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Jun 7, 2009 09:02 AM

Hagerstown Carnitas Horror

Perhaps out of the normal range of the B-W board, but sometimes one has an experience that simply must be shared.

Last night, I was on my way to Hagerstown Speedway for some dirt-track racing action, and I stopped at El Paso #2 restaurant on Route 40 in Hagerstown for a quick bite as an alternative to the usual race track hot dogs and burgers

Big Mistake. Big enough mistake to the be featured opponent in the next Godzilla movie.

To cut to the chase, the chip and salsa were fine, the refried beans were good, the rice was fine, the carnitas were not.

I've seen two styles of carnitas over the years, presumably regional variations dependent on what part of Mexico the cook is from. One is a sort of shredded version - kind of like a Mexican "pulled pork". The other is also slow cooked pork, presumably from a cut like the shoulder or "picnic" but more like chunks - kind of like a Mexican version of the Greek Kontosouvli. In either case, Carnitas has in my prior experience always been a simple dish of slow-cooked meat, with simple spicing and deep flavor and deep color from carmelization.

What appeared on my plate was neither spiced, nor browned. It was the sort of pale off-white one would expect from a roasted pork loin. But that's not the odd part. Each slice was a neat and tidy rectangle, about three plus inches by two plus inches, and the outside edges had that odd shiny smoothness too them that often indicates a "pressed" foodstuff. The texture had that feel of real meat that had been bound together in an un-natural shape that left much of the meat fiber intact, but not quite in its natural state. This was clearly Not Right, but I was in a hurry, so I gobbled what I could tolerate and made a hasty exit, having neither the time nor the stomach for a debate on the finer points of carnitas, and why these were clearly NOT any sort of carnitas that any self-respecting cook of any nationality should be foisting off on unsuspecting diners.

The racetrack food did get the taste out of my mouth (I highly recommend the Hagerstown Speedway "hot sausage", by the way), and life went on.

The whole rectangle thing puzzled me, though, until a flash inspiration this morning, which leads to the question that might answer the puzzle - is there such a thing as Pork Spam, and if so, what color is it?

All together, in the key of C - EEEEEWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!

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  1. Spam is pork - "spreadable ham." It's sort of a pink flecked with white color.

    It's the yellow jelly on top of the meat when you open the tin that's a bit scary!

    Just scrape it off and fry it up...

    2 Replies
    1. re: MDBBQFiend

      I think the "sp" is supposed to be for "spiced", but in either case, it does sound like Warthog got spamitas.

      (I've been experimenting for the last few weeks with different ways making carnitas, but spam never entered the picture. Final conclusion: I can spend hours braising pork and make some damn good carnitas, or I can spend 10 minutes heating up some of Trader Joe's carnitas and end up with some pretty good carnitas; everything in between isn't worth the effort.)

      1. re: MDBBQFiend

        Just to clarify - I know the look of the pinkish "regular" SPAM, and this was not it. But no pork loin or any other non-processed part of the pig I've ever seen comes in neat rectangles with rounded corners.

        As a comparison, think of the cylinders of turkey breast that you see in the deli case of your local store - the ones that they pull out of the case and slice for you. Yes, there are large chunks of real meat in them, but there is also emulsified meat or gelatin added to serve as a binder when the thing is formed into a cylinder and shrink-wrapped. And what you end up with is a product that has the "right" texture for turkey breast, but formed into this entirely artificial shape, with a little help from the processing plant.

        It's an acceptable, reasonable product, if that's what you know you're buying. But imagine going into a restaurant advertising "Traditional hand-carved turkey dinner" and what shows up on your plate with the mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and stuffing is several perfectly round slices of that deli-counter turkey breast, nuked for your dining pleasure.

        That's what this stuff looked like - pork loin that had been squeezed, crammed, and emulsified-meat-or gelatin-bound into a can or a shrink-wrapped form with a small rectangular cross section. The SPAM possibility came to mind because the size and shape of the cross-section was about right, but it was definitely not the pinkish "regular" SPAM. So either it was some other "Pork SPAM" flavor, or it was some other type of product altogether.

        Whatever it was, the thing that shocked me most was that they didn't even bother to try to disguise it. If they'd taken this "pressed pork product" and shredded it, or cut it into rough cubes, and added some spices, mole or ranchera sauce, or even some normal browning in the pan to give it some color, I'd not have noticed. Instead, it appeared that they just sliced it, nuked it, and put it on the plate with the rice, refried beans, some shredded lettuce and a dollop of guacamole, and called it "carnitas". As I said before, whatever the heck it was, it sure wasn't anything that I'd call "carnitas".

        All this assuming it was pork at all - you sure couldn't tell by the taste, or lack thereof.

      2. isn't it sam fujisaka or kaimuki man who could probably make some spam carnitas (lol! just kidding, guys!) spamitas!

        warthog, i'd take another trip there, with a witness, and take a photo (and ask them what it is made with). i'm curious, now! (but you know what curiosity did to the cat ;) then you can show us the horror!

        wait, i have an idea for a screenplay. can anyone greenlight "The Hagerstown Carnitas Horror," maybe with billy bob thornton, john malkovich, kevin spacey and christopher walken?

        (...or maybe bowie can reprise his role in: "The Spam Who Fell to Earth").

        1 Reply
        1. re: alkapal

          It would be more like "The Carnita That Fell To Earth" if I were served Spam at a Mexican restaurant. I won't even tolerate ground beef in my tacos.

        2. Haven grown up in the red-neckest parts of Texas and Tennessee, I find nothing wrong with a little "potted meat" now and again in all it's variates. There's only 2 ways to serve it: fried on white bread with mayo or straight out of the can cold. It is not good for much anything else.

          1 Reply
          1. re: drlee_susquespine

            I don't disagree - as long as one is informed that "potted meat" is what one will receive. It's the mismatch between what was ordered and what was received that I object to.

          2. What you got was McRibs without the sauce. I had them once about nine years ago and they were perverse and un-natural, like you described.