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Carnitas El Botanero

8035 Broadway, Lemon Grove

"Oh, God." Story of my life. First chip, first dip, first splot of salsa on my brand-spankin'-new white shirt. Gifted by Ms. Carla. Now I have a simple choice: Go home -- or live.

"I'm a dead man walking," I mumble to Hank.

"So it won't matter if your last meal is cholesterol-city, deep-fried pork." Well, that's what this place is about. Carnitas Uruapan. But is Hank approving of a lardfest? "Pork," he says. "Used to be my fave." Oh, I get it now. Guy's still hangin' in there with his diet. Wants to live vicariously. I'm happy to oblige.

We're sitting in a sunny booth at a place just outta town from Lemon Grove. It's a reddish ranch house. Sloping rafters and plain inside, except for some hanging copper pans and the piggy ornaments scattered about. Come to think of it, there's pigs everywhere: stuffed pigs, piñata pigs, ceramic pigs, piggy banks, pigs dressed in champagne bubbles...

"Man, how many pigs they got here?"

"Six hundred and twenty-eight, my friend," says the guy behind the counter. Héctor. "Customers send them to us from all over the world."

"You don't have to hem and haw over this menu," Hank says. "Do the carnitas."

"You know," I say, "I've never quite nailed down what da heck carnitas is."

"Come on, man," says Hank. "Carnitas is pork, but, like, they slow-cook it in lard. Its own juices give it flavor, so you don't need to add anything except maybe cilantro and a bit of onion."

Leti -- Leticia, the dark-eyed waitress -- comes up. "I'll show you," she says. She leads me to the kitchen. Oh, man. Two great iron stove-top pots bubbling away with meats in liquids. "Three hours," she says. "Each batch. We make carnitas all day."

Back at the table, I see the menu puts carnitas right at the top. As dinner for one ("delicious deep-fried pork, $5.95, served with beans, tortillas, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and lemons"), for two ($11.90), three ($17.95), and four ($23.80).

Guess I'll try it. 'Specially since the rest looks like standard Mexican fare: chiles rellenos ($7.95), milanesa ($8.95), two beef or chicken tacos, with rice and beans, $5.95. The only other thing that makes me sit up is the Number Two: Barbacoa, beef cooked in special sauce, served with beans and tortillas, $6.95. But no. Porky Pig's who I came for. I order the dinner for one and an iced tea ($1.75).

"Good choice." Hank looks wistful. He's talking like I'd inherited his old girlfriend. For himself, he orders camarones al mojo de ajo. Garlic shrimp. Wow, $9.95 (with tortillas, rice, and beans). He's payin', so I'll just enjoy the smell of all that minced garlic they promise, sizzling in butter.

He gets a plate loaded with eight plump camarones, rice, frijoles, and corn tortillas. Mine looks almost Vietnamese when it arrives, with a big green pile of fresh cilantro and sliced onions and tomato on one side, a pile of pork chunks on the other. Leti brings a round box of hot corn tortillas, a plate of frijoles, and, yes, I like wrapping it all up in a tortilla and making little tacos. But even better is forking the meat straight into my mouth, plus some frijoles to go with it. And not just any frijoles.

"What's with these?" I ask Héctor. "They're wicked."

"They're fried in the pork lard," Héctor says. "That's what gives them flavor."

"It's all dee-licious," I say. "A baby in gums could chew this pork. And the frijoles -- flavor city! But deep-fried for three hours...that can't be good for, like, the arteries."

Héctor's mom Margaret pricks her ears up. She's sitting at a table nearby with some friends. "But if it's so bad for you, how come every single Mexican hasn't died of a heart attack?" she says. "No. People get sick from all the synthetic things they put in food on this side of the border. In Mexico, it's all natural."

"Well, Mama, people shouldn't eat too much carnitas," says Héctor . "It is rich. Way rich. I really worry about some people. They get hooked on it."

I can understand that. I'm hooked.

"We cook 900, maybe 1000 pounds of pork every week," Margaret says. "We're the only ones in San Diego who do it properly. My husband learned with his uncle at Carnitas Uruapan in Tijuana. We never change it."

Her husband Rogelio died two years ago. Now Héctor has come to replace his stepfather, team up with his mom. Except, right now he's -- wow -- fitting a silver necklace around a customer's neck. "I make jewelry," he says. "I was making it in Beverly Hills. I've sold it on the Home Shopping Network, I've sold it to Bette Midler, Betty White, Queen Latifah, Leeza Gibbons...now they have to come here to buy."

Hank and I sit for a moment, transfixed. Bette Midler and Queen Latifah in Lemon Grove?

I get up to leave.

"Uh, dude," says Hank. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

I look down. Oh Lord. The "blood" on my new shirt has spread.

"You are a sorry pig in a poke," says Hank. Guy's loving this. "What's Carla gonna say?"

"Front me some mint leaves," I says. "I'll get her a necklace. Distract her. Tell her I had to fight Queen Latifah for it."

"Cabbage? No can do," says Hank. "I'm tapped out. Get her some carnitas, dude. She's gonna be howling for blood anyway. Just give it to her and run."

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