Kansas City-based wine expert Doug Frost is recognized for having one of the best palates in the world, so when he casually mentions over lunch that Pepe’s serves the best carnitas in town, you know it’s a tip worth following up.
Maria and Jose Herrera opened Pepe’s Carnitas
, their weekends-only carnitas shop, back in 1998. Most customers enter through the back door, and there is no menu posted at the Argentine neighborhood restaurant. But don’t let that be an excuse for dithering. The regulars who line up early already know what to order: succulent, melt-in-your-mouth shredded pork butt cooked with the skin, ribs and maw ($7 per pound) and lamb ($8 per pound).
The carnitas are made in the style typical of cooks from Michoacan, Mexico, marinated in lime juice and salt then simmered for hours in a lard bath in a giant copper kettle. Jose is joined in the kitchen by son Albert, a senior business major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who aspires to open his own carnitas restaurant — something “in between a Chipotle and a Panda Express.”
The bulk of the orders at Pepe’s are to-go, although diners can slide into a booth for no-frills meals served on Styrofoam.
A plate of carnitas, a stack of piping hot homemade corn tortillas, refried beans, Mexican rice and cabbage slaw is $8. But the most popular way to eat the carnitas is stuffed into a wheat flour tamale, which is steamed and split in half to create a doughy bun, then topped with slaw for $4.50. “It’s our top seller,” Albert says. “You can’t get it anywhere else but Mexico.”
Pepe’s opens at 9 a.m. and typically stays open until 4 p.m. But on Sundays, especially on game days, they’re often sold out before 1 p.m., so it pays to get up early.