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FIRST LOOK: Carnitas' Snack Shack

The kings of pork crack open their third location at Embarcadero Marina


In the late 90s, I was momentarily the worst bartender in the history of the planet at San Diego’s beloved bistro, Kensington Grill. But my experience there, while certainly damaging, got me hooked on food. It was a pretty amazing crew. One of the servers, Jon Weber, would go on to open San Diego’s top steakhouse, Cowboy Star. When I came in one day to realize I’d finally been fired, my replacement was Angie Weber—who married Jon, and co-owns C-Star. And in the kitchen was the real force and personality of the restaurant. Chef Hanis Cavin, a hulking, intimidating, love muffin of a man, did some pretty wondrous stuff.

I still remember his halibut with chive oil as one of the most transformative dishes of my life. I had no idea a sauce could be so delicious. I was born and raised in Microwavelandia. His food nudged me toward a better life.

Well, after a few other gigs Hanis finally opened a tiny joint of his own with his gal (now wife), Sara Stroud, who also worked at Kensington Grill. Carnitas' Snack Shack was an instant, gigantic hit. Here was a four-star fancypants chef serving pork-centric dishes out of a one-star window in an undesirable North Park location. The kitchen was the size of—well, whatever size claustrophobia is. Lines formed instantly. They sold out of poutine, pork belly, etc. They had to get creative with storage to keep up with demand. Even their pet pig—named Carnitas—became famous because he’s vegan and cute on YouTube. Just wins all around.

They opened a second one in Del Mar Highlands—still good, ethical, well-cooked food, but malls, even a nice one, don’t stoke the fire chamber of many food souls.

But now they’re opening Carnitas' Snack Shack number 3. And it’s a doozy of a place. It lands in one of the most coveted and fought-over new restaurant spaces in San Diego—a 10,000 square-foot, indoor-outdoor, waterfront gem that’ll anchor the $200 million renovation of North Embarcadero. By now you know the CSS game plan—pork, pork, pork, a thing or two for their vegan friends, pork. Though at this location they’re adding two dishes that simply fit the sunny, waterfront locale: mahi mahi fish tacos (corn tortilla, cabbage, avocado crema, pico de gallo) and soft-serve ice cream with various toppings (including a bacon whiskey truffle crumble by Andrea’s Truffles). They’ll also be open for brunch, serving breakfast burritos (pork belly, scrambled eggs, jack cheese and guacamole), machaca tacos (eggs, carnitas, pico de gallo and a porky sammich. 

The biggest news is probably the inclusion of a fully stocked, 28-person bar (whole restaurant seats 195), with craft cocktails by Mai Pham (ex Prepkitchen) and a focus on citrus-based cocktails to cut through all that meaty, smoky food. And of course local craft beers, plus four wines on tap.

For the design, they turned again to Tecture (Patio on Goldfinch, Lion’s Share), who kept it simple, clean and classic. I could tell you all about it, or you can take a look at the first known photos in the universe below.

It's going to be huge. This is the kind of restaurant and location you hand down to your kids, like a USAA membership.

Carnitas' Snack Shack Embarcadero opens May 16. 1004 N Harbor Dr, Embarcadero Marina, carnitassnackshack.com

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Restaurant reviews, food trends, top cocktails, wine, beer and generally the best eats and drinks in San Diego, by Food Editor and general good guy Troy Johnson.

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