Simple, fried chicharrones are so hot right now in the Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

Simple, fried chicharrones are so hot right now in the Vail Valley

Kim Fuller
Special to the Daily

Perhaps it's time to never again hug a bag of fried pigskins that you picked up at a convenience store. That's because chicharrones are kind of fancy now, but still fried and even more delicious when top restaurant chefs serve them up.

If you feel like you've been seeing these puffed and crispy delicacies pop up on menus more, then you're not imagining it. Chefs know that these are on-trend, and they say that it's all about the pig.

"Chicharrones is a trend due to the continuous search of how to properly utilize a pig from head to tail," said Hunter Chamness, chef-owner of Boxcar Restaurant in Avon. "It's a great salty snack that can easily be paired with a great, crisp beer."

Ken Butler, executive chef at The Fitz Bar & Restaurant at Manor Vail Lodge in Vail, said pork is really popular right now, and that's driving the passion for fried pigskin.

"They have been around forever," Butler said of chicharrones. "I just think it's on-trend with people loving pork."

Chicharrones have been a longtime staple in countries with Spanish influence including Spain and Latin America. There are different renditions made all around the world, but American restaurants really seem to be digging the fried pork rind, or pork skin, versions.

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To make them, dry the skin out completely to get the moisture out. In this dry climate, Butler can hang the skins in the restaurant kitchen's walk-in freezer for a few days to dry them out. To puff them up, either throw them in a convection oven or fry them.

Add spice as desired. Butler uses the local Red Canyon Blackening Spice as a rub and then finishes the dish with lime wedges and traditional Tabasco. Diners are greeted with a huge basket of freshly made chicharrones, and they'll even crackle and pop at the table a little bit, still simmering from the fryer.

Comforts of home

Chamness said that in his many years of cooking, he has worked with a lot of people born and raised in Mexico.

"Chicharrones has always been a dish for family meal, served in many different ways, for every restaurant I have worked for," he said. "It has become a bit of my surrounding culture within my working family."

And it's not just south of the border that has embedded this food as a favorite.

Benjamin Christopher, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, said he has a large number of Filipino cooks working in the kitchens and that chicharrones are a very popular snack in the Philippines.

"They are popular all across the globe," he said. "All ethnicities find a type of comfort snacking on them."

When guests belly up to a bar, here or anywhere, they are often looking for fun, interesting and delicious snacks to munch while they're enjoying a cold one.

Christopher offers chicharrones at Buffalos as a complimentary bar snack.

"There is nothing that pairs better with a cold beer," he said. "We fry them in-house daily, and you can always find a new flavor, including buffalo style, salt and vinegar or smoky chipotle."

Pair with a beer

At Buffalos, each savory bite can be paired with a tall glass of Buck Buck Moose beer, the restaurant's very own Vienna-style lager beer.

"The savory, salty crispy pork complements the malty finish of the lager and keeps you wanting more," Christopher said.

At Boxcar, pair the snack with a pilsner made by Crux Fermentation Project out of Bend, Oregon.

"It's super clean, crisp and a great pairing to help create a perfect match," Chamness said.

To make, chicharrones are low cost and pretty simple to prepare, so many chefs are happy to be on board with the demand.

"As white linens are dissipating and more fast-casual is popping up, it can only mean that people demand more and want to spend less," Chamness said.

Restaurants are opening up quickly nationwide, and as the next culinary graduates are asking for benefits and increased wages, Chamness said a chef needs to figure out how to create something exciting while using minimum costs on products; to stay relevant with a menu, but keep even on the books.

Americans, it seems, don't really like to define their palates with one cultural identity, so as a melting pot, we may just always be looking for the next cool thing.

"Many cultures have certain ways of cooking that have been embedded with their families for generations," Chamness said, "and we, unfortunately, are not one of them."

That's OK — just pour me a beer and pass the chicharrones. Oh yes, and some hot sauce, too.