Carnitas Estilo Michoacan: Take the chilaquiles and run

In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...

When you strip away all the modern expectations of eating out -- friendly service, pleasant décor, welcoming atmosphere, a certain level of cleanliness -- what you are left with is the food itself. Whether it's a family restaurant, a bar and grill, or a fast-food joint, a minimum level of comfort isn't too much to ask. But in the absence of a single other reason to spend your money at a restaurant, the food had better be pretty damned good. And on a street that boasts more taquerias than gas stations, a place like Carnitas Estilo Michoacan has nothing to fall back on but the flavors, aromas and textures of what comes out of the kitchen.

See also:
- Pho Le: So pho, so good (and porky)
- Gorditas Doña Lidia is the Mrs. Garrett of Federal Boulevard
- At Pho 95, warmth and familiarity slow down the rush on a cold night

The little green shack that you might drive right past or mistake for a medical marijuana dispensary already has a reputation for mixing up some of the best salsas in town, but as much as I love salsa, I generally need something good to spoon it onto. I've been known to sip directly from the little plastic salsa cup and I definitely see nothing wrong with mopping up the remnants with a simple corn tortilla, but ultimately that salsa should serve as a complement, rather than a cover-up, to whatever mound of shredded or chopped meat I've selected.

Mark Antonation
The little green shack.

The entrance to Carnitas Michoacan is either through a covered front porch or the back door (if you park in the lot behind the building). The first time I visited, I felt like I was entering someone's home, which is always a good sign. But it would be a mistake to confuse house-like with homey or welcoming. The dining area was cramped and cluttered and the blaring TV made it difficult to hear myself as I placed my order. Even ordering food was a little tricky, as there was only one woman taking orders, running the cash register, and helping the cook in the tiny open kitchen. Despite the sparse number of customers, the place was chaotic because of the cramped layout. Customers entering from the back bumped into the employees as they sidled from the stove to the cash register to the walk-in cooler. Sitting at a bar stool at the lunch counter while waiting for my food, I felt like I was in the way as the lone server wedged her way past me to deliver plates to the patio tables.

Continue reading for more on our visit to Carnitas Estilo Michoacan.

On my last visit, I took my cues from the sign out front -- with its happy goat and promise of birria -- and ordered the tacos de birria platter as well as the namesake carnitas as prepared in Michoacan. My wife was in a breakfast mood, so went with the chilaquiles. But given the chaotic atmosphere and less-than-friendly staff, we decided to place our order to-go. As we waited, and waited, and waited, for our food, I filled to-go cups with a variety of salsas, studied the menu with its variations of tortas and tacos, watched a little Spanish-language news (something my Spanish teacher encourages), checked my e-mail, avoided eye contact with the glaring youths at their patio table, shared nervous laughter with my wife, stared blankly at the banged-up tile floor, checked my e-mail again. You get the point; we waited a long, long time for two orders of tacos and some chilaquiles. By the time our order hit the counter, we were ready to sprint home.

Paying, however, was a new ordeal. My Spanish is not good by any means, but I understand numbers and can pull off a simple monetary exchange provided that I actually know what I am paying for. But because the cashier refused to tell me the price -- in either Spanish or English -- and because the cash register's read-out screen was broken, I had to lean around the counter to see the price from her side. Finally paid up and on my way out the door, I heard her making fun of me to the other customers for not having the correct change.

So was it worth the wait, the hassle and the discomfort? Yes, those salsas -- especially the vivid orange, peanut-infused version packed with fiery chile flavor -- are as good as you've heard. The carnitas were moist and flavorful, with a few crisp edges from simmering in their own fat; they were solid, adequate, filling, but nothing more. The birria came in two containers: a tall Styrofoam quart-sized cup filled with fat-slicked orange broth, and a clam shell filled with a grizzly, rough-chopped pile of goat meat, rib bones and enough connective tissue to hold a whole goat together. Kleenex-sized sheets of connective tissue. But once picked through, the meat itself was mild, tender and succulent - -more so when dipped in the powerful, almost feral broth.

The chilaquiles are, perhaps, the one thing worth returning for. Two over-easy eggs bled their yolks onto a mess of fried tortillas soaked in rich, earthy red chile sauce. Sided with soft rice and a dollop of Mexican crema, those cheese-covered chilaquiles were the stuff of dreams -- the kind of food that lures you out of bed and into the kitchen to devour the leftovers before they ever see the morning light.

I probably won't return to the little green shack, though; Carnitas Michoacan has a slightly less off-putting location at Evans and Federal where I can fill up on excellent salsas while waiting for another plate of those addictive chilaquiles.

For more, visit our A Federal Case archive.

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