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Feb 13, 2009 09:21 AM

CHICKEN Carnitas???

OK. I don't claim to be an expert but when El Pollo Loco began advertising CHICKEN Carnitas in SoCal my first reaction was one of WT#@*?? I guess they're applying the method used to prepare standard carnitas from pork and marketing a heart-healthier concept. I Googled a bit and Wikipedia says there are also BEEF Carnitas but they don't mention Chicken. I also found reference to the dish at a few restaurants.

But I always thought the 'carnitas' cooking technique resulted in a shredding (or at least falling apart) with pork or, I guess beef. Can you get the same result with chicken? What's up with that? More Americanized-Mexican food?

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  1. Even though this is about a chain restaurant, I'll bet it would be better off in the General Chow board. IMO, chicken carnitas just wouldn't work. The whole point of carnitas is to cook them in the fat, or lard. I can see it work wit some fatty beef, but if you did chicken you would have to crisp them up in some chicken fat, therefore negating the heart healthy concept. I think they are really stretching it here. Look at all the carnitas recipes in home cooking, and then try to imagine substituting chicken . . . can't see it.

    2 Replies
    1. re: danhole

      To be fair to El Pollo Loco at least as regards any health claims, I don't see any mention of "heart healthy" or any claims of being a "healthy" alternative on any of their literature having to do with the chicken carnitas dishes.

      They do have a "healthier choices" section of their website with some items chosen by a separate outfit called but none of the carnitas dishes appear there, either.

      1. re: ccbweb

        No doubt they are marketing to those folks that are eating less red meat. I think chicken breasts would be a disaster but thighs would have good texture for a chicken carnita. Duck carnitas anyone cooked in duck fat.

    2. At my local farmer's market, there's a vendor selling turkey carnitas made with thigh meat. I was very skeptical, but was won over by the samples. The texture was really great when hand pulled into chunks and crisped in a skillet. Served it to a Mexican mama, who dropped in on me; she was astounded when I revealed it was turkey.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Stephanie Wong

        I can see using turkey, duck, or goose, sort of, but I think chicken would be bland and mushy unless you used fabulous free-range, super-premium chickens, and I don't think that's a very good use of that kind of fabulous chicken.
        I thought the whole purpose of carnitas was to take pork that was tough and fatty and tendony (cheap cuts, in other words) and the long slow cooking rendered the tendons into gelatinous loveliness and the fat is infused throughout for maximun meltingly amazing goodness- then you add green chile. Now I'm drooling.

        1. re: EWSflash

          Boston butt (shoulder) is probably the best pork for carnitas. While has a good mix of meat, fat and connective tissue, I would not describe it as tough and tendony. Chicken thighs and legs take braising just as well as this cut of pork, though they wouldn't need quite as long.

          The only thing I'm unsure of is whether chicken would take the final crisping as well as pork.

      2. With chain restaurants, when enough diners request something, the restaurant asks their suppliers to come up with a solution. I know Hormel is making restaurant sized cases of pulled pork and also chicken, and many types of carnitas including chicken; there's no prep involved so why not offer it to all those health conscious diners. They all look like chunks but when you cook it, it shreds up. There's gotta be a call for it, although not from anyone I know! I'm not familiar with El Pollo Loco, are they usually authentic otherwise?

        4 Replies
        1. re: coll

          slightly more authentic than taco bell

          1. re: coll

            They are most known for flame-grilled chicken served with rice, salsa and tortillas.... but they also do burritos, nachos and quesadillas. My question isn't so much about whether it fits with their menu as about whether it had any basis at all in Mexican cuisine.

            I haven't tried it or seen in in person, but the TV ads show chunks of chicken, not shredded chicken (which would at least bear some resemblance to what is usually seen as carnitas).

            I think that here in SoCal we at least like to THINK that we have some level of authenticity, even at the big volume chains. The discussion is usually about quality, not about whether a dish is real or not. I just found it odd enough to comment.

          2. Just another example of language abuse. So sad.

            9 Replies
            1. re: BobB

              I think there's a bit less of an issue with this than with other abuses. Carnitas are already pork or beef so the door is open a bit more in my mind to other meats using the same preparation and serving methods. It doesn't seem that pork, for instance, is a defining element of carnitas as much as the preparation method and serving methods are.

