It's often in tight confines that you find focus and clarity. That's 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 back in December 2016 with only $200. What started as a cash-only counter doing takeout only with no seats in a gas station has slowly grown into a mini-empire. There's a second location with a full kitchen (and a carnitas-focused expanded menu) on North Lamar that opened in early 2021. A third location in San Antonio just opened in September. A fourth location is planned for Dallas in the next couple of months.
Tender, rich, umami-laden, and fatty without being greasy, the carnitas here are truly epic, bordering on a religious experience. The secret to the carnitas at El Güero is that there is no secret. Much like the great barbecue or sushi in the world, it's just about keeping it simple and doing it right. Reyes is open about his technique and what goes into his carnitas: It's pork lard, meat, garlic, salt, and a little bit of sugar. "And cooking it slowly, slowly over time," he explained over the phone.
Carnitas is usually composed of a mix of different cuts of meat, and at El Güero, Reyes uses a combination of pork butt, ribs, belly, stomach, and skin, slowly cooked in lard in a cazo, the enormous pot in the center of the kitchen. It's similar to the French confit cooking technique. The default and best way to order the carnitas here is "surtido," and you'll get a mix of everything, chopped to order. Or you can get it however you want: lean, fatty, extra skin, or no skin. The skin is excellent, and an essential part of what makes for the ineffable and gelatinous mouthfeel.
The options at the South Austin location are limited. There's the orden personal (personal combo) for $12.99 that comes with a half pound of carnitas, a mess of corn tortillas, two kinds of salsa, pickled onions, cilantro, lime, and a small, crispy doradita, a deep-fried tortilla pocket with a mix of meats found at the bottom of the pot (aka achicalada). You can also order carnitas by the pound, with all the fixings, for $19.99 – it's the most common order. There's even a party combo for $350 that comes with 30 pounds of carnitas, ensuring a very porky party. They do a brisk takeout business, as it's especially popular with residents of the nearby Stassney Woods apartment complex. And it can get busy. During peak hours, especially weekends, you will find yourself waiting in a line that snakes around a gas station's aisles. Waiting in line is a sport in Austin, and here it's very much worth the wait.
While there's care and consistency in the cooking, there's also attention to detail, like warming up the nixtamalized corn tortillas (imported from Houston) on a flat top with lard. Or opting to make spicy pickled onions with habanero and oregano as a condiment (versus serving the onions raw, like many places). When it comes to the salsas, it often feels like the standard red and green you get at most taquerias all come out of the same commissary kitchen. But at El Güero, the salsas are different, and more importantly, better. The red salsa's made with chile morita, a smoked jalapeño, with a rich, deep smoky flavor; the green is made with tomatillo and habanero, for a brighter, spicier note. Both complement the fatty unctuousness of the carnitas tremendously.
In March of 2021, Reyes took over a restaurant space on North Lamar – right in the middle of what Texas Monthly Taco Editor José Ralat calls "North Austin's taco mecca" – and opened a brick-and-mortar location of Carnitas El Güero. The space is your standard taqueria, except it's decorated with papel picado featuring the Carnitas El Güero logo. There's soccer on most of the TV screens during the day, with families crowded together, jostling with elbows to make tacos from a pile of carnitas in the center of the table. There's loud music at niAght – it's open until 2am – and there's sometimes even karaoke on the weekends.
The full-size kitchen on Lamar has allowed Reyes to offer a much more expanded menu than the location down south. Carnitas remain the core of the menu, but there are new options like the fantastic $10.99 carnitas tortas, simply dressed with avocado and mayonnaise and a pickled jalapeño on the side. The standout new menu item is the pozole, with a flavorful, spicy broth made from a pig's head and guajillo and ancho chiles. It's served with hominy, and, of course, carnitas. Rich yet delicate, it can most definitely rival menudo as a hangover cure.
Speaking of hangover cures, you very much want to order a cantarito, the tequila cocktail out of Jalisco served in a clay pot rimmed with chile powder. Carnitas El Güero's are big and refreshing, made with Squirt and freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, and lime juice. There are also Mexican draft beers and micheladas. The expanded menu includes completely serviceable gorditas, quesadillas, and tostadas, and there's an evening/late night menu (6pm-2am) that includes $2.99 tacos with a variety of meats like al pastor, tripe, chicken tinga, and beef fajita. The tacos are perfectly fine, but if you're at a place called Carnitas El Güero, you should be getting the carnitas.
You're not hurting for taco options in Austin. And while there are excellent carnitas to be had in town – La Michoacana Meat Market, El Tacorrido, or Paprika come to mind – a lot of places just serve a basic oven-roasted pork shoulder that's then shredded and maybe crisped up on a griddle. But what Carnitas El Güero is doing with pork is nothing short of extraordinary. It's what happens when you focus, over time.
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.