This taqueria makes the best carnitas in the Bay Area

Everything about the house taqueria Carnitas El Canelo is calculated to introduce you to the cuisine of Puebla, Mexico. But first, you’ll have to find it.

There are no signs outside, so listen for the stimulating sounds of cumbia. Next, you will need to search for a wooden door. Behind, there is a tent-like structure. Follow the music and, like a mirage, the restaurant appears.

You’ll see a few tables, a fridge, an array of aguas frescas, two planchas, a silver cazo on a gas burner, and a TV playing an endless loop of people dancing to intoxicating cumbia. The scene on screen immediately communicates that you are in someone’s home, in someone’s world, and you need to act accordingly.

“Dedicate this one to your lover and tell him you’ll love him forever”, sonidero (DJ) said in a modulated and attenuated voice. Cut to shot of dance floor, constant display of kinetic energy as each person twirls and moves their hips to Colombian-inspired music.

Cumbia is owner Odilon Graciano’s favorite music, and it’s what you’d hear in Puebla, a state two hours southwest of Mexico City. It’s a delicious sonic aperitif – filled with the repetitive, syrupy sounds of accordions, tambores, flutes and maracas – that have you bobbing your head, tapping your toes and somehow giving food tastes better. And the food at this Richmond taqueria is already very impressive.

Odilon Graciano pulls carnitas out of the pot at Carnitas El Canelo taqueria in Richmond.

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

El Canelo’s carnitas are fried fresh in a large silver cazo, the pork slowly cooked in lard until brown and juicy. Mexican dishes like mole and barbacoa are an immensely personal reflection of a family’s quirks, as are carnitas. Some like to add milk for color or orange for aroma and sweetness, but Graciano adds his own twist: burnt sugar. It speeds up the caramelization of the meat but is not as sweet on the palate.

The result is otherworldly richness, creating juices that might (unabashedly) run down your chin. These are arguably the best carnitas in the Bay Area, and you can indulge in them in a thousand and one ways: by the pound or in a taco, quesadilla, memela, cemita or tacos dorados.

Carnitas tacos are made with green salsa and a handmade blue corn tortilla at Carnitas El Canelo.

Carnitas tacos are made with green salsa and a handmade blue corn tortilla at Carnitas El Canelo.

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

And these aren’t your average tacos. Each is huge. The $10 price tag might shake your wallet, but considering the inflation, the level of doneness, and the overly generous portion, it’s worth it. The corn tortillas are dark blue and pressed on demand by Graciano’s mother, seated by the plancha with a virginita (Virgin Mary) statue looking over her shoulders. The tacos are so heavy — stuffed with confit pork, raw emerald green salsa and optional white ribbons of torn quesillo — that they’re swaddled in foil, secured in a thick cone.

But the crown jewel of this taqueria house is the cemitaa Pueblan sandwich that usually contains Milanese, a thin breaded cutlet, similar to a katsu sandwich. At El Canelo, the cemitas ($18) feature torn hard quesillo that extends beyond the bread, milanesa, seared ham a la plancha, strips of red onion, sliced ​​avocado, salsa (red or green) and homemade chipotles.

Cemita, a Pueblan style sandwich, from Carnitas El Canelo.

Cemita, a Pueblan style sandwich, from Carnitas El Canelo.

Cesar Hernandez/The Chronicle

Graciano won’t compromise on chipotles or sesame crispbread, which he gets from Los Angeles, where there are more Pueblan bakeries. His wife and business partner, Perla, makes chipotles using morita peppers from Mexico instead of jalapeños. They’re smoky and spicy as you’d expect from a store-bought can, but the flavors are more concentrated. The adobo is almost inky and so fiery. You can also add these beauties to tacos if you crave heat and pain.

Perla Graciano, who does all the salsas in the restaurant, evokes a nuclear physicist playing with the heat of the sun. Its raw green version, made with serrano chiles, is so zesty you’ll have to sit in it — taste buds pounding as if the cumbia is coming out of your mouth — until you recover and can crave more.

