Carnitas Tacos with Green Salsa and Pico de Gallo

To understand my Mexican food expertise, consider this: when I was younger, I took several cruises with my family that brought us to Mexico. Cozumel, mostly. Upon arriving in Mexico, my family would immediately trek to the center of town where my mom would shop for jewelry and my brother, dad and I would stand around impatiently. Then it was time for lunch and, without fail, we’d almost always go to the same authentic Mexican restaurant, The Hard Rock Cafe. I even had the Hard Rock Cozumel t-shirt to prove our devotion. Which is why, when it comes to Mexican food, I’m as gringo as they come.

Which is a shame, because after a year of living in L.A. I’m really falling in love with everything Mexican. I think the weather is an important component. When I was back in New York, I kept hearing talk of must-visit Mexican restaurants like Empellon Cucina and Fonda in Brooklyn (more on that one in a second), but as it got colder and colder, I grew less and less interested. Meanwhile, the first thing I did when I got back to L.A. was to head over to Loteria at The Grove for a shrimp burrito smothered in tomatillo salsa. Sitting outside and eating that, the breeze barely rustling the palms, is how Mexican food needs to be enjoyed.


And I’d be happy being just a Mexican food fan, a spectator who imbibes but doesn’t attempt it on his own, except recently my friend J.J. Goode handed me a copy of a cookbook he co-authored with Roberto Santibañez the chef/owner of the previously mentioned Fonda in Brooklyn, a book called Tacos, Tortas and Tamales. Because J.J. co-authored my favorite cookbook from last year, April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig,” I knew that this book was to be trusted. And the recipe that intrigued me the most was a recipe for Carnitas, slow-cooked pork that’s braised in a hot oven with a puree of garlic, onion, oregano and thyme, plus a surprising ingredient: Coke.


While the meat’s braising in the oven, you can make the recommended condiments: green salsa and pico de gallo with lemon zest. The green salsa is a piquant mixture of raw, husked-and-washed tomatillos that you roughly chop before throwing into a blender with jalapenos (seeds included), cilantro, garlic, white onion and salt. The results will put hair on your chest, even if you’re a woman…so you may want to have a beautician close by for after you taste it.


As for the pico de gallo, it’s really just a matter of chopping and stirring. The recipe calls for regular tomatoes, but I used cherry tomatoes which I prefer to use in winter since they’re consistently tart and fresh-tasting. Those get tossed with red onion, cilantro, lemon zest, lemon juice, chopped jalapenos and kosher salt.

The resulting pico de gallo is surprisingly bright; the addition of the lemon zest and juice takes it in a different direction, one that makes a solid case for swapping lemon for lime. (Though lime wedges are served with the finished carnitas, so don’t you worry, lime-fans.)

Two hours after going into the oven, those carnitas will fill your kitchen with the most intoxicating meaty, garlicky, herbal smell. The Coke works a special kind of magic, infusing the meat with just the right amount of sugar and–in the final step, when you take the lid off and cook for an additional 30 minutes–allowing for a sweet, succulent crust to form. Some call that the Maillard reaction, I just call it good.


For my final trick, I was going to make corn tortillas from scratch using the tortilla press that Craig’s parents got me for Christmas. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find masa harina at Gelson’s, so instead bought these refrigerated corn tortillas which you cook in a hot skillet just before serving. They worked great, though I did catch a kitchen towel on fire in the process. Don’t ask.


The best part of serving Mexican food at home is how social it is. You set up a little taco bar with your meat, your fixings–the salsa verde, the pico de gallo, but also chopped white onion, cilantro, and sour cream (which Craig insisted upon because he likes all things lactic)–and everyone’s hanging out in the kitchen making tacos, drinking beer and having a good time.


Actually, on this particular night people were drinking Palomas, a drink that Craig made with Mezcal, lime juice and grapefruit soda using Ruhlman’s recipe. If you’ve never had a Paloma before, it’s smoky, slightly bitter but just sweet enough with the soda. And it’s a great pairing on taco night.

I’m a long way from becoming a Mexican food authority (don’t worry, Rick Bayless), but I’m certainly further along than I was when I’d eat burgers in Mexico with my parents, next to Elton John’s platform shoes from the movie “Tommy.” If I remember correctly, mom didn’t let us drink the water; we were forced to drink Coke. Which ties things together nicely.

Recipe: Carnitas Tacos

Summary: A winning recipe from Roberto Santibañez’s Tacos, Tortas and Tamales.


  • 8 medium garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano (I used regular oregano, which worked fine)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 5 teaspoons kosher salt (it’s a lot of salt but it’s also a lot of meat)
  • 5 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 3 dried bay leaves
  • 1 cup Coca-Cola


  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
  2. Blend the garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, salt, and 1/2 cup of water in a blender until fairly smooth.
  3. Combine the pork and bay leaves in a 6-quart Dutch oven or deep baking dish that can hold the pork in no more than 2 layers. Pour the blended mixture and the Coca-Cola over the pork and stir and toss well.
  4. Cover the pot and cook in the oven until the pork is very tender, about 2 hours. The sides of the pot might look dark (mine were totally black!). That’s just fine.
  5. Uncover the pot and return it to the oven. Continue cooking, tossing well and scraping the bottom of the pot every 10 minutes, until the pork is slightly crispy on the outside and deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. Coarsely shred the pork.
  6. Serve with warm corn tortillas, lime wedges, chopped white onion, chopped cilantro, fresh green salsa (see following recipe) and pico de gallo with lemon zest (see following recipe).

