Braised Pork Belly Tacos

I’ve been getting quite the education on Mexican food and culture at work, since many of the kitchen staff and runners are from Mexico. Every Sunday, during their break between brunch and dinner, one of the runners picks up tacos and tortas from a nearby Mexican joint for the staff. My favorite is carnitas, or slow roasted pork, with a simple traditional garnish of lettuce, onions, cilantro, lime, and a choice of red or green salsa.

Braised Pork Belly Tacos
Braised Pork Belly Tacos

At home, I like to make soft tacos with braised pork belly. Yes, pork belly has become almost a culinary cliche and it seems every day another restaurant in the city jumps on the bandwagon. But it is a wonderfully forgiving and flavorful cut of meat and slow braising pork belly makes it ultra tender and moist.  It is the cut of pork that bacon is made from, so there is a lot of fat, but slow braising renders out a good deal of it anyway.  The acidity of salsa verde, pickled onion, and lime juice, and the bright citrusy flavor of cilantro balance out the rest.  This recipe is adapted from a demonstration given by Aaron Sanchez at the French Culinary Institute while I was a student there.

You will  note that the recipe calls for annatto paste.  Derived from the seed pods of the achiote tree, it is commonly used in Central and South American cooking to add color and flavor.  I find it adds more color than flavor so you can omit it if you don’t have any on hand.  Incidentally, annatto is also the pigment that gives Cheddar cheese it’s orange glow.

Ingredients, for 4-6 servings

For the pork:

2-½ lbs. boneless skinless pork belly, cut into large chunks approx. 4 oz. each

1 c. fresh squeezed orange juice

1 c. white distilled vinegar

4-6 cloves garlic, crushed

1-2 Tbsp. annatto paste

crushed red pepper (optional)

salt & pepper

vegetable oil

For the garnishes:

thinly sliced lettuce

fresh cilantro leaves

tomatillo salsa (salsa verde)

pickled onion, finely diced

lime wedges

2 dozen soft corn tortillas

Procedure:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position the rack in the center of the oven.

2.  Lightly score the pork belly on the fat side by making a few 1/8″ deep cuts.  Generously season the pork belly with salt and pepper.  Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or flame-proof roasting dish over medium high heat until it shimmers.  Lightly sear the pieces of pork belly on each side.

Pork belly, trimmed and cut
Pork belly, skin removed, and cut into chunks

3.  Drain the excess fat from the pan and position the pieces of belly with the fat side down.  Add the orange juice, vinegar, garlic, annatto paste, and a pinch of crushed red pepper so that the liquid comes halfway up the pieces of meat. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the oven 1-1/2 to 2 hours until the meat pulls apart easily with a fork.

Annatto paste

4. While the pork is cooking, prepare the garnishes.

5.  When the pork is cooked, let it rest covered in the cooking liquid for 5-10 minutes before pulling apart.  Once it has rested, shred the meat with a pair of forks, or your fingers and mix it with just enough of the braising liquid to coat each morsel.  Add salt to taste.

Braised Pork Belly
Braised Pork Belly

6.  Heat the tortillas one at a time in a dry skillet (cast iron works best) over medium-low heat until they are soft and keep them warm, wrapped in aluminum foil or a clean towel.

7.  To serve, place a little lettuce in a tortilla and top with pork.  Squeeze a little lime juice on the pork, and garnish with some pickled onion, salsa, and fresh cilantro leaves.

23 thoughts on “Braised Pork Belly Tacos

  1. Fantastic recipe! I have been looking into making pork belly tacos for a few months now as they are on the menu at my favorite non-traditional Tex-Mex joint and because my local market carries Berkshire pork belly.

    This braise looks incredible, but have you ever given any thought to smoking the belly in larger pieces with a rub? Could you achieve the same / similar results?

  2. Thanks. Yes, cooking the belly whole would be ideal. When we cook belly at the restaurant it’s done whole, then cut into portions when it’s cold. My local market sells belly pre-portioned and though I probably could ask them for a whole piece, when I’m making tacos, I just use the smaller pieces because they cook faster and are going to be shredded in the end anyway. As for smoking the belly, it sounds like a good idea, and would add a nice smoky flavor. I have done pork shoulder, using a dry rub then cold smoked and cooked in the oven, so I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work with belly too.

