Victor Escobedo studies the wispy, blond puff of chicharron between his fingers.
“It’s very delicate, translucent. It looks very nice,” he says. “In theory this is excellent.”
The chicharron combines the yin and yang of cooking — sweet and savory, which Escobedo says is always a hit.
“They added a little bit of sugar to create a canvas, to appreciate the little bit of chili and salt,” he explains.
But ultimately, he says, the pork rinds failed.
“What’s lacking is it’s not fresh,” he says. “It doesn’t taste stale at all, but the texture suffered. This is over a day old.”
As hipsters, immigrants and immigrant hipsters collide in the Mission District’s foodie culture, some are attempting to elevate Mexican comfort food to a more refined, or even fashionable, level. The neighborhood now serves vegan tamales, Aztec chocolate cupcakes, banana de leche doughnuts and horchata cappuccinos.
Escobedo has some experience with this world. As the second-generation of a family that has done well on Mexican food, he and his brother Miguel opened their own restaurant, Papalote Mexican Grill, near 24th and Valencia Streets, with an updated premise — bag the lard and make the beans vegetarian-friendly.
So, along with Escobedo’s comic partner David Lew, I took a tasting tour of the Mission’s chicharrones. I figured if there’s one food that seems an impossible candidate for an upscale makeover, it’s fried pork skin. But I was wrong.
First stop: Ritual Coffee Roasters, where $3.50 bags filled with a half-ounce of Ryan Farr’s gourmet chicharrones are kept in a big glass jar by the register. Farr, the 31-year-old porksmith of 4505 Meats, says he wanted to put his spin on the traditional snack he’d see in bodegas near his home. His chicharrones are lighter in color and texture than typical chicharrones. “You can have a bag and go for a jog,” he says.
But they’re not holding up with Escobedo and Lew. Lew’s assessment is less forgiving than Escobedo’s. His face reeks of letdown.
“That’s an abortion of a chicharron. It’s not even crispy. It’s soggy-crispy,” he vents, then turns to face Ritual’s storefront. “You ritually butcher chicharrones, that’s what you do!”
Fortunately, there’s no time for anger. We’re off to Lucky Pork Store on Mission Street, where a few weeks earlier, I’d met Luis Alberto Moreta, 33, from Daly City. Moreta was buying a pound of traditional chicharrones — the grease already seeping through the brown paper wrap.
“El sabor tiene Mexicano,” he’d told me.
I want to see if Escobedo and Lew agree. So I pay the cashier 91 cents for a hunk of chicharron and ask the guys to dig in.
Escobedo tells me to be patient. He can’t open the bag just yet.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but you don’t open it until you smash [the chicharron] in the bag,” he says.
Lew nods in agreement: “That’s straight gangsta.”
Once the chicharrones are sufficiently broken, Escobedo unties the bag, chews and swallows thoughtfully.
Lew speaks up first.
“This is more your standard-fare chicharron,” he says after tasting Lucky’s version. “This is what your mom brings home when she’s at the meat market and wants some regular-ass chicharron,”
Escobedo notes that while the color and appearance isn’t as pristine as Farr’s version, there’s a good crunch — a definite plus. But Escobeda is picky. It’s also a bit bland, he says — a definite minus.
“Because it wasn’t used as a canvas for the classic battle between sweet and savory, it could’ve used more salt,” he adds. But I watch, and he keeps eating.
Other longtime Mission residents are skeptical of the new froufrou Latin fusions, whether they be 4505’s sugar-sweetened chicharrones or Mission Minis’ cinnamon horchata cupcakes.
“Folks here that have lived here for a long time and who are primarily Latino look at that like, ‘That’s way overpriced,’” says Roberto Hernandez, 53, a neighborhood fixture who says he’s noticed the trend “of all these overpriced Latin foods” ever since Ramblas, a Spanish tapas restaurant, opened near 16th and Valencia eight years ago.
“But then folks who have never eaten that before will pay for it because it’s new and different,” he says. “It’s like rediscovering Latinos but on an upscale level.”
Hernandez prefers to buy his chicharrones at La Gallinita Meat Market on 24th and Harrison streets, where a few times a week the salted pork skins are cooked in-house — fried in a cauldron of lard and served a half-pound to a bag.
Hernandez says the store is funky and messy, and “everything is in your way.”
“You think you’re in Latin America,” he says.
So naturally, La Gallinita is the next — and final — stop on our chicharron tour.
From behind the counter, Uziel Boveda hands us a sheet of chicharron that we break into three pieces. We each take a bite.
“Seven crunches in a row!” says Escobeda, pointing happily to his mouth, where — seven bites later — the crispy flakes are beginning to dissolve. “It leaves a very nice paste of animal skin in your mouth. It’s not salty but it’s not bland.”
Lew counts eight crunches. They agree La Gallanita’s chicharron is the clear winner.
I’m still trying to appreciate the chicharron perfection in my mouth when I notice a lump of porky paste forming in my esophagus, just behind my sternum. I rub my chest and swallow hard. Escobedo notices.
“There’s two phenomena I know of,” he says as I continue massaging and swallowing. “There’s the brain freeze. And then there’s the chicharron clot.”
I feel my arteries clogging. But apparently this, too, is a mark of a good chicharron — a small reward for all that greasy, non-gourmet indulgence.