              1. re: ccbweb

                I see your point, and I agree it's far from the most egregious example, but it's still not right. What makes carnitas unique is that whether it's made from pork or beef, it's always made from a tough cut of meat with lots of fat and connective tissue, which long, slow cooking melts to create a lovely oleaginous mouth feel. There is no chicken equivalent of pork butt or chuck roast. Nothing wrong with a good shredded chicken burrito, but carnitas it ain't.

                    1. re: BobB

                      There was a long thread recently that got a lot of folks riled up about Chicken Fried Chicken, apparently invented for those who didn't want to eat beef and therefore were deprived of a proper Chicken Fried Steak.
                      That was made with boneless, skinless, tasteless chicken breasts so it wasn't fried chicken but it sure wasn't like eating a good CFS either.
                      This is sort of the same thing.

                      There's a lot of this that goes on to appeal to people who think that chicken, fish, tofu or whatever becomes an acceptable way to satisfy their dietary preferences or cut calories and still eat whatever classic dishes they want.
                      They ain't the same and in some cases, they're just awful.
                      As you point out, you can't do long, slow cooked dishes like carnitas with lean meat like chicken.
                      If you want chicken, get something else! Something that does justice to the chicken.

                      At some point, this moves beyond "language abuse" to "food abuse."
                      Keep on keeping them honest, BobB. Or the names for real food will lose all meaning.

                      1. re: MakingSense

                        If I took your protest literally, I'd also say you can't make carnitas with modern American pork, which is marketed as 'the other white meat'.

                        I wouldn't try 'carnitas' with chicken breast, but thighs might work. I have not done the full blown poaching-in-lard style of carnitas, but often do the simmer-first-fry-after style. As noted in another thread, the last time I did the 'simmer' step in the pressure cooker, and was quite pleased with the result.

                        Pork is not marbled like beef. So however it is done, carnitas will be a mix of relatively lean meat crisped on the outside, and fried fat. It's not that different from chicken dark meat.

                        There is an well established tradition of cooking duck and goose in fat. How is that different from cooking pork in fat? As a matter of fact, the Wiki article on carnitas does note the similarity to confit.

                        Next time I cook thighs, I may try the '2nd best' carnitas approach.

                        1. re: paulj


                          where I live I can get a good hunk of pork butt that is well marbled with fat. I just have to go to a more ethnic store than the regular chains. I have to agree with Bob and MakingSense on this one. Maybe they should rename them Unbreaded chunks of fried chicken instead of carnitas.

                          1. re: danhole

                            I cook the butt or the shank end of a front leg quite often (more often than any other cut). There is a lot of fat, but it is concentrated in the spaces between the muscles. I wouldn't call that marbling.

                            1. re: paulj

                              The cut marketed as "country style pork ribs" in our area does well for carnitas or Ecuadoran style fritata. It's pretty fatty throughout the meat, not just between the muscles.

                1. Ecuador has a similar dish, called fritada de chancho ('pork fry-up')
                  Here's recipe on Laylita's blog:

                  I have an Ecuadorian cookbook, in Spanish, published in 1986, that has a recipe for
                  'Fritada de conejo o gallina' (and a variation 'Fritada de cuy').
                  It is essentially the same thing - pieces of chicken or rabbit simmered till tender in a lightly flavored broth (garlic, salt, cumin), and browned at the end in lard.
                  Looks like Ecuadorian street vendors have been making 'chicken carnitas' long before any American chains tried it.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: paulj

                    I'm not sure that was exactly a street vendor product. Both cuy and chicken were too expensive when we lived in Ecuador for street food. They were sold by street vendors but more as specialty items.
                    I have a couple of Ecuadorian cookbooks from that era. They were sort of "new" food, sort of inventing things, not exactly traditional foods. Sort of European-y.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      You are probably right about chicken and cuy being rare at the street food level. Some sort of chicken soup, complete with feet, would be more typical of hole-in-the-wall lunch stands. Still, the recipe for carnitas that I cited called for gallina (hen) as opposed to pollo. Simmering pieces of an older bird till they were tender (sort of), and then letting brown in lard makes sense.

                      As I recall, younger chickens, fryers, became popular in the mid 1960s when shops specializing in rotisserie chicken sprang up. Prior to that, fried chicken seemed to be limited to a few special places like the 'chicken in the basket' place out in the country (at that time) by the Quito airport.

