The passion to feed people is a strong one, and it is one that Rafael Ruiz has felt since his early days as a butcher alongside his father, in his hometown of San José Casas Caídas, Jalisco. He, along with Modesto Villagran from Nayarit (a neighboring coastal state of Jalisco), is the proprietor of Carnitas de Rafa (2344 S. 27th St.), a restaurant on Milwaukee’s south side, close to the major intersection of 27th and Forest Home. Many restaurants have stood in this spot—including a former mysterious pizzeria that had odd hours but seemed to have a stamp of approval from most people who ordered from it. The size of the place is small, almost like a takeout joint, but Rafa and Modesto have turned it into a certifiable buzzing Sunday morning spot.

“I can break down a pig with my eyes closed,” Rafa tells me. This can be indeed the most tedious step of making carnitas, but it is an important one. You must not falter if you are going to sling carnitas with a proper consistency, and Carnitas de Rafa has gained fame for this in its mere one year and nine months of being open.

If we went back 15 years or so to the corner of 16th and Forest Home, we’d find Modesto working at his tienda de abarrotes (corner store specializing in Mexican groceries), with Rafa as one of his best customers. One day, Modesto was short-staffed; Rafa, who had become his friend, was hanging around the store, keeping Modesto company, listening to their favorite group, Los Cadetes de Linares. Modesto asked for a hand. Rafa happily jumped in to help. A partnership was forged.

Modesto’s connections and Rafa’s fame on the south side making carnitas started to grow, and they realized this had potential for a business. Rafa has been in the United States for 15 years, and was cooking carnitas in his garage and selling them as takeout, contributing to the beloved backyard carnitas culture that Mexican immigrants have birthed. When not working on selling the meat, Rafa worked as a butcher and moonlighted with a cleaning company he had started.

With a financial philosophy in mind, Carnitas de Rafa is open from Friday through Sunday only. People eat out more on weekends, but Rafa has another idea behind this as well. “Food just seems to taste better on the weekends. Weeknight restaurant outings just always seemed bland to me. This way people can think about the carnitas all week and then come in on the weekend and really savor them.” It is something that has worked out well for Rafa and Modesto, as they’re usually sold out of carnitas by noon every day the restaurant is open.

While unconventional methods of cooking have become increasingly popular, Rafa’s methods are some of the most unconventional. “I have no idea what temperature I am cooking the meat at. I judge by the color of the lard,” he says. “When it is properly rendered and a certain shade of brown, that is when the meat goes in.”

“That’s very interesting,” I say. “I don’t want to ask you for your recipe for how you season the meat because…” He cuts off my question. “Salt and garlic. There’s no need to get super fancy. The salt has to be measured right and the lard rendered properly,” he says.

The accompaniments for the carnitas are simple: tortillas hechas a mano (tortillas made by hand) and salsas. There are three salsas: red (made with chile de arbol and guajillo), green (jalapenos and serranos), and pico de gallo. All of these are their own recipes as well, and it all jibes into a pliable, perfect taco.

Carnitas are not the only things sold at Carnitas de Rafa, as birria tatemada (oven-baked) birria is also on the menu, along with a few other items. Birria is sold by the pound, to eat as tacos with stock on the side. Birria ramen won’t be found here, and the meat is actual goat meat instead of beef.

Carnitas de Rafa will celebrate two years of being open in June, when they will have a big party celebrating their run. “We are going to have an event of some kind. We want to celebrate the love the people of the city have shown us,” Modesto says.

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About The Author

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Juan Miguel Martinez is a writer from the south side of Milwaukee. He only writes until he can land a role as the mechanic friend of the handsome lead in a telenovela. His favorite movie is Repo Man.