The late Don Pedro Duarte was so prominent in Pilsen that nearly everyone in the neighborhood knew his name. “A lot of people loved my dad and said what a wonderful person he was,” recalled his daughter Maggie Castaneda, with a warm smile.
Even years after his death in 2017, Duarte is still loved and remembered by locals in the community — especially those who continue to frequent his restaurant, Carnitas Don Pedro.
Now owned and operated by Duarte’s wife and children, Carnitas Don Pedro has always been a family affair. “We’ve had the same workers for more than 15 years in the front of the house,” said Castaneda, whose 21-year-old son also works at the restaurant. “The back of the house has been here for more than 30 years.”
When its doors opened in 1981, Carnitas Don Pedro was one of the first restaurants of its kind in the Pilsen neighborhood. Since then, the establishment has been serving up its signature carnitas in the same traditional style that originated in Duarte’s hometown of Uruapan, Michoacán.
Carnitas — defined simply as pork rendered in its own fat — are served at the restaurant 365 days a year, seven days a week, with a fresh batch made daily. The dish is so popular that they never get stuck with leftovers, Castaneda said. The restaurant usually sells out of its carnitas every day around 2:30 p.m.
The family’s traditional carnitas use both lean and fatty parts of the pig, packing a wide variety of texture in even the smallest bite. The leaner bits come from the tenderloin (the cut of meat used in pork chops), and the fattier pieces come from the flabby pork belly (a typical source of bacon). Then there’s everything in between, like the succulent pork shoulder and the tender rib meat that falls right off the bone. All these different cuts of meat are combined together, giving the dish such a unique texture that no bite is the same.
In addition to carnitas, chicharron is also served daily. Castaneda described the chicharrones as “homemade pork rinds,” which are made by deep-frying wobbly pig skin in large pieces. The skin is fried to the point where tapping it on the table would sound like someone knocking on a door. The carnitas and chicharron are typically sold in large quantities at $8.99 per pound and $5.99 per pound, respectively.
The restaurant also has specialty items, most of them served only on the weekends, including menudo (tripe soup), barbacoa de res (steamed beef), birria de chivo (braised goat), tacos de sesos (deep-fried brain tacos) and nopales (cactus salad).
Of all the dishes served by Carnitas Don Pedro, it’s no surprise that the carnitas keep customers coming back. Some regulars line up for carnitas an hour before the restaurant opens at 6 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on weekends. Castaneda said customers who come in so early for carryout are usually there to pick up large orders placed in advance, often for parties and celebrations.
It’s typical for members of the community to order several pounds of carnitas and a few bags of tortillas, which come with the usual fixings: onions, cilantro, lime and salsa. This makes for an easy dish to serve at parties because guests can build their tacos however they please. Castaneda said that landscapers and construction workers even order kits for their teams to eat on a lunch break.
“I love it because you get to meet all kinds of people,” Castaneda said. “And then you have your regulars who are family. The neighborhood has changed, but so has our clientele, and it’s great.”
It’s no secret that these changes in the neighborhood are a result of gentrification, which is a common theme throughout the entire city. Pilsen, in particular, has been home to waves of working-class immigrants for decades. However, the community’s Latino population has dropped by more than 14,000, according to recent census data.
As a result of changes to the neighborhood — and especially throughout the pandemic — many long-standing restaurants in Pilsen have had to close their doors. But Carnitas Don Pedro is still standing, and their secret to success lies in tradition.
Duarte’s son, Eddie, said different carnitas joints in the area have added their own spin on the dish by cooking with ingredients like Coca Cola, orange peels, condensed milk and cumin, based on their flavor preference. But at Carnitas Don Pedro, nothing beats authenticity. “We do it the way my dad grew up doing it,” Eddie said.
Eddie referenced the second episode of Netflix’s Taco Chronicles, which shows the same carnitas technique his father used: “cooking in the ground, pulling the cazo out, and taking it to the mercado to serve.”
“Watching the episode, I teared up,” Eddie said. “I think about what my dad went through, and what he went through with his dad. Then I think about me growing up with him here, going in and watching him cook. I’m just glad that the tradition is still alive and it keeps going.”
As for the family’s dream for the future of the business? “To still be around,” Castaneda said, laughing. “To instill that love, that sense of fulfillment to my kids, my nieces, my nephews. And to just keep serving the community as it changes, because it already has changed in the last 30 plus years that we’ve been here. So our hope is that we’re still around for that.”