Odilon Graciano's mother sprinkles cheese on a blue huarache at Carnitas El Canelo.

Odilon Graciano’s mother sprinkles cheese on a blue huarache at Carnitas El Canelo.

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

You’ll be asked if you want to add papalo to your cemita, and you do, especially if it’s your first time. On its own, the herb may overpower the senses, but in the sandwich it provides a welcome herbaceousness in the cacophony of flavors. It’s also worth replacing the cutlet with succulent, fatty carnitas, which will be particularly gelatinous if you ask for a little cuero (pigskin) mixed.

Graciano is a third generation carnita maker. He started as a teenager in the town of San Francisco Totimehuacan, Puebla. There he slaughtered pigs, slaughtered meat and sold carnitas as his father did before him. He moved to the United States in the late 1990s and to Richmond in the early 2000s with the dream of opening his own taqueria. He finally opened Carnitas El Canelo in 2020, where his children now help him, from Friday to Sunday.

Odilon Graciano (right) with his family at Carnitas El Canelo in Richmond.

Odilon Graciano (right) with his family at Carnitas El Canelo in Richmond.

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

But his main occupation is not the taqueria. On weekdays, from a handcart, he and his family sell antojitos — small cravings or snacks like flour chicharrones, tostilocos and elotes — around Richmond or at big events.

El Canelo’s menu has plenty of other hits, like a milky quesadilla with squash blossoms ($13) and strips of serrano peppers. Try it memelas ($8), thin, oblong corn cakes filled with black beans flavored with licorice and avocado leaves and topped with meat and salsa – red, green or bandage (half half). Like most taquerias, El Canelo caters to the whims of its patrons, with offerings like quesabirria ($20 for four and consumed) and pambazos ($15), sandwiches painted red with salsa and filled with chorizo, potatoes and queso fresco. The latter is indulgent, creamy and slightly spicy, on par with the best in the Bay Area.

For all El Canelo is doing well, the menu operates on maximalism, with so many offerings that ordering can be overwhelming. Some dishes like mole ($20) and lamb mixiote ($20) are available sporadically. Others like the taco dorados ($15 for four) get into overly greasy territory (especially those made with carnitas and potatoes). The other dorado option is made with sesos of certainty ($10), pork brain, which showcases hard-to-find organ meats but isn’t a dish I would order regularly. I found it a bit too gamey, under-seasoned and not interesting beyond its novelty.

The aguas frescas bar welcomes customers of Carnitas El Canelo.

The aguas frescas bar welcomes customers of Carnitas El Canelo.

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

The extensive menu is due in part to Graciano’s ambition for a brick-and-mortar restaurant where he can display all of his interests, a place where the ephemeral nature of the specialties might be better suited.

But it’s those little human touches and idiosyncrasies that make the taqueria endearing. Although Poblano’s chefs are responsible for some of the best tacos in the region, there are hardly any that specialize in state-brand dishes. Luckily, East Bay is full of in-home restaurants, like El Canelo, that serve as a sort of wormhole, allowing diners to step into their world.

So come in. Cumbia hits, and so do carnitas.

Cesar Hernandez is the associate food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: cesar.hernandez@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @cesarischafa

Follow on for location details. Or text and/or call 510-334-2996 for Spanish and 510-307-6629 for English.

Hours: 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday; 10.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Saturday to Sunday.

Accessibility: All floors are on one level.

Noise level: Moderate to strong.

Meal for two, excluding drinks: $35-$50.

What to order: carnitas cemita ($18), carnitas taco ($10), pambazo ($15), memela ($10).

Meatless options: flor de calabaza (pumpkin blossom) quesadilla ($13), passion fruit agua fresca ($7).

Drinks: Soft drinks and aguas frescas.

Best Practices: Share a cemita and taco carnitas with a passion fruit agua fresca and vibrate with cumbia!

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