oily, extra skin, or no skin. The skin is superb and an integral part of the indescribable and gelatinous mouthfeel.
The options at the South Austin site are limited. There’s the orden personal (personal combo) for $ 12.99 that comes with half a pound of carnitas, a mess of corn tortillas, two types of salsa, pickled onions, cilantro, lime, and a small, crispy doradita, a deep-fried tortilla. Bag that comes with a mixture of meat at the bottom of the pot (also known as achicalada). You can also order carnitas by the pound with all the fixings for $ 19.99 – this is the most common order. There’s even a $ 350 party combo that comes with 30 pounds of carnitas and guarantees a very bogus party. They run a bustling takeaway business as it is particularly popular with residents of the nearby Stassney Woods apartment complex. And it can get full. During peak hours, especially on weekends, you will wait in a line that winds around the aisles of a gas station. Queuing is a sport in Austin and it’s definitely worth the wait.
In addition to care and consistency in cooking, attention is also paid to details, such as warming the nixtamalized corn tortillas (imported from Houston) on a flat top with lard. Or opt for hot pickled onions with habanero and oregano as a condiment (as opposed to serving the onions raw, as in many places). When it comes to salsas, it often feels like the standard red and green you get on most taquerias all come from the same kitchen. But at El Güero the salsas are different and, above all, better. The red salsa is made with chili morita, a smoked jalapeño, with a rich, deeply smoky taste; the green consists of tomatillo and habanero for a lighter, spicier note. Both complement the fatness of the carnitas immensely.
The Pozole at Carnitas El Güero (Photo by John Anderson)
In March 2021, Reyes took over a restaurant division in North Lamar – in the middle of what the editor of the Texas Monthly Taco, José Ralat, calls the “Taco Mecca of North Austin” – and opened a stationary location for Carnitas El Güero. The room is your standard taqueria except that it is decorated with Papel Picado with the Carnitas El Güero logo. During the day, most television screens play football, families huddle together and jostle their elbows to make tacos out of a pile of carnitas in the center of the table. There’s loud music at niAght – it’s open until 2 a.m. – and sometimes even karaoke on weekends.
The full-size kitchen on Lamar has enabled Reyes to offer a much expanded menu than the south-facing location. Carnitas remain at the heart of the menu, but there are new options like the amazing Carnitas Tortas for $ 10.99, simply served with avocado and mayonnaise and a pickled jalapeño on the side. The outstanding new menu item is the Pozole, with a spicy, tangy broth made from pork head and guajillo and ancho chillies. It is served with hominy and of course carnitas. Rich yet delicate, it can definitely compete with menudo as a hangover cure
Speaking of hangover cure, you absolutely want to order a cantarito, the tequila cocktail from Jalisco, served in a clay pot lined with chili powder. Carnitas El Güero’s are big and refreshing, made from squirt and freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit and lime juice. There are also Mexican draft beers and micheladas. The expanded menu includes fully-operated gorditas, quesadillas, and tostadas, and there’s an evening / late-night menu (6pm to 2am) that has tacos for $ 2.99 with a variety of meats including al pastor, tripe , Chicken Tinga, and Beef Fajita. The tacos are perfectly ok but if your in a place called Carnitas El Güero they should get the carnitas.
Austin taco options won’t hurt you. And while the city has excellent carnitas – the meat market La Michoacana, El Tacorrido, or paprika come to mind – many places just serve a simple oven-roasted pork shoulder, which is then minced and maybe crispy on a griddle. But what Carnitas El Güero does with pork is simply extraordinary. It’s what happens when you focus over time.
Carnitas El Güero
North: 8624 N. Lamar, 512 / 814-1549, open daily, 9 am-2am; South: 1715 E. Stassney, open daily, 9 am-5pm