Taco Hog Carnitas Truck Brings a Taste of Michoacán to West Phoenix
Welcome to roll call! In this series, we shine a light on the food trucks and trailers that mark the bustling food scene in Metro Phoenix.
Taco Pork Carnitas
Taco Hog Carnitas serves Michoacán-style Mexican dishes from a food truck on Saturdays. Jan. 28, 2022, in Buckeye, Arizona.
Antranik Tavitian, Arizona Republic
One Saturday night in Buckeye, the accordion of a Los Nuevos Rebeldes song rivaled the hum of generators at a small gathering of food trucks.
Taco Hog Carnitas was parked by the Quick Quack Car Wash, a departure from its usual location at 8-Bit Aleworks in Avondale.
The crowd included regulars and newcomers. A trio of rodeo boys stopped in on a whim and tried the carnitas BBQ sandwiches. The food truck’s tantalizing Instagram posts led Jenny Olague to the parking lot, where she drank a strawberry horchata boba with her nieces and nephews.
But many were there because they know the owners, Rafael Valencia and his wife Veronica – former colleagues of Veronica, a classmate of Rafael’s in high school. They had shown up to support the couple’s relatively new business venture and to get their hands on some of the juiciest carnitas sold this side of town.
Serving Michoacán-style dishes
Carnitas is a braised pork dish from Michoacán, a state in western Mexico. At Taco Hog, people can order specific types of carnitas, like pork skin or ribs. Rafael Valencia said his methods honor the traditions of his family, who hail from Michoacán.
“When you’re looking for pizza, you get different styles from Chicago to New York,” Valencia said. “Depending on where a family comes from, there are different cooking styles within the framework of Mexican cuisine. Even from here, from Arizona to California, you get many different types of Mexican food.”
Ored Corrales, Rafael’s barber, said he’s a fan of the barbecue sandwich on Texas toast, which is part of the estilo Michoacán, part of the American South running. But that day, he was there to pick up pounds of carnitas and tortillas for a family birthday party.
“We know what good quality food is, so we f—a lot with it,” Corrales said. “The best carnitas in town.”
From eating at loncheras to opening Taco Hog Carnitas
Valencia grew up in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where many immigrant and seasonal farm workers from Michoacán go to work in the apple fields. Carnitas were plentiful in the area and at his house it was the dish they always prepared for gatherings, Valencia said.
“There you would go to a carnicería, which you could find pretty much anywhere you went,” Valencia said. “You could easily go to a Mexican restaurant and find Michoacán-style flavors.”
Food trucks, or loncheras, also provided quick meals to farm workers in the area.
When Valencia moved to the Phoenix area to attend trade school in 2004, the food truck scene was much different than it is today. At the time, some people still referred to a food truck as a “cockroach coach,” he recalls.
“I would go to work in a mechanical workshop and I would stop at a food truck. But some people wouldn’t want to eat there because they associate it with being dirty,” he said. “They thought the loncheras were dirty. Me, I grew up eating loncheras in the fields, tacos de lengua, de cabeza, de asada.
Around 2010, Valencia met his wife Veronica, who grew up in Phoenix, and on a trip to Austin for work he saw how food trucks had exploded in popularity. The couple started toying with the idea of opening their own food truck.
Valencia said he learned to cook carnitas like his older brother Israel taught him. Israel lives near Apatzingán, a town in Michoacán, where he sells carnitas at a stand.
In 2019, the couple decided to take the plunge and bought a food truck. After slowly working on the truck, Taco Hog Carnitas finally opened for service in June 2021.
The work behind carnitas is a point of pride
Making carnitas is a long process and cocineros, like Valencia’s uncle in Washington and his late father, proud to serve the most tender meat.
“Back when I was growing up, if you were the person making the carnitas, you had to be very precise,” Valencia said.
On Saturdays, Valencia wakes up at four or five in the morning to start cleaning the meat and removing fat. It involves taking a razor to the pigskin to remove the hair and rubbing the stomach. The cleaning process alone takes a few hours, he estimated.
Then he melts the manteca, or lard, in a massive pot.
He browns the maciza, or shoulder meat, a few pieces at a time on high heat to lock in the juices before removing them. This prevents the pieces of meat from collapsing in the pan later. He fry the ribs separately from the maciza because they are thinner and cook faster.
After lowering the temperature, all the meat goes into the pot with a mixture of spices and aromatics, starting with the shoulder meat, then the ribs, then the stomach and finally the skin.
After simmering for several hours, everything should be cooked for the meat to be intact, but if it shakes the bone, it falls off, Valencia said. The log should be soft and buttery in texture, the cuerito just the right amount of chewiness.
How to order carnitas like a pro
Traditionally, carnitas are made from the whole pig. In the old days, meat was scarce, so people used everything from pig’s feet to liver and kidneys, Valencia explained.
Taco Hog offers four types of carnitas: maciza, costilla, buche, and cuerito.
The maciza comes from the shoulder and leg of the pig. Costilla is rib meat. Buche comes from the outer lining of the stomach — not to be confused with pork belly, as buche can sometimes get lost in translation, he said. Cuerito is the skin.
Maciza, the carnitas commonly served at Phoenix taquerías, and a mix of all four are the most popular taco choices at Taco Hog.
For people who only order buche or cuerito, it’s like “if you know, you know,” Valencia said.
There’s an educational aspect to Taco Hog because many people aren’t familiar with the carnitas of different parts of the pork, he explained. If people aren’t sure what they’ll like, it offers samples for them to try.
What’s on the menu of this taco truck?
Taco Hog Carnitas offers tacos in corn and flour tortillas, which are baked in manteca, and a cheesy style called “queso carnita”. Groups can order a taco kit that includes eight tortillas and a pound of meat.
For toppings, the food truck offers habanero and onion; coriander and onion; and the repico, a pico de gallo with pickled jalapeño and red cabbage.
Customers can also order a plate of carnitas with rice and beans or a pork bowl with rice, beans, repico or lettuce, salsa of guacamole, sour cream and queso fresco.
A spicy barbecue sandwich with chile de árbol sauce, sweet pickles and repico coleslaw is the Valencian riff of the pulled pork sandwich.
Taco Hog also adds rotational items to the menu, such as chili colorado and a vegetarian option, morisqueta, a dish from Apatzingán. His family prepares it with cubed cotija in a lightly spiced tomato salsa, served on a bed of white rice and frijoles. Cabbage, sour cream and grated queso fresco are added on top. Valencia said he grew up on morisqueta, an inexpensive comfort food his mother made to feed the whole family.
In the future, he would like to cook carnitas from the whole pig. He also wants to introduce more fusion items, like carnitas fried rice.
“Kids enjoy that one,” he said. “My daughter is a picky eater and she can’t get enough.”
Valencia said he doesn’t have many opportunities to visit Michoacán. His work permit did not allow him to leave the country and after becoming an American citizen, money was scarce. Now with more financial stability, he hopes to take his family there in the future to explore the area and its cuisine. Maybe that will inspire new offerings at Taco Hog.
Taco Pork Carnitas
Or: Usually parked at 8-Bit Aleworks, 1050 N. Fairway Dr., Building F, Suite 101, Avondale. There are occasional pop-ups at other locations, such as the Quick Quack Car Wash in Buckeye.
When: At 8-Bit Aleworks on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Details: To confirm times and location, tick instagram.com/tacohog_carnitas.
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