                      1. re: paulj

                        The first dead cuy that I ever saw were a gift. An elderly woman showed up at our house in Quito with a bag of skinned dead ones as a gift to us as appreciation for a favor that my husband had done for her. Head, feet, everything. They looked like dead rats. Kind of took me for a loop there. Not exactly gift wrapped. I graciously accepted and the cook later explained that they were considered something of a luxury among the Andean people.
                        We did see them available roadside roasting on spits South of Riobamba along the Pan American highway. We had them sometimes at parties in the country-side or at a few restaurants. I never did eat cuy from vendors. They always looked so awful - like rats on spears - turning over the charcoal.
                        Tasty but kind of hard to look at since they were always served with their little rat faces.

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          I was a guest at a wedding in a town outside of Quito where cuy was served. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but the lady sitting next to me had a head on her plate. The family I lived with for a couple of months in the mountains didn't raise their own cuy.

                          Most of my two years in Ecuador was spent in the coastal areas, and many of the people I spoke to there have the idea that cuy are related to rats, and wouldn't touch them.

                          1. re: tracylee

                            There are some significant differences in culture and traditional cuisine between coast and mountains, though linguistic differences (dropped final consonant on the coast) are most obvious to visitors. Cuy has mountain, indigenous roots.

                            1. re: tracylee

                              Cuy are guinea pigs. The name is an onomatopoeia, a word formed by imitating the natural sound associated with the object. In this case, it's the noise they make, a little squeaky "cuy, cuy, cuy," as they're carried home in sacks from the public markets or huddle in corners of mountain houses in the high Andes.
                              They breed like their close relative, the rat, so many families keep them to raise for food and to sell at markets.
                              They're not cheap and are usually served at parties or special occasions rather than as everyday food.
                              You can see them prepared in markets to be carried home, cooked whole on spits over an open charcoal fire, sort of like we would buy rotisserie chickens. Most people don't have a way to do that at home.
                              I've never cooked it.

                              The costenos don't eat them. The people in the sierra do. Part of the broad range of cultural differences between the regions. A long history of regional friction. Almost like two different countries with two different languages. The Spanish in the sierra is heavily influenced by Quechua, the native language of the Incas, spoken through the Andes in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina.

                              1. re: MakingSense

                                I'm trying to remember whether pork is eaten to the same extent and in same ways in the two regions or not. I associate things like fritada with the traditional mountain foods, things like hominy (some times cooked with the fond leftover from fritada) and llapingachos (potato cakes). I know pigs were raised and eaten on the coast, but most of my meals there featured seafood.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Wealthier people on the coast ate more fish and chicken because they could afford. We were always surprised that the poorer people didn't eat much seafood except for the ubiquitous ceviche and arroz con whatever seafood. We were told that they sold what they caught. Pork seemed to be the staple in the coast as in the sierra and chickens were for eggs.
                                  Mote sucio (dirty hominy) is the dish you're thinking of - cooked hominy flavored by the pan drippings and fond.
                                  Generally ordinary people ate more tropical diets near the coast, but very similar to the sierra. Potatoes and rice were the mainstays. And of course corn. Humitas for merianda. Locro. They could do a lot with corn and potatoes and stretch about anything with some rice.
                                  Income level determined diet more than geography from the coast to the sierra to the Amazon as far as I could ever see.

                      2. re: paulj

                        I tried some skinless chicken thighs this way
                        - cooked in the pressure cooker for about 10 min in water, orange juice, salt, cumin, garlic
                        - fried in pork fat till browned but not burnt
                        then I put them in the fridge, and served them the next day, reheated on top of rice (cooked pilaf style)

                        They weren't bad, but the execution might be better.
                        Browning the oblong shape is tricky, since the pieces stable in only 2 positions. There is a fine line between browning the cooked meat and drying it out, especially since the grain of the meat lies parallel to the surface. Drying can be a problem with pork carnitas as well. Doing this with skin-on chicken would be a different matter. Rabbit would have the same drying problem, especially since it is quite lean. Maybe next time I'll try boneless chicken thighs cut into chunks.

                        1. re: paulj

                          Try turkey thighs - if you must - but country style pork ribs still work better than any other cut that I have found in US markets.
                          Spend the extra effort on the llapingachos! The perfect side dish! Claro?