Chipotle Sweet Pulled Pork (Cafe Rio Copycat)

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork like you’ve never had it before – AKA the real, juicy, saucy, sweet and spicy deal!

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork is one of the most tantalizing delicious Mexican meats on the planet – and now you can make it in the comfort of your own home and in the ease of your own slow cooker!  This tender, melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork with the perfect balance of sweet heat is SO wonderfully versatile and the perfect make-ahead meat for busy nights for tacos, salads, burritos, tostadas enchiladas, etc.   It’s also fabulous for crowds –  so fabulous I’ve included tips on how to make Cafe Rio Sweet Pork with a jumbo size Costo pork in the Notes!  (Recipe updated 5/1/2018)

up close of easy Cafe Rio Sweet Pork in a white bowl
I am helping with a youth church fundraiser on Cinco de Mayo and we are making a Cafe Rio taco bar with this Sweet Pork as the star – because it’s center stage delicious.  This recipe is on oldie but goodie so I thought it was time to republish new photos and add some tips and trick.  As you can read by the reviews, this is a beloved recipe by many and is even my mom’s favorite recipe to make for entertaining (even served to Elder Holland) and I ‘m sure it’s soon to be a new family favorite of yours too!

top shot of slow cooker cafe rio sweet pulled pork in crock pot with silver tongs

Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork Recipe

Cafe Rio calls their Sweet Pork Barbacoa, “Our signature dish. Our crowning achievement. Our recipe royale!” If you have eaten at Cafe Rio, you’ve tasted exactly what they are talking about and why the small restaurant chain has a loyal following willing to drive hours to taste the juicy, flavorful, saucy, sweet and spicy sweet pork.

I wanted to do their sweet pork recipe justice so in preparation for this recipe, I looked up dozens of Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Recipes online and was surprised that all of them either added hardly any spice (like ¼ teaspoon garlic powder) or no spices all together.  Cafe Rios “signature blend of spices,” however, is crucial to the authentic taste of this recipe, so I’ve perfected the blend and now we have the perfect Cafe Rio Sweet Pork, in my humble opinion.  But don’t be afraid, this pork is not spicy, just exploding with flavorful.  I actually added hot sauce to mine but it was perfect for my parents.

up close of chipotle sweet pulled pork in a white bowl with cilantro

how to Make Cafe Rio Sweet Pork

I love making Mexican meats in my crock pot from my Mexican Chicken, to my Beef Barbacoa to my Carnitas, and this Cafe Rio Sweet Pork is no exception. It simmers low and slow all day, filling your home with its tantalizing aroma so come dinner time, you have endless possibilities to serve its juicy deliciousness. Here are a few tips and tricks to make your Chipotle Sweet Pulled Pork a runaway success:

spiced rubbed pork in crockpot making Cafe Rio sweet pulled pork
  1. Sear Meat:   When searing, the pork will naturally release from the pan once it is properly seