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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 healthydiningfinder.com 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?

                      3. Well, I'm intrigued by this carnitas thing. If anyone has a particularly well-liked recipe, can you post it up?

                        *edit* Oh man, I just read up the wikipedia entry. I got to get me some of that.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Soop

                          There are a number of threads on (pork) carnitas on the Home Cooking board, if you're looking to make it yourself.

                          1. re: Soop

                            Country style ribs. Put into a deep fry pan-one layer. Cover with water. Put in a handful of kosher or sea salt (not as salty tasting) boil unti water goes away and let bottom get crispy.

                            Courtesy of Martha Stewart Magazine

                            Serve with chopped onions and cilantro, refried beans and tortillas.

                          2. Chicken is to carnitas as turkey is to bacon (or franks or fill in the blank _______).

                            1 Reply
                            1. I make chicken carnitas often. I follow Rick Bayless's carnitas recipe, but I use cubed chicken thighs with a tablespoon or so of olive oil instead of pork. They render delicious fat and crisp up just like pork. Just cover the meat with water and a tsp. of salt and simmer for about 45 minutes. Or add a bit of oregano, if you like. It's delicious.

                              1. ah geez, so much for creativity and flexibility. who exactly is it hurting to make chicken carnitas?! its all just "little meats"

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: TSQ75

                                  exactly! The word means little meats.

                                  1. re: scubadoo97

                                    Though literal translations don't always convey the full sense of words like this.

                                    'tortilla' means 'little cakes', but that doesn't help you distinguish between the typical Mexican use or the Spanish use. 'torta' in the context of Mexican streetfood means a specific type of sandwich, not a big 'tortilla' or a sweet cake.

                                    In the case of carnitas, the method of cooking is more significant than the size of the meat pieces (either during cooking or serving). Pork is the default meat. I think the OP was most interested in whether the method of cooking would work with chicken. Whether the result should still be called carnitas is different matter.

                                    1. re: paulj

                                      Point taken Paul. Would it work? Why not. Dark meat chicken cooked in it's own fat. Not the same as pork but would work

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        Hi, Androsh here. I read through most of these and decided to try it. Have to say, that these are the best chicken tacos I've tasted, around here any way.
                                        Here's what I did:
                                        1- I cut up a chicken, removed most of the fat.
                                        2- took the fat, rendered it in oil , 2 cloves of garlic, red and white onion, goya adobo and whatever you think is good...
                                        3- after it browned a bit, I added 1 cup of chicken stock,or a small bullion cube, 1/2 cup goya bitter orange, 1/2 can of coke. I added the de-skinned chicken pieces and simmered it (low flame) on both sides until it was fork tender.
                                        4.-Removed the chicken, let it cool and shred by hand or fork.
                                        5-turned up the heat to a full boil and let the liquid burn off until just enough to brown the shredded chicken.
                                        Unbelievable tatse!!. negligable chicken fat, just enough to brown the chiken..

                                        Try IT!!! YUM !YUM!

                                        1. re: Androsh

                                          It's also a good way to use up dark meat turkey. Makes it taste almost like duck.

                                            1. re: alkapal

                                              Already made a copy, will be using it Thanksgiving with leftovers.

                                              1. re: coll

                                                if buttertartalicious says so, then it is SO! ;-).

                                                "make it so." http://video.google.com/videoplay?doc...
                                                (i want me a holo-deck).

                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                  :) I've just taken the (cooked) dark meat, cut up in decent-sized pieces (get rid of the leg tendons), salted and peppered it well, added a good bit of the fat (from the top of the broth/jusices left over), and baked it at 325 for 30 mins or so, covered, stirred it up, and then 375 for 15 more, uncovered. Androsh's recipe sounds v good but I haven't gotten that elaborate with it (yet)!
                                                  The best carnitas I ever had were at arestaurant in east Oakland, CA, ages ago - they cooked a WHOLE PIG in lard every week and you got a bit of everything, including some you might wish you hadn't.

                                2. I *HATE* it when restaurants do stuff like this! I'll look for chicken carnitas right next to the chicken bacon. <sigh>

                                  1. Dropping back in on my original post.................... my question was about the technique used in making carnitas as I know it and whether that can be done with chicken. I'm all for creativity in cooking, I just wondered if whatever El Pollo Loco is doing here is correctly called 'carnitas'.

                                    Looking for a definition I found that my Cassell's Spanish-English dictionary doesn't include the word 'carnitas at all. Wikipedia (if that's a reliable guide) says: "Carnitas, literally "little meats", is a type of braised or roasted (often after first being simmered) pork in Mexican cuisine." So................. the idea, expressed by some posters here, of frying the cooked chicken in oil, while tasty sounding, wouldn't really be 'carnitas' I don't think.

                                    I've never tried to roast a chicken long enough to see if it falls apart the way park and beef roasts do. Anyone have any experience with that?

                                    Oh, and as to TSQ75's question about who it's hurting................... that wasn't the point of the topic. Asking a question about the definition of a cooking technique doesn't question whether it's OK to do it............. or really even to call it whatever you like. Marketing is marketing........ I get that. Chicken Carnitas is certainly an easier name than "Chicken in the style of Carnitas".


                                    15 Replies
                                    1. re: Midlife

                                      I'd suggest looking at the Spanish wiki article on the same topic

                                      If you want something close to this, look for a Carniceria, a Mexican meat market. They are more likely to have Carnitas as a weekend special, to take home by the pound, or to eat on picnic tables outside.

                                      1. re: paulj


                                        While I appreciate the intent, I checked your link and my basic Spanish did not uncover anything about the use of chicken 'meat' in carnitas. There was one reference to a chicken broth powder (?), but that was all I could find. Did I miss something?

                                        Oh............ now I see your other post with menu items for Carnitas de Pollo. No big deal, but I think the descriptions sound more like chicken fajitas variations. To me, anyway, the thing about carnitas is that it's mostly just the slow-cooked meat itself which you then eat with garnishes.

                                        Maybe this is really a discussion about how the most commonly recognized 'pork carnitas' seems to have become the understood variation of a term that includes more variations? Spanish linguists and chefs please jump in here.

                                        1. re: Midlife

                                          Did you ever try the Pollo Loco 'carnitas'? I don't see them on their website. Some of us discussed ways of cooking chicken thighs to resemble the traditional pork carnitas (as discussed on my link). But descriptions that I found on other menus are for something entirely different - quickly cooked bite size pieces of meat.

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            Nope. I go to El Pollo Loco maybe once a year, so.......... I missed chicken carnitas.

                                      2. re: Midlife

                                        From some menus on the web:

                                        Carnitas de Pollo
                                        Chunks of chicken breast sauteed with green peppers and onions. Served with guacamole.

                                        Carnitas de res .................................................................................... 11.50
                                        Tender pieces of top sirloin grilled with fresh green pepper, onions, spices and our special sauce

                                        Carnitas de Pollo .................................................................................. 10.95
                                        Tender pieces of chicken breast grilled with fresh green pepper, onions, and tomato sauce

                                        In this usage 'carnitas' just means bite size pieces of meat. It has nothing in common with the Carnitas as described in the es.wikipedia article.

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          I'm starting to lose all faith in Wikipedia.

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            Sure, you can find someone out there calling just about anything by just about any name you can imagine. The point of us linguistic purists is that once you start calling a whole variety of things by the same name, the language loses precision and you have to work harder to explain to others exactly what it is that you're actually talking about.

                                            "There's glory for you!'
                                            `I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
                                            Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
                                            `But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
                                            `When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
                                            - from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass"

                                            1. re: BobB

                                              When I took linguistics classes in college, they were all descriptive linguistics, focusing on how language is spoken and written, not on how it SHOULD be used. In the course of natural language evolution, speakers give the words as much meaning and precision as is needed, without a purist dictating what rules they must follow.

