Carnitas Snack Shack brings porkfest to Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley

Carnitas Snack Shack chef and co-owner Hanis Cavin, second from left, with his kitchen crew. Photo by Karen Billing
Carnitas Snack Shack chef and co-owner Hanis Cavin, second from left, with his kitchen crew. Photo by Karen Billing

By Karen Billing

Carmel Valley’s new fast-casual porkhouse Carnitas Snack Shack has arrived.

The original-recipe North Park location has become well known in San Diego for its pork-centric menu — bacon even factors into dessert options and the fries come with a side of bacon-infused ketchup.

The Snack Shack’s new location in Del Mar Highlands Town Center opened in the afternoon on Thursday, Aug. 21, and stayed busy until 11 p.m.

“The opening was really crazy — it challenged us,” said Chef Hanis Cavin, who co-owns the restaurants with Sara Stroud.

Proof of the success of their new location came from a comment on social media that pronounced that the new Snack Shack was just like the North Park location.

“That’s the best compliment you can give a chef, that the experience was the same because of all the hard work and training that went into making sure people have the same experience in every place,” Cavin said.

Co-owners Cavin and Stroud first met when they were at Kensington Grill — Cavin was the executive chef and Stroud was the general manager.

Stroud has been working in the restaurant industry since she was 15 years old and Cavin has been a chef for 20 years. They started thinking that if anyone could start a successful restaurant, it would be the two of them.

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The restaurant opened Aug. 21 in Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley. Photo by Karen Billing

“I’ve been working at white-tablecloth restaurants my whole career. Business in that end was slowing down,” said Cavin, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute.

“People couldn’t afford to go out to $100 dinners twice a week, but they could do a $20 dinner. We thought we could take all we knew, make quality food and put it into a spot where it looked like fine dining but you don’t have to pay big for it.”

The North Park location opened in 2011 and has since been known not only for the food, but for the hungry lines that spill down the sidewalk. As Cavin likes to say, “The line’s the sign.” He likes it so much, in fact, that he had it put on a T-shirt that employees wear.

The North Park location, unlike Carmel Valley, only has an outdoor patio — there is no indoor seating.

“We’re growing up,” said Cavin of the funky-industrial space with roll-up windows, a showstopper wall with a wooden pig designed by Hospitality Wood Products, and a pig mural on the opposite wall by artist Jesus “Chuey” Montes of a happy pig wearing a shirt that says “Vegan gone bad.”

Hatch Design Group designed the restaurant and every detail has been thought of — a walk-up window outside lets customers order ahead and skip the line, an herb garden in the front patio doubles as decoration and source of kitchen ingredients, and there are even little pigs carved into the wood of the tables.

While customers order at the counter and there are no waiters, Cavin’s food is served up on nice white plates with silverware — paper plates or plastic utensils just wouldn’t do for the labors of love that come out of his kitchen.

“I’m a Jewish boy. My parents wanted me to be a rabbi, and I went through a lot of school,” Cavin said. “But the first time I tasted bacon … it was bacon that broke me. Every menu I’ve made for 25 years has always had a lot of pork dishes.”

The Snack Shack serves pork burgers, steak sandwiches, carnitas tacos and its famous “Triple Threat” pork sandwich piled with pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork and bacon with a pepperoncini relish.

Snack Shack’s pork belly app is another popular menu item: really slow-cooked, seared with a caramelized crust and a sweet chili glaze.

Special to the Carmel Valley location are a couple of new menu additions such as a veggie burger, a chopped market vegetable salad and an ahi nicoise salad with seared ahi, fingerling potatoes, green beans, egg and a kalamata olive vinaigrette.

The menu will change to include specials, such as pork belly hash tacos or poutine —  French fries smothered with cheddar gravy, topped with pulled pork and diced bacon.

There will always be dessert, such as a caramel apple panna cotta and a doughnut of the month. This month is the Elvis, with peanut butter glaze chocolate chips and candied bacon, topped with a plantain chip.

The Snack Shack has come a long way since 2011, and a third location will open in the Embarcadero area, on Broadway and Harbor Drive.

“People will say it’s quick, but Sara’s been in the restaurant industry for 20 years and I’ve been a chef for 20 years. Combined together, it’s all we know. We know the sacrifice, knowledge and dedication it takes,” Cavin said, stopping himself before he got too serious.

“We’re singing in the kitchen. We want to make the environment enjoyable, and that’s definitely what drives us and all our growth … It can be stressful, but you should be laughing all day long. Smiling at work is great. It’s serious, but it can’t be so serious that it’s not enjoyable.”

When you’re surrounded by that much bacon in the kitchen, what’s there not to smile about?

The Snack Shack is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Visit

carnitassnackshack.com

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