MONTERREY – It’s Saturday afternoon and there is a big crowd at the counter of Carnes Ramos, a gleaming meat emporium in the wealthy suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia in Monterrey, Mexico. One of the butchers reaches across the counter and hands me a free sample of the hot chicharrones that are constantly coming out of the fryer. I never liked the crumbly chicharrones you get at carniceras in Houston much, but I love the ones in Monterrey, They taste like thick chunks of freshly fried bacon.
A woman who is offering free samples of bottled salsa from a card table near the door encourages me to slather some of her hot sauce on the sizzling pork. As I savor the combination of hot greasy bacon and tart spicy chile sauce, I am thinking I have died and gone to heaven.
The walls at Carnes Ramos are covered with meat porno, beauty shots of sexy meat cuts. The butcher shop sells beef, lamb, pork, cabrito and a huge assortment of marinated meats, as well as charcoal, barbecue sauces, dozens of salsas, fresh tortillas, refried beans in a jar and even a some fresh baked desserts. It’s one stop shopping for backyard barbacoa buffs. Shoppers take home the hot carnitas and chicharonnes to eat for lunch.
I ask for a half a pound of chicharonnes and half a pound of carnitas. The butcher says I better try the costillas--baby back ribs that are fried in lard like carnitas until they are falling apart tender. I end up buying some of those too.
My fingers and my chin are covered in grease as I eat the steaming meats out of paper bags in the back seat of the car as we drive to the next carniceria. To kick off this series of mini-reviews called The Carnicería Connoisseur, I thought it might be a good idea to first set some standards. And to do that, I took a trip to the Paris of Mexican meat markets, Monterrey, Mexico. There I visited carniceras great and small.
At Chicharrones Mendez, a tiny storefront on Zaragoza in the Independencia neighborhood, I found the leanest, saltiest, tastiest chicharrones I have ever tasted. The place sold chicharonnes, carnitas, fried tripe and tortillas, and that was it. They weighed your purchase in a paper cone. The chicharonnes were so good, we went back and bought a second cone--just for good measure.
At the Mercado Campesino, a weekend farmer’s market on Venustiano Carranza Avenue, there are only a few farmers selling fresh vegetables. Most of the stalls are occupied by ranchers who drive in from the country to sell whole pigs, baby goats and sides of beef to discerning consumers.
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Alongside the ranchers, fresh air carnicerías sell meat by the kilo along with cooked treats. Chicarrones and carnitas are sold right out of the giant copper pots they are cooked in. Cowboys cook beefsteaks and cabrito in 55 gallon barrels. Customers sit down at card tables and eat the hot meat on the spot. I try some crunchy cabrito al pastor and sample some more carnitas from the stalls there.
Opening a carnicería isn’t much of an undertaking in Monterrrey. Driving through the working class Topo Chico neighborhood, I see amateur butchers cutting up pigs and cooking carnitas and chicharonnes for the neighbors on the sidewalks in front of their homes.
I am tempted to jump out of the car and try them all, but I am getting a little full. Anyway, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what to look for in a carnicería by now. And I am eager to get home and start my tour of Mexican meat markets in Houston. – Robb Walsh