                                              I don't think there is much dispute about what 'carnitas' refers to, in the context of Mexican street food. Buyers know what they will get when buying from a vendor with a big copper cauldron of 'carnitas', or carniceria with 'carnitas' under heat lamps.

                                              But if I see 'carnitas' on the menu in a California fast food chain, or a Mexican-American restaurant in Small-Town, Nebraska, I don't expect it to be the same as what I could get from my favorite Carniceria Michiocan, even if it is pork. From reading the menu descriptions I realize that they are serving something quite different. Context plays an important part in understanding words.

                                              That Carniceria sells something they call 'carne al pastor', which is bite size pieces of pork in a medium spicy marinade with onions and pineapple. I also know that it is quite different from the 'al pastor' in Mexico City (DF), which is cut from a Gyro style vertical spit (with a slice of pineapple on top). You might think from the 'pastor' part of the name that this would be lamb meat, but it is in fact pork. Lamb might figure somewhere in the evolution of this dish, since some trace to Lebanese in Mexico.

                                              Another example of a shift in usage is the Spanish tapa, Pinchos Morunos, which some translate as Moorish Kebabs. Given the Moorish part of the name you'd expect lamb, right? No, it is pork

                                              My point is that even with native Spanish speakers, the meaning of culinary words shifts over time. While 'carnitas' as used in the Mexican streetfood context implies pork, there is nothing about the linguistics that says it can't take on a modifier like 'de pollo'. 'Carnitas de pollo' is a perfectly good Spanish phrase, even it used to mean 'little pieces of chicken', as opposed to 'chicken cooked in the style of Mexican street food'.

                                              1. re: paulj

                                                if i had been speaking with any of my family members growing up (of Cuban and Dominican stock), using the word "carnitas" would simply be a way of referring to bits of meat, likely beef. "Carne" is meat, generally beef, so "carnitas" would have been that...

                                                we would have referred to crispy fried pork bits as "masitas" or "masitas de puerco"

                                                Much in the same way "chicharrones" is commonly pork rinds, but "Chicharrones de Pollo" are equally as common.

                                                1. re: TSQ75

                                                  The rough equivalent in Ecuador is 'fritada' - fried bits.

                                          2. re: Midlife

                                            "Carnitas, literally "little meats"

                                            No argument there. But that still doesn't mean it should be used indiscriminately for any sort of meat. For example - if you go to a rib joint and order ribs, you'd expect to get pork ribs, or in some cases (especially in Texas) beef ribs. But chicken ribs just wouldn't cut it, even though a chicken has ribs. And meat.

                                            Even the definition you quote specifies that carnitas is pork.

                                            1. re: Midlife

                                              my point was just reactionary to the Puritan reactions i tend to encounter around here anytime something is presented in a different way...;)

                                              1. re: TSQ75

                                                Can't seem to follow up-post to be sure if you're really replying to something I said. I know I'm essentially anal by nature, but I do latch on to things like this more to learn than for the sake of "correctness". Personally, I don't KNOW if the word carnitas is used 'correctly' on any menu anywhere, whether pork or chicken or whatever. It seems obvious now that it is a rather broad term of reference that doesn't really specifically describe the 'shredded' pork style of presentation I see it used with here in SoCal most often. I just find stuff like this interesting.

                                                1. re: Midlife

                                                  Your post raises a new question - how essential is the shredding? Are carnitas just a Mexican version of pulled pork? The English Wiki article mentions shredding several times, but it's harder to find that step in the Spanish version.

                                                  In this NYTimes description
                                                  the pork is cooked in larger chunks, kept warm under a heat lamp. ". The customer tells the taquero his choice or simply points to the desired part, which is removed, placed on the chopping block, and cut into bite-size pieces. "

                                                  1. re: paulj

                                                    The carnitas at the Jalisco in East Oakland were in big gorgeous pork-fat-dripping lumps, not shredded.