Roque’s Carnitas is a chuck wagon that parks on the corner of San Francisco Street and the Old Santa Fe Trail on the Plaza. Roque Garcia and his partner Mona Cavalli usually pull up to this spot just before lunch time every day but Tuesday between Easter and Halloween, and sometimes continue on to Thanksgiving. Dining is stand-up informal, although in recent years a few little yellow stools have been added for people to sit and eat al fresco. The menu is minimal: tamales, a quesadilla, which is something like Mexican grilled cheese, and carnitas, which is a sandwich folded inside a large, sturdy flour tortilla that has been heated on a grate over a charcoal fire. Inside the tortilla is are shreds of char-cooked top-round beef with chilies and onions and plenty of salsa.
Marinated in soy sauce and garlic, the beef is tossed with sliced yellow onions and sliced hot green chiles over a fire at the side of Roque’s cart until it is lightly charred and the onions and chilies start to soften. About a half-pound of this cooked mix is piled into the tortilla and topped with salsa made from tomatoes, onions, and chopped jalapeño peppers. The hefty sandwich is tightly wrapped in foil so it can be carried without significant spillage. Nonetheless, as soon as you peel back the foil and try to gather up the tortilla for eating, chunks of salsa will tumble out; meat juice leaks; onions slither and plump circles of earth-green chile pepper pop free.
“We are New Mexican, not Mexican,” Mona explained to us many years ago. “That is why we use beef rather than pork, and flour tortillas rather than corn.” The beef, which spends enough time over the hot fire to absorb good smoke flavor, glistens with moisture. It is tenderly toothsome with a lush meat-and-marinade smack that could have no better accent than the taste of fresh, fleshy New Mexican peppers. The whole affair, cushioned by its big circle of warm, wheaty tortlla, is a taste experience that is fundamentally and deliciously southwestern.