As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up with parents who were advocates of the no-fat-is-better-than-low-fat food movement. Our dinners often featured lean meat with canned veggie sides and some sort of starch. It’s a model I unquestionably followed when I started a family of my own. Having never actually tried fatty meats, I made the rather-dumb assumption that pale, blubbery meat fat looked gross. Therefore, to me, it tasted gross and needed to be removed before cooking.
My husband, who was raised in a traditional Mexican household, went from eating crispy, tender carnitas and slow-braised chuck roasts, to the flavor-barren landscape of my lean turkey bacon breakfasts and dry chicken breast dinners. He was a saint.
Had we not stepped foot inside a taco joint in San Juan Capistrano, California I might never have discovered what I’d been missing out on by literally cutting the fat from my diet.
The smoky, salty smell hooked me first — those rich little mouth-watering scent atoms floating through the air and into my nose. The cook stirred a vat of meat in simmering oil with a huge wooden paddle. “¿Qué es eso?” my husband yelled over the counter, pointing to the glistening meat. “Chales,” the cook yelled back. Literal translation: “pork shawl.” But we later learned while excitedly eating it in tacos, “chales” is a slang term for pork belly, one of the fattiest meats.
Topped with minced raw onions, leafy cilantro and a splash of salsa roja, the pork belly — which was like a cross between a crisp, fried chicharron and thick-cut bacon — melted in my mouth. The crackled exterior gave way to the oily, pork-fat underside, lasting only for a second before the tender, roasted flavors of the meat took over. It was everything I thought I hated, and it was divine.
Seeing my husband’s joy and, more importantly, recognizing my own, I decided to try making pork belly tacos at home. I combed through dozens of recipes and followed along with various YouTube tutorials, eventually cobbling together my favorite techniques from a few into a totally greasy, delicious pork belly taco recipe that’s become a staple for my family. The best part? It’s so simple to make.
The trick to getting the perfect pork belly is to first cook it on high heat. Then cook it on low heat and really slow. This allows the fat to crisp while simultaneously rendering out and bathing the meat in its rich, delicious juices. A little salt and pepper is all pork belly needs to shine because the fat is the flavor, melting into the meat and making it tender.
If you think you don’t like meat fat, if you think it’s chewy and gummy and gross, I promise, you just haven’t had it cooked properly before. And there’s no better way to experience the joy and pleasure of properly cooked fatty meat than this. These pork belly tacos won’t just wake you up to what you’ve been missing — they’re also a culinary gateway to becoming a lover of fatty meat, just like me.
This recipe yields a lot of pork belly — enough to feed at least 8 — but if you’re anything like my family of 6, it won’t last more than a day.
- 4–5 pounds pork belly, preferably a slab
- salt and pepper to taste
- 32 corn tortillas
- 1 medium onion
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- 3 limes
- salsa or hot sauce of your choice
- Preheat your oven to 500°F (260°C).
- Season the outside of your pork belly liberally with salt and pepper. (I typically use around 2 tablespoons salt and 1 tablespoon pepper, but adjust based on how big your pork belly is.)
- Place the pork belly fat-side up in a high-sided sheet pan lined with foil.
- Cook the pork belly for an hour at 500°F (260°C), then rotate the pan in the oven and reduce the heat to 300°F (150°C). Set a timer for 3 hours and walk away. Check on it every hour or so. What you want to see is a bubbling, crackly surface that turns a deep caramel brown. If the surface is turning black, loosely tent it with foil and let it keep cooking.
- Remove the belly from the oven and let it cool slightly. Then slice the belly into 1-inch cubes and mix them in a bowl to make sure everyone gets a mix of crispy fat and succulent meat.
- Clean and finely chop the cilantro and onions. Cut the limes into wedges.
- To serve, simply pile the meat into warmed corn tortillas — we prefer 2 tortillas per taco — and garnish with cilantro, onion, lime and your favorite salsa. In our house, fiery red salsa rules.
When you pull the pork belly out of the oven, strain that rendered fat through a sieve and store it in the freezer for use in future recipes. In my house, we call it “liquid gold.”
Bryanne Salazar is a freelance writer and food lover living in Southern California. In addition to eating all the things, Bryanne is writing a true-crime memoir, which you can learn more about on Twitter.