When Chipotle first opened, it was unlike any other “fast food,” it revolutionized the industry and was the first of its kind, a “slow, fast food,” which changed the game. But unfortunately, there was never an alternative to the traditional drive-thru or premade food dining concept.
Chipotle first opened with the classic three protein options, grilled chicken thighs, pork, and beef. And over the last few years, Chipotle has evolved as a company, bringing new creatives and recipe developers into the fold to introduce Mexican classics, including barbacoa and carnitas.
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Meet Barbacoa and Carnitas
In the context of Chipotle Mexican Grill, one of the most renowned fast-food restaurants in the U.S., these two meat options on their menu items are popular choices. But what’s the main difference between the barbacoa and carnitas Chipotle serves? It all comes down to the type of meat and cooking method.
Barbacoa, traditionally a Mexican dish, typically uses beef or goat meat simmered over leña or wood fire stoves, traditionally, in a pressure cooker, dutch oven, or slow cooker, which today would include something like an instant pot for more pressurized cooking or a crock pot for long low temp cooking. Chipotle uses the shoulder cut of beef, slow-cooked and shredded, resulting in a savory and slightly spicy flavor, courtesy of chipotle peppers and adobo sauce, which are staple ingredients in the barbacoa meat.
On the other hand, carnitas, which translates to ‘little meats’ (again, we love a good diminutive), utilizes pork, often the shoulder or pork butt, slow-cooked to a point where it can be easily shredded. The pork carnitas at Chipotle is a delicious blend of juicy and tender meat, with a secret ingredient that really and truly sets it apart – juniper berries. The juniper berries give this recipe a distinctive flavor, combining perfectly with traditional spices like black pepper.
The Difference in Flavor: Barbacoa vs Carnitas Chipotle
As mentioned earlier, barbacoa is traditionally a combination of meats like goat and beef that are slow-cooked until tender. However, in this case, this barbacoa recipe is made with beef, specifically shoulder cuts, that are fatty and rich in flavor.
And according to Chipotle’s description of the barbacoa recipe on the site, the meat is first sous vide (incredible), which means it is slow-cooked at low temperature for hours, and then marinated overnight! Then it’s grilled. They also shred it by hand!
Unbelievable that they go to the lengths of preparing this recipe for that long. It’s worth the time because every bite of this barbacoa was a true ode to the classic recipe. The smokiness and adobo flavors make their way through every crevice and bit of the barbacoa.
Cooking a tender and juicy beef recipe cooked for a long period isn’t always easy. It can be overcooked or undercooked, resulting in a lump of tough meat. You can relate if you’ve ever had a dry beef stew. Because it’s immersed and cooked in a liquid doesn’t mean you can’t end up with a dry and tough piece of meat.
These are two incredibly different flavor profiles. Let’s continue with Chipotle’s carnitas. Carnitas is a slow-cooked pork shoulder or pork butt with wonderful spices like black pepper and juniper berries.
Without the additional bowl add-ons like sauces, fajita veggies, rice, and the rest of the delicious works, carnitas taste slightly sweeter than the barbacoa but have no added sugar. Hence, it is the perfect protein for a low-carb protein or keto meal.
I loved how the carnitas are delicately tender and fall apart with the touch of a fork. They’re perfectly salted, with a perfect blend of pepper and juniper berries that break through the fat, and perhaps a secret ingredient like an acid like vinegar or citrus because I found notes of citrus or slightly tangy vinegar or lemon juice. This recipe reminded me of a delicious fall-of-bone pernil that had been slow-cooked for hours.
I don’t know if I had a favorite; they each have their place at the table and stand shoulder to shoulder. My next order at Chipotle could be a taco with carnitas and a second mini taco with barbacoa. Delicious!
Nutrition Comparison: How Does the Barbacoa Compare to Carnitas?
According to their site, when you order a bowl, the serving of meat is roughly 4 oz. Here is how the barbacoa vs carnitas Chipotle compares:
One Serving: 4 oz
Fat: 7 g
Protein: 24 g
Carbs: 2 g
One Serving: 4 oz
Fat: 12 g
Protein: 23 g
Carbs: 0 g
Not a low-calorie food, but this is quite the perfect protein-packed low-carb option for anyone seeking low to no carbs.
