Squid Ink Food Fight: The Pork of the Yucatan, Cochinita Pibil
If God exists, then His greatest gift to mankind may very well have been that delightful creature the pig (unless you're a member of one of the many religions that don't allow it, in which case it is God's ultimate cruel joke). It is a large, round being, packed to the brim with uncommonly flavorful delights, each part its own independent treasure, all wrapped in the best skin the animal kingdom has to offer. Different cultures handle the lovely swine in different ways, but one of the most endearing is from the people of the Yucatan Peninsula, who created cochinita pibil.
The dish is, essentially, pork marinated in various spices, achiote and sour orange juice, wrapped in a banana leaf, baked, then served in its own juices with brightly colored pickled onions. Add rice, beans and tortillas, and the world becomes a truly wonderful place. Today's food fight pits Mercado La Paloma's food stall Chichen Itza against the tiny, take-out only bakery La Flor de Yucatan.
The menu at Chichen Itza, as far as we can tell, has no real misses. Yes, some dishes are better than others, but walking away unhappy from a meal there is like having dinner with a family of Russians and going home sober. But we are here to focus on their cochinita pibil, piled in a medium sized mound, surrounded by a moat of aromatic broth, garnished with those colorful diced onions, and a whole habanero pepper. What makes this version stand out, and the dish in general, is the bright, citric flavors that elevate the pork into something ethereal. Lay some of these tender morsels into a tortilla, ladle in some juice, then dot it with however much of their bright orange hot sauce you can stand, and take a bite. You will find happiness, and most likely, a Pollock-esque painting on whatever is directly below your mouth, made from dripping pork essence.
Chichen Itza's cochinita pibil is the most expensive thing on the menu, costing a mere $8.29. At La Flor de Yucatan, where your sole dining-in option is to take your styrofoam box to the lonely table in the parking lot out back, it costs just $5.50. Their beans are saltier and more liquefied, their tortillas are hand made and there's something darkly satisfying about eating your lunch about ten feet from a dumpster. But is the pork better? Amazingly, it is softer. There is also less liquid, though the meat itself is still supremely moist. There are stronger flavors of dried herbs, and slightly less acidity. The difference, as is often the case when two excellent dishes do battle, is a matter of personal preference. But for us, that lack of acidity puts it just slightly below Chichen Itza's, even though we'd be more than happy to consume it at any opportunity. But if you've only got six bucks on you, it's good to know you can still eat really, really well.