Pork It Over

A visit to Carnitas Michoacan, plus first glimpse of Sampan Cafe

Carnitas, carnitas. What are we going to do about the state of carnitas in this city?

Recently, I told a friend that I was sick of ordering carnitas, which are the filling of my favorite taco, and receiving roasted pork. "But," my friend said, "carnitas are roasted pork."

Wrong. Carnitas, which I subsisted on during my year in Mexico, are chunks of pork that have been cooked in a pan. There are different ways of seasoning them, but typically the cook cuts pork into pieces, leaving some fat attached. Then she puts them in a pan, barely covering them with water and simmers them until the water evaporates. Then, she continues cooking them over low heat until the fat is rendered out and the pork is browned. Served like that, they are slightly crispy and juicy - heaven in a warm tortilla with green sauce.

Obviously, this takes some time. So some restaurants around town cut corners by roasting pork, cutting it up and sometimes further browning the pieces. You know you've gotten phony carnitas when they are so dry you can hardly swallow them.

A restaurant specializing in my favorite Mexican dish, Carnitas Michoacan (4166 Buford Highway, 404-477-0822), has opened at Plaza Fiesta. The restaurant, part of a chain, will thoroughly confuse anyone accustomed to eating either phony carnitas or the crispy type. Nobody at the restaurant speaks English, so getting an explanation of the menu is difficult.

When I did not see "carnitas" on the menu itself, a woman behind the counter explained to me that all of the meat there - from beef tongue and pig ears to pork chops and steak - are considered carnitas because of the way they are cooked, in the Michoacan style. And that style does not produce a purely crispy meat.

Eddie Hernandez of Sundown Cafe and Taqueria del Sol, although insisting that all carnitas are pork, agreed that crispiness is not essential to the definition of good carnitas. In the central western state of Michoacan, carnitas are famously stewed with oranges and spices and, after cooking, given a bath in condensed milk for 20 minutes or so. Hernandez's carnitas are cooked loosely in this style and are among the city's best.

Although I have not sampled the menu at Carnitas Michoacan broadly - and I'm scared of the pig ears - I haven't been terribly impressed. Carne asada tasted no different from the usual around town and was overwhelmed by glutinous sour cream and too much lettuce on a cornmeal sope. A platter of al pastor did not come close to the quality of my regular indulgence of this dish at El Molino on Cheshire Bridge for about half the cost. Cebollitas, grilled green onions, were served tepid but were tasty rolled into tortillas with the meat and some slightly acidic nopalitos. Sauce fetched from a salsa bar is decent. Plates also come with chicharrones - not the hot homemade variety but slightly better than the out-of-the-bag type.

The same friend who insisted that carnitas are roasted pork insisted I try the dish at Ricardo's Mexican Grill (1355 Clairmont Road, 404-315-7734). Oy. You know, it is shocking where your friends will ask you to go at times.

As far as ambiance, Ricardo's is kind of fun. I mean, how often do you find yourself trapped in a bathroom? When I tried to leave, I found there was no handle on the door, which swings inward. Happily, a big piece of the door's bottom has been kicked out, so I was able to escape by bending over and grabbing the door there. Cool!

The "slow-cooked" carnitas were big, dried-up nubbins of pork that I literally could not eat more than a few of. How they serve something that dry without sauce is a mystery, so when you order them - after drinking six margaritas and forgetting you read this - you'll be asking for sauce. On the side were tortillas literally glued together, frijoles refritos and a dab of guac sequestered in a nest of lettuce.

Wayne whined incessantly about his dish - jumbo shrimp stuffed with melted cheese, wrapped in bacon and mesquite-grilled. They were served, nonsensically, over shredded lettuce. Mainly, he complained that he should have received more than seven for his $12.50. The shrimp were served with black beans so watery they couldn't be eaten with a fork. I should have thought to pour them over my carnitas.

I do have one compliment. The restaurant has great service - some of the friendliest I've encountered in a long time.

In West AtlantaSampan Cafe (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-367-8383) has opened in a portion of the space vacated by Commune. It is the informal adjunct to a fancier restaurant, also called Sampan, that will open next door in a month.

The best thing about the new cafe is its appearance. It is green and red with illuminated portraits of Mao, Bruce Lee and others unknown to me. Interior seating is limited but there is a large patio.

The food, I'm sorry to say, is not very interesting. It's a pan-Asian but principally Chinese menu of clichés. A chicken spring roll was freshly made and served with a sauce that could sweeten tea at Mary Mac's. A huge bowl of rice topped with fried chicken and mango chunks got a mild kick from some jalapenos and basil, but needed something besides bottled soy and siracha sauces to enliven it.

I was given a brief tour of the fancier place next door. It is a looker - black lacquer and mirrors - that seats 90. ...

The Real Chow Baby (1016 Howell Mill Road, Suite A, 404-815-4900) has opened just down the road. It's a stir-fry version of Figo, with some echoes of the deceased Balance. You pick a bowl of rice or noodles and mix and match veggies, sauces, proteins and spices at a bar. Hand your choices to the cook to stir-fry.

The new restaurant looks good, but I'm reserving judgment about the food. I visited literally the day after they opened.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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