The Best Ways to Enjoy These Two Chipotle Meats
There are so many ways to savor both of these proteins! I mentioned that corn tortillas with fresh tomato salsa, black beans, pinto beans, and sour cream would make this a slam dunk.
Suppose you love the classic burrito bowl (or you’re hungry), a staple of Mexican restaurants and fast food locations like Chipotle. First, select your favorite cilantro lime preference and top it with either barbacoa beef or pork carnitas. Then, add your favorite toppings – black beans or pinto beans, fajita veggies, pico de gallo, and sour cream.
If you’re looking for a low-carb alternative, ask for the salad and add the protein on a bed of lettuce, a great option when you’re on a keto diet.
Breaking Down the Bowls: Barbacoa and Carnitas Front and Center
What comes to mind when we think Chipotle is a burrito or bowl? When customized, these two taste like home-cooked meal. Let’s dive into the bowls and what we can add to the bowls when either going with Chipotle’s barbacoa or carnitas.
Bowls Built Around Barbacoa
The barbacoa at Chipotle has a distinct taste resulting from slow-cooked beef marinated in a flavorful blend of chipotle pepper, adobo sauce, black pepper, and other spices. It’s the meat that infuses the entire bowl with its robust,
The earthiness of the spices, like adobo in the barbacoa, shines in a burrito bowl. The rice becomes the perfect companion because it absorbs the deliciousness in the marinated that transforms into what should be an award-winning sauce that permeates every bite. You can start with either a base of white or brown cilantro lime rice, then come toppings like black or pinto beans, which are some of the most classic choices at Chipotle. They bring the perfect texture contrast and protein layer to the bowl. They’re also a traditional Mexican staple.
The fajitas add a hint of natural sweetness and a beautiful array of colors to the bowl.
Any one of the sauces is the perfect amount of freshness and tanginess that gives the bowl that incredibly layered palate of flavors, from earthy to citrusy. Of course, the mild is always my go-to, but this is also about your preference and the heat you love in your dish.
Top it off with sour cream, cheese, and a handful of lettuce for that perfect touch of crisp crunch.
Alternatively, a bowl without grains is still delicious if you’re low-carb! Instead, ask for their greens, which as of late, are much nicer than the classic lettuce. Then, build on the protein with an extra scoop of the barbacoa, or a different protein, ask for an extra serving of fajitas, and finish it with the guacamole, cheese, and sour cream.
Crafting the Perfect Carnitas Bowl
With slightly less earthiness, Chipotle’s carnitas achieves a perfect balance and slightly lighter flavor profile than the barbacoa, which has rich and deep notes of adobo and earthy spices. In contrast, the carnitas have hints of black pepper and juniper berries. Still delicious! But delicious in a carnitas sort of way.
Start your “Carnitas Bowl” with either white or brown cilantro-lime rice. Remember, the rice has a slightly acidic base that brings forth an element that will balance out the fattiness in the protein.
I say bring on the toppings, black beans or red (based on your preference). I also prefer a creamy spoonful of beans. Then topped off with mild salsa and corn chili salsa (note that the corn chili is spicy because it has chunks of jalapeño. Balance that with the slight tang of sour cream and a sprinkle of shredded cheese and lettuce! Yum.
Same here. If you’re looking for a low-carb alternative, swap the rice for lots of greens, and add the guac for a filling bowl.
To Sum it All Up
Whether you’re a beef or pork fan, these slow-cooked Mexican classics reign supreme. There’s truly no going wrong. But ultimately, the winner is based on your preference.
In these two protein favorites, barbacoa vs carnitas, Chipotle had perfected these recipes seamlessly. Before researching this quick comparison, I didn’t know they went to such lengths to craft these two classics. I am surprised the marketing around these two excellent protein options doesn’t craft a story about how much work it takes to get these out at your local Chipotle daily. They taste home-cooked and never feel like they cut corners to deliver a high-quality ingredient.