  3. Thanks for the response, much appreciated. My favorite belly tacos (previously mentioned) are actually served in strips instead of being pulled. I assume they braise or smoke the bellies whole, and then cut them into thick slices for the tacos.

    I can’t wait to try your recipe and really enjoy the blog.

  4. roberto. Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry this recipe didn’t meet your expectations and I will certainly revisit it. I am surprised that the vinegar flavor was so strong though. Usually the juice and vinegar cook off and are counteracted by all the rendered fat that’s left in the pan. Also, fresh squeezed orange juice is usually sweeter and less acidic than bottled, but that can vary depending on the fruit and the season too.

  5. you can get achiote sans the lard at your local mexican market. The brand is Yucateco and comes in 5oz blocks.

  6. Hello,

    My favorite pork belly tacos usually are served with crispy pork belly, I’m still fairly new to cooking pork belly but this recipe sounds delicious. Do you think I could take the pork belly after it’s cooked per this recipe, and sear it a little bit to crisp it up, or is it too tender at that point where it would fall apart? My goal is to take bite size strips of crisped up pork belly and toss them with some guajillo sauce for the tacos. Any suggestions if this would work? Thanks!

  7. Adam – You absolutely can sear the belly after it is braised. We do it all the time at the restaurant. The best way is to braise the belly in larger pieces – which may take some more time depending on how thick they are. Once they are tender, cool them completely in the braising liquid so they don’t dry out, then refrigerate them until the belly is firm enough to slice. Using a sharp knife, slice the cold belly and sear the slices in a lightly oiled non-stick or well seasoned cast iron pan. Slices at least 1/2″ wide work best, so they don’t fall apart. If the slices are 1″ wide or more, you can pop the pan in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes to heat them through. Would love to hear how it works out for you!

  8. i checked two large mexican grocery stores in San Diego area that stock lots of Goya products but neither had the achiotina. so I used 1/2 a block of achiote (about 1.5 tablespoon) and 1 tablespoon of lard. it was terrific!

  9. Thanks for sharing! We LOVED this recipe…I just adjusted the vinegar to 1/2 cup and made my own annotto paste (do not skip…this part is key to a great flavor!). I cooked with the fat side up because to me it just made more sense and also I broiled the last 10 minutes to crisp the fat.
    Just amazing! Don’t skip any of the sides…they make the dish (I also added a bit of sugar to the pickled onions).
    ENJOY…such a great recipe.

  10. Thank you. I am so glad that so many people have enjoyed the recipe. I still mean to check out Aaron Sanchez’s restaurant to try out the real thing!

  11. We just had almost this exact dish at the new T/ACO restaurant in Boulder and I LOVE being able to make it myself with your recipe. The only difference seems to be tat the meat is cubed rather than torn.

  12. This was amazing! I too have loved pork belly for a while, and wanted to try and cook it. I slightly modified the recipe with the comments below–bought a 2.5lb piece of meat, cut it in half, seared each piece, and then cooked the 2 big pieces for 2 hours. Then broiled them for about 7 minutes, to get the fat nice and crispy. Let is cool for 10 minuyes, then sliced into pretty thin pieces for the tacos. To die for! Tomatillo sauce was the bomb, as well as the pickled onions. Thanks for such a yummy recipe.

  13. This is terrific. I skipped the annatto and added smoked paprika and chili powder.
    I think the pickled onion is key. The vinegar in the braise and then in the onion cuts the fat of the pork.

  14. Pork belly is my favorite meat when I do eat meat! I’m definitely going to save this recipe, looks amazing. Is the Mexican spot your staff goes to on Metropolitan? I haven’t been there in years..oldie, but goodie!

  15. Love the recipe, turned out great! My question is the Annatto paste, any recommendations about where to find it. I tried three grocery stores, and world market couldn’t find it. Thats Ohio!

  16. Tim, Happy you enjoyed the recipe. I was able to find Goya brand Achiotina (ground anatto mixed with lard) in our local Stop & Shop, but unless you have large Hispanic population in your neighborhood you might have to work a little harder to seek it out. I’ve also seen Anatto or Achiote sold as whole seeds or powder in the spice aisle, or as a hard paste in block form. If you can find a Mexican grocery, they should carry it in some form or another. There is a chain in Columbus called La Michoacana http://www.michoacanamarket.com/contactus.html. And if all else fails there is always amazon. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=achiote&sprefix=achio%2Caps&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Aachiote

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