By Carolina Baldin
Editor’s note: All quotes by Abigail Carbajal were translated from Spanish by the reporter.
Last fall, Abigail “Abi” Carbajal attended the premiere of the third season of Netflix’s “Taco Chronicles,” which featured her family’s restaurant, Carnitas Uruapan. Her appearance in the show was limited to one picture without captions, but she didn’t care.
“I don’t like to show off,” said Carbajal, now in her 70s, who rarely participates in public events or interviews. After the show’s release in November, the restaurant saw a boost in customers, and even today, people talk about it while waiting in line to pick up their food.
She worked at the popular Pilsen eatery for more than 30 years, attending to the tables and hosting customers. As its name suggests, the place serves carnitas, a recipe from Michoacán, Mexico, consisting of pork cooked slowly in its fat and served inside warm tortillas. Pilsen is the original location of Carnitas Uruapan, which expanded to Gage Park in 2019 and will open a third restaurant in Little Village.
Her husband, Guero, always cooked, and Carnitas Uruapan became famous for its authenticity since he is from Michoacán. In 2019, a Chicago Tribune food critic called it the best place in Chicago for this taco style.
Netflix featured it on the first episode of “Cross the Border,” the third season of “Taco Chronicles.” The docuseries shows different taco recipes and restaurants from all over the U.S., and, in that episode, Carbajal’s husband and son showed the recipe Guero developed and the right way to eat it: with tortillas and salsa.
Carbajal never touched the meat. But her behind-the-scenes work was a secret ingredient in building the restaurant’s name. “Chicago has good tacos because it has good people,” the owner of Revolver Taco Lounge, Regino Rojas, said on the episode featuring Carnitas Uruapan. But despite being part of the history behind a famous place and the good publicity the restaurant received after appearing on Netflix, Carbajal treats it as if it is no big deal.
“It was nothing like, ‘Wow,’” she said.
Born in Michoacán, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Carbajal initially worked as a seamstress. This gave her the flexibility to care for her widowed mother, who needed constant attention after spending six months at a hospital recovering from a car accident. Faith gave her the strength she needed. “I always say that one can do anything with God’s help,” she said.
In January 1982, she got married in Mexico and, after two months, joined Guero in Chicago. He lived on the second floor of his carnitas restaurant. “Ever since we met, and he asked me to marry him, he told me that he needed a lot of support,” she said.
Soon she met her husband’s friends and other business owners in the neighborhood. About two weeks after she arrived, she started helping at the restaurant and met more people. They had two servers for eight tables, and the place could get crowded on weekends, with long lines outside. Today, their original location, in Pilsen, still has long lines on weekends, but the tables are gone. They went takeout-only after COVID-19 hit.
Sometimes, if she was the only server available, she would give customers the salsa, tortillas and soda, and charge them for their order. She also seated customers and washed the dishes if the men in the kitchen were too busy cleaning and dismantling whole pigs. “She was always there to see that everything was OK,” said Yolanda Nuñez, who owned a grocery store across the street and became very close to Carbajal. “She was family-oriented, and I think that’s what I liked about her,” said Nuñez, her oldest friend.
Nuñez, 70, said Carnitas Uruapan felt like “a family down to earth.” Carbajal was a hard worker who was always available to serve people. “She was very helpful and just jumped in,” Nuñez said.
Carbajal also cared for her son and the house. “Everything was easier because we lived upstairs,” she said. She would make dinner and do laundry after 6 p.m., when the restaurant closed.
Five years ago, she stopped going to the restaurant regularly. Her son ran the business, and together they decided it was time for Carbajal and Guero to rest. They moved to a quieter street in the same neighborhood, where they don’t hear the telephone ringing all day long with customers placing orders. Since then, her priority has been to help her husband, “paying attention to what he eats and making sure he is taken care of,” she said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, her living room had no books, magazines, chargers, bills or keys. But she kept her phone right beside her, occasionally checking to see when Guero, who had been at the restaurant, would arrive.
After Netflix aired the episode featuring Carnitas Uruapan, Carbajal and the restaurant’s staff noticed an increase in the number of clients. People who watched it decided to try the tacos for the first time, and old customers returned.
Josh Reighard, a customer for 10 years, said watching the show made him go to the restaurant the next morning to grab some carnitas.
“The food is delicious,” said Reighard, 42, who lives in the area. “I’ve been here many times before, but it (the show) reminded me that it’s literally down the street from me.”
But for Carbajal, life continues as if nothing had changed.
Carbajal never considered participating in the Netflix show. Besides going to the premiere in Pilsen, she watched it only two more times at home. “I don’t feel it has changed anything for me,” she said.
She visits the restaurant occasionally, walking there during the summer, donating unsold food to avoid waste and help those in need and greeting employees during the Christmas season. “She is just an extraordinary person,” Nuñez said.
But when it comes to public appearances, she prefers to stay at home — like an ingredient that wants to remain a secret.
Carolina Baldin is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @RuizBaldin.