A Family Carnitas Affair

Marielence Gamez rolls a burrito in the kitchen of Carnitas

Order anything off the menu and you’ll be pleased … but it’s
the fresh pork that makes this a special place
Chicken, barbecoa or enchiladas. Anything ordered off the Carnitas Michoacan menu is bound to be tasty and fresh, but it’s the carnitas, pork that is, that’s made this downtown Gilroy restaurant a South County staple.

“People come from all cities in the area,” to sample the food, said Jaime Canizal, who owns Carnitas Michoacan with his wife Lourdes.

Eleven years ago, after immigrating to Gilroy from Zinapecuaro, Michoacan, Mexico, Jaime and Lourdes opened their first American restaurant. Jaime Canizal had run a restaurant in his native town before immigrating to the United States about 20 years ago.

The Garlic Capitol didn’t hold any special place in the 41-year-old’s heart. Actually, he was just making a pit stop here, planning to join his sister in Chicago, but he fell in love, with Gilroy that is, and decided to stay put.

He brought his wife with him, who he met in Mexico and proposed to after courting for only a week.

Although Carnitas Michoacan’s store front is difficult to spot – it’s hidden between a manicure salon and a bar – Canizal said business was steady from day one. It didn’t take long for word to spread that good service, a pleasant atmosphere and, of course, excellent food, could be found at the tables of the narrow, unpretentious place.

Stop in for lunch or dinner and you’ll be greeted quickly by a friendly server, a bowl of chips and slightly spicy green salsa – “family style” Canizal calls it. After ordering you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the server drops off a little bowl of carnitas, compliments of the house.

The carnitas, that crumbles delightfully under the graze of a fork, plays a major part in the restaurant’s success.

“Because carnitas is so original,” Canizal said.

The secret is the slow-cooking method. The cooks make at least 1,000 pounds of pork a week to satisfy the throngs of hungry customers that stream into the restaurant from cities throughout the Bay Area. The carnitas is marinated and cooked in its juices for three hours.

The barbecoa, made with chuck roast, is smothered in a red chili sauce and slow cooked for four hours. The pollo, or chicken, is roasted in the carnitas juices, giving it a bit of a hybrid taste.

To ensure the meat is ready for the lunch crowd, it is thrown onto the grill at 7am. The chicharrones, or fried pork skin, is hung up to dry for two hours, cooked for two hours and then fried up in a vat of boiling oil for two minutes.

It’s that freshness, that attention to detail that makes Carnitas Michoacan an individual in the often generic world of Mexican restaurants. In the kitchen, above the stove, hang strips of pork skin awaiting the fryer.

In the backyard of the restaurant, in a tin shack, meat simmers in huge kettles. Servers walk back and forth holding steel pans filled with sizzling meat. Their salsa is all made fresh at the restaurant.

Cans of refried beans, tomatoes, packaged tortillas and tubs of salsa are nowhere to be found. Canizal picks up a King Kong-size can of tomato sauce and explains that the only food on a customers plate that isn’t fresh, is the sauce for the rice and jalapenos that are shipped from the restaurant’s namesake.

Although Gilroyans love their local haunt, Carnitas Michoacan is not a best kept secret. Customers drive from Hollister, San Juan Bautista, San Francisco, San Jose, even as far as Tracy, for their delicacies.

Carnizal doesn’t advertise, instead he relies on word of mouth. Apparently it’s working because that’s how Patricia Cervantes and Eladio Moreno heard about the restaurant.

The two heard about the place from friends and drove up from Salinas recently to sample the fare. So what’s the verdict?

It’s very flavorful, they said through a Spanish translator, while munching on tacos.

Good food, great service

Canizal said his restaurant goes one step further with the great service element, at his establishment customers aren’t considered customers, they’re “treated like family.”

The father of three said he’s not like other business owners who envision a dollar sign when a customer walks through the door. Instead “I see you as a person,” he said.

Canizal displays that gratitude in little ways, such as adding an extra pound of meat in a order. He tells his servers to ask customers for their drink order the moment they take a seat and to bring them chips and salsa before they even order.

“Everyone is friendly and you don’t have to wait,” said Jorge De La Cruz, a Gilroy resident who dines in Carnitas Michoacan often.

And of course he also shows up for the food, the carnitas, to be precise, because of “the way they make it here.”

There are already two other Canizal family restaurants, one is run by his sister in Chicago and the second by his parents in Mexico. But it won’t be long before a fourth opens its doors. Genesis Canizal, the oldest of the couple’s three daughters, is planning to go into the restaurant business herself.

When the Gilroy High School junior graduates she wants to open and manage a Carnitas Michoacan in San Jose. And since the meat will be cooked in the same fashion, carnitas is bound to top the list of favorites.

Carnitas Michoacan Favorite Dishes:

Carnitas: pork

Pollo: chicken

Barbecoa: barbecued beef

Chicharrones: fried pork skins

Lulu’s Special (named after Lourdes Canizal) is also a favorite:

Chips cover the bottom of the specialty salad and are covered with romaine lettuce, chicken breast, ranch dressing, Mexican cheese and salsa.

Also try:

Mexican sodas: They have all the usual sodas,

such as Coke, Pepsi, Squirt, but the recipes are different.

Sangria: It’s tasty and nonalcoholic

Try the Carnitas for yourself:

– Carnitas Michoacan is located at 7484 Monterey Road. Call 847-8812 for more information.

-Hours: Monday and Tuesday: closed Wednesday through Friday: 11am to 8pm

Saturday and Sunday: 9am to 8pm

Leave your comments