Quick notes

You can make this a day ahead and heat it up just before your guests arrive.

Preparation time: 20 minute(s)

Cooking time: 2 hour(s) 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

Recipe: Fresh Green Salsa

Summary: A piquant, spicy sauce to serve with your carnitas.


  • 1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6), husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
  • 2 fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles, coarsely chipped (including seeds) or more to taste
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons chopped white onion
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt


  1. Put the tomatillos in a blender fist, then add the remaining ingredients. Pulse a few times, then blend until the salsa is very smooth, at least 1 minute.
  2. Season to taste with additional chile and salt, and blend again.

Quick notes

This is definitely a spicy salsa. If you don’t like your salsas spicy, don’t include the seeds. You could even use one less jalapeño.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 5 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

Recipe: Pico de Gallo with Lemon Zest

Summary: A surprising twist on an old classic.


  • 1 1/2 cups diced seeded tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes, which work great in winter)
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
  • Heaping 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles (including seeds), or more to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt


  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir thoroughly. Season to taste with more chile, lemon juice, and salt. Santibañez suggests letting the salsa sit for at least 30 minutes before serving it.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time:

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

27 thoughts on “Carnitas Tacos with Green Salsa and Pico de Gallo”

  1. looks great, although technically, the maillard reaction is the browning of the meat itself and the protein. this is boiling down sugar, which is carmeliztion

  2. looks like you redeemed yourself from your Hard Rock in Mexico ways in fell swoop here. Congrats! I’m gonna try all three of these this week.

    Just wondering though why you chose to use lemons in your pico de gallo recipe rather than limes? I always use limes but I’d try it your way if there’s a specific reason – does lemon make the cherry tomatoes pop more or something?

  3. Why would you shop for masa harina at Gelson’s with all the Mexican grocery stores in L.A., especially in your neck of the woods? On Vine between Melrose and Santa Monica there’s one behind Cactus taqueria.

  4. What about a series of lunches for a week with a bunch of overlapping ingredients you can prep sunday but take different directions for the week? I mean, this looks great too! But I new years resoluted to bring my lunch 4 days a week…help…already bored…plus no interactions with attractive expensive lunch providers…

  5. This looks so delicious! I love the idea of using coke. I usually use David Leibovitz’s recipe for carnitas, but this might become my go-to! I totally agree about how social Mexican food at home is – the first meal I made for friends when I moved to Boston was carnitas; we didn’t yet have a dining room table so we all sat round this tiny coffee table in the sitting room scoffing tacos!

  6. Couldn’t wait to try this recipe…but I think there must be some mistake! 450F for 2hrs seems way too hot, for way too long, with far too little liquid…I say this having tried the recipe, and found scraped from my charred pot what looked like a few dozen charcoal briquettes. My pork was dry as a bone, covered in a thick, burnt crust, with nothing worth fighting for on the inside.

    It smelled delicious though, while cooking…maybe it’s supposed to be 350F?

    1. Hi MHL,
      So sorry you had a bad experience. I did the recipe, as written, at 450 degrees and had wonderful results. I definitely didn’t think there was too little liquid in the pot: it was positively doused with the puree of garlic, onions, etc. (even though it was only 1/2 cup of water, the onions released a lot of liquid) and then the Coke took the liquid to almost the tippy top. So from my point of view, it went into the oven with a lot of liquid and 2 hours later, the liquid had all been absorbed… Were they charcoal briquettes when you took the lid off? Or did that happen in the final 30 minutes? Again, sorry you had bad results.

      1. Hmm…maybe adding more water/CocaCola would have made a difference for me. My puree was much more of a wet rub? It was not very liquid-y, and I was surprised at the time at how little liquid I was adding. Next time I’ll definitely try a bit more liquid…I’m intrigued now.

        1. Also, it was tempting to cut the pork shoulder into small pieces, but I used a ruler to make sure I was really doing 2-inch cubes which are very, very large. This is probably to protect them from drying out, another thing to look at.

          1. Maybe mhl used too large a pot? in a recipe like this, too big a pot would spread the meat out and the liquid would not cover and laste like it would in a smaller/taller pot (learned the hard way that sometimes the pot/pan required in a recipe is not just a “recommendation”)

  7. Hi, I’m in Melbourne, and the only tomatillos we manage to get are the canned kind, at the US Imports Store. We’re growing tomatoes in our backyard, though – would you suggest substituting green ones for the salsa, or am I doomed to failure?

  8. I’ve been using Coke in my carnitas for years, along with another unexpected ingredient: orange juice. I think the acid in the juice helps to break down the pork for deliciously fall-apart nuggets of goodness, while balancing out the sweetness.

  9. Suggestion: use (poorly-named, so-called) “Mexican” Coke instead – the stuff that’s made and imported from Mexico in glass bottles and instead of corn syrup has cane sugar. The difference isn’t trivial.

  10. I’m glad there were followup threads to the 450 degree temperature and explanations. Your Cozumel Hard Rock Cafe story brought back a good memory of my visit to their restaurant in Cancun! Or at least there was one there in 1994.

  11. After the first two hours of cooking, I tasted the carnitas and I was “Hmmm, I don’t know”… After letting them cook further uncovered in the oven, I was very, very happy. That last step just makes it. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Carnita tacos are one of my favorites. In Austin we also top them with Doña sauce (spicy enough to make that hair on your chest curl!) Passing the recipe along to all y’all in LA. Hope you enjoy!

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