Natalie Sky gives a customer their to-go order at Carnitas El Michoacano, 5256 S. Nogales Highway on June 13.

Sometimes, you find a restaurant that is so wonderful you want to keep it all to yourself.

That’s how a coworker framed her introduction to Las Originales Carnitas El Michoacano, a restaurant on South Nogales Highway that we must have passed by a dozen times without giving it a second thought.

Our friend swore that they had the best carnitas in Tucson.

Not one of the best: the best.

We took her at her word and stopped into the sprawling building set deep off the roadway on a not-so-hot Thursday in late May.

We took one bite of their juicy, tender carnitas wrapped in made-to-order corn tortillas, topped with crunchy chopped cabbage and tomatoes and drizzled with their scratch-made smoky chile oil.

She was not lying; this could possibly be the best carnitas in Tucson.

When you find something that good, a part of you wants to keep it to yourself. If they get too popular, the quality will change and it will never be the same as your first time, you tell yourself.

But we’re reporters; we’re lousy at keeping secrets.

Today, we’re inaugurating a new, occasional restaurant series we’ve dubbed “Our Little Secret.”

These are restaurants we would love to keep to ourselves but they are too good not to share. It might be a restaurant crammed in the corner of a gas station. It could be a strip-mall hole-in-the-wall that serves the finest Mexican coffee we’ve ever had. Or it could be one of our favorites that slipped off our radar, and likely off yours.

We’re starting with Las Originales Carnitas El Michoacano, and we have a few more ideas that we’ll share as we go along.

If you have a secret favorite, please share by emailing us at caliente@tucson.com.

It all started as a hobby

The new combination special at Carnitas El Michoacano includes meat, rice and beans for $12.99.

Barbara Robles had spent her life working in restaurants so it wasn’t entirely surprising when she suggested to her family in 2014 that they should launch a food truck.

She and her longtime partner, Baldomero, were enamored by the carnitas they had during family summer trips to Michoacán, Mexico, known as the “carnitas capital of the world.” And while there were a handful of Mexican restaurants in Tucson serving carnitas — a pork dish made by braising, simmering and frying pork in its own fat, lard or cooking oil — they didn’t know of any whose mission was Michoacán-style.

With little fanfare and after jumping through governmental hoops and red tape, they set a trailer up in a dirt lot on East Bilby Road that was home to an occasional hot dog cart. Baldomero created the recipe and prepared the meat in a commissary kitchen before bringing it back to the truck to sell.

A chef cuts a fresh batch of carnitas during lunchtime at Carnitas El Michoacano. Between 150 and 200 pounds of carnitas are prepared daily.

Robles’s daughter Natalie Sky, says Baldomero’s Michoacán-style carnitas start with superior cuts of pork that’s braised in its own fat in a traditional copper pot called a cazo. It’s then simmered for hours with fresh-squeezed orange, garlic and other spices.

When it’s done, the meat, tender and juicy from the slow-cook, is shredded and sold by the pound — enough to make six to eight tacos — with tortillas, toppings, salsa and the house-special chile oil, made from immersing oil with house-smoked chiles.

In the Bilby Road lot, which the family eventually bought, they set up picnic tables beneath a large tent covered with heavy tarp and, at times, corrugated metal. Once summer hit, the dining area heated up like an oven, but that didn’t stop people from coming, Sky recalls.

“People would be sweating,” she says. “It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the wind blew their food away or a little river was running through their feet during monsoon season.”

In those early days, they would start selling at 8 a.m., but lines started forming at 7 or 7:30.

“I was always surprised people were waiting for meat for breakfast,” Sky says. “We used to make a tray of 15 pounds of birria and 15 pounds of carnitas and most days we would sell out before we closed (at 3 p.m.).”

Sky chalks up some of that early success to novelty; back in 2014, carnitas were not as widely available in Tucson, and Michoacán style was even more rare.

“A lot of people were looking for a place like that,” says Sky, who went from tending to the restaurant’s books and making sure its licenses were up to date to run the day-to-day as general manager.

As the truck’s popularity grew, so did its staff, with as many as nine family members and friends working from the tiny trailer. Lines were common; people didn’t even complain when they were told it would be a 40-minute wait to get their food.

“People waited,” Sky says, but the lines also told another side of the story. “We just didn’t fit anymore. We couldn’t fit either the clients in the parking lot or us in the food truck. We couldn’t have enough food in the truck and manage the parking.”

The family decided that their little hobby had morphed into a thriving business in need of more space.

Meanwhile, the owners of the decades-old Food Spot Market at 5256 S. Nogales Highway, which had a popular Chinese deli, had decided to close. It was just blocks away from the Robles’s East Bilby Road food truck lot so the family bought the building in late 2022.

Prep cook Cristian Sky, left, prepares tortillas while Natalie Sky bags to-go orders at Carnitas El Michoacano. The brick-and-mortar opened in August 2023.

Sky says they spent months renovating and cleaning the space before opening the brick-and-mortar version of Carnitas El Michoacano in August 2023.

It didn’t take much prodding to get fans of the food truck to follow them. Robles and Baldomero work the kitchen, preparing 150 to 200 pounds of carnitas a day.

Angie Robles, left, takes a customers order while Cristian Sky works on to-go orders at Carnitas El Michoacano.

It’s not uncommon to see long lines on the weekend, especially Sundays.

Sky says the restaurant was never really about making money.

“It was about working together and having fun,” she says. “We didn’t think it was going to explode like that.”

Las Originales Carnitas El Michoacano, 5256 S. Nogales Highway, is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. For more info, head to facebook.com/carnitasel.michoacano.3.

A customer walks into Carnitas El Michoacano, 5256 S. Nogales Highway. The restaurant got its start as a food truck.

Miguel Kaiser and Zulma Nataren’s T-Loc’s represents the flavors and spirit of Tucson, but don’t tell the Texans. They think T-Loc’s means Texas Locals.


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Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch