Follow Your Ears to the Best Mexican Food in Chicago

Marcos Carbajal’s Chicago restaurant is known for their carnitas, but seared into the crispy, tender bits of pork that brings generations of Mexicans to his tiny restaurant is something that can’t be replicated by any one recipe or ingredient—memory.

Two servers chop carnitas and package to-go orders inside Carnitas Uruapan, a Mexican carnitas restaurant in Chicago. Rewire PBS Living Mexican
Two servers chop carnitas and package to-go orders inside Carnitas Uruapan, a Mexican carnitas restaurant in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Carbajal’s father, Inocencio “El Guero” Carbajal, opened Las Carnitas Uruapan 43 years ago in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the heart of the city’s Mexican community. He grew up making carnitas with his father and uncle in the Michoacán city of Uruapan. They used the whole hog from snout to tail and seared it first to give it its signature crispy outside and tender inside.

Marcos Carbajal’s father brought those traditions to Chicago. Today, he uses the same cooking style and often offers samples of meat to any customer who asks.

“My Dad comes from a culture and knows that you’re not just selling food—you gotta sell some of yourself as well,” Marcos Carbajal said.

The next generation

On weekends, the place becomes a version of the markets where Marcos Carbajal’s father once sold carnitas as a child. The smoky smell of seared pork drifts to the nearby train station, and the restaurant bustles with loud Mexican music, laughter and people speaking Spanish, Marcos Carbajal said.

Father and son pose for a photograph in their restaurant in Chicago. Rewire PBS Mexican
Marcos Carbajal, left, and his father Inocencio Carbajal stand in the kitchen of their Chicago restaurant, Carnitas Uruapan. Inocencio Carbajal opened the restaurant 43 years ago in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and specializes in Uruapan-style carnitas. Photo by Brian Nordli.

This is where Marcos Carbajal, 34, grew up. It’s where he snuck into the kitchen unpermitted at age 5 to help the cooks, did his homework at the tables, bussed and worked over his high school summers. It’s also his connection to his heritage. Today he co-owns the restaurant with his father.

“One of the things that drove me to restaurant is that there wasn’t a lot of things like it in the market,” said Marcos Carbajal, who once worked in finance. “We fill a void in our community and provide a quality version of it… It’s a way of maintaining culture through food.”

Food has the power to transport a person through time and place. The sights, the smells, the taste can bring a person back to their roots, back to a tradition, a celebration, a moment. For others, a dish made with care can be like a passport into a different country, without the airfare. It just takes knowing where to look.

A special place for food

The Carbajals’ restaurant is not the only one in Chicago serving up heaping portions of Mexican culture, history and nostalgia.

The Chicago metropolitan area is home to the second-largest population of Mexicans in the U.S., with the largest populations in the Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, said Cesareo Moreno, chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. At the heart of these communities is food.

In Pilsen, eaters can find heaping portions of carnitas, bowls of menudo and white posole, and tender carne asada tacos. Each dish carries with it the traditions of its hometown, from Michoacán to Jalisco to Zacatecas to Durango. Meanwhile, grocery stores are stocked with ingredients special to Mexico, like dried chiles, cremeria and mole. They not only fill bellies but act as touchstones of familiarity in a foreign land.

Two pigs decorate the wall inside Las Carnitas Uruapan. Rewire PBS Living Mexican
Two pigs decorate the wall inside Las Carnitas Uruapan. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Chicago’s vibrant Mexican food culture is featured in new PBS show “No Passport Required.” In the Chicago episode, host and chef Marcus Samuelsson tours Carnitas Uruapan and talks with the chefs. He also made Oaxaca-style green mole with chef Diana Dávila of Mi Tocaya and experimental tamales with chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique.

“The first word that comes to my mind is authentic,” Moreno said of Chicago’s Mexican food. “When we have visitors from Mexico at the museum and take them to a Mexican restaurant, one of the comments they make is, ‘Wow, this tastes just like food back in Mexico.’”

But what makes Chicago’s Mexican food unique is that the food hasn’t been influenced by outside ingredients as it has in other places, like Texas’ Tex Mex, Moreno said. Instead, the chefs remain true to the family recipes they grew up eating.

Moreno said he knows a restaurant is carrying on tradition when they have loud Mexican music playing from the speakers, a Spanish-speaking staff, art on the walls and an elusive, hard-to-describe feeling of “home.”

How to find authentic cuisine

Discovering another culture’s food can be an exciting way to gain insight into its traditions and history. However, finding those culturally authentic restaurants, like Las Carnitas Uruapan, can be a challenge if you aren’t from the community.

Jean Nihoul, curatorial associate at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York, wrestled with this question as he selected restaurants that represented New York’s Chinatown. It can be difficult to know what makes a place “authentic,” he said. Just because a chef is not from that culture or the restaurant is expensive doesn’t make it inauthentic, he added.

Photo of carnitas, chopped onions, cilantro, limes and sauces, ready to be eaten. Rewire PBS Living Mexican
A half-pound order of carnitas is prepared inside Carnitas Uruapan. Photo by Brian Nordli.

In fact, he urges people to look beyond the pricepoint, which is a way of “viewing another culture as lesser than ours.” Instead, all that matters is if the food is true to the tradition.

“Authentic to me is different than it might be to you,” Nihoul said. “What a Chinese American thinks of as great Chinese food may look more like Chinese American food rather than the traditional Chinese food their parents look to.”

Still, there are a few ways to find culturally authentic restaurants. Like all good hunts, Nihoul suggests starting with the internet first and looking for neighborhoods where a certain culture is most prevalent. From there, it’s best to walk around and look for cues, like foreign language being spoken or customers from that culture.

He also keeps an eye on where police officers, fire fighters and cab drivers eat in a neighborhood.

“We have a neighborhood called Curry Hill (in New York),” Nihoul said. “You can tell all the good restaurants by where the cab drivers are parked. Those little cues are huge in terms of finding authentic cuisine.”

But most important, keep an open mind. There’s a world of food out there ready to take you on a journey.

Watch “No Passport Required” on PBS. Check your local station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times or watch online at PBS.org.

Brian Nordli

Brian Nordli is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, where he writes about social issues, immigration and culture. Before returning to his hometown, he worked at a newspaper in Las Vegas covering crime, education and the city’s desert denizens. He recently spent more than a year teaching English in South Korea and traveling Europe and Asia. He hasn’t been able to shake his craving for kimchi since.