Epicurious Eating: Porkyland
In honor of the pig
Published Thursday, 22-Apr-2010 in issue 1165
No, it isn’t the birthplace of some goofy cartoon character. Nor is it a detention camp for vegetarian kids who snort rudely over bacon at dinner tables. Porkyland is instead the newest taco shop in Hillcrest serving some serious swine in the form of sopes, burritos and Mexican street tacos.
If you’re a fan of carnitas, but turned off by the flavorless, flash-fried stuff cranked out at other Mexican joints, Porkyland’s recipe is blue-ribbon worthy. Every morning, the kitchen slowly bakes the pork butts in pineapple and orange juices with a little garlic – and within copperware to evenly caramelize the meat before it’s pulled apart into luscious chunks. Paired with raw onions and cilantro as it lands into hefty burritos using homemade tortillas, you end up with an energetic combo made famous a century ago in Mexico’s southwestern city of Sahuayo, where carnitas and other heavily marbled meats are still oven-braised in copper pans.
Less familiar to American border towns is buche (pig’s tummy), a daring adventure for gringos given its grayish hue and jiggly texture, though one that copies the beautifully rich flavor of dark meat from a pork roast. Cut into bits, it’s available in tacos and burritos, and the staff gladly provides free samples in little plastic cups to apprehensive customers.
Also relatively foreign to our land is pastor, known otherwise as “the steak of pork” and served in bite-size pieces like carne asada. Throughout Mexico, the meat is bathed in a variety of chilies, citrus and other fruit juices, usually pineapple. At Porkyland the latter is particularly evident, leading to a slight teriyaki flavor that requires no support from any of the zippy salsas (red, verde or chipotle). The meat is grilled to order, and turned up a desirable reddish tint in a few mini tacos that we tried, attesting to an action-packed marinade.
In another visit I wasn’t nuts over the dense masa base of a carnitas sope, which was impossible to cut with a plastic knife and challenging to tear apart by hand. The dough hails from a distributor before it’s hand-shaped on site. Perhaps these masa “shoes” were day-old or over-fried — or the dough is deprived adequate water by its makers. With a mound of shredded iceberg lettuce and very white cheese sitting on top, I forked out all of the prized carnitas and pretty much left the rest for dead.
When the urge strikes for a bean and cheese burrito, I’d come back for one again, but only if the lines at La Fuente or La Posta are snaking long. Porkyland’s beans are good and made traditionally with lard. But they don’t sparkle with enough garlic and cumin for my taste. I also prefer a smooth mash rather than encountering sporadic beans left whole. As for the cheese inside — the same young Jack piled onto the aforementioned sope as well as rolled tacos — it’s exceedingly uninteresting.
But Porkyland deserves kudos for its classic Mexican pork offerings, which also include a tasty version of stewed pig skin known as chicharron. In certain mouthfuls, wet jerky came to mind. The menu extends further to fresh, hearty tamales, grilled cactus salad, steak fajitas, shrimp burritos and carne asada fries. And I’d be remiss in failing to mention the horchata, the popular Mexican rice drink made here with brawny doses of cinnamon.
Service is friendly and efficient, and if owner Pepe Stepensky is present, he happily shares with customers his recipe secrets culled from more than 25 years of running Porkylands at other locations, once on Logan Avenue and still in a longstanding mainstay on Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla.
In Hillcrest, the eatery is small with large windows and colored brightly by abstract wall paintings. The interior also features black tables scrawled with Mexican poems and song lyrics in white paint. Indeed, it’s a veritable “happyland” that demands pigging out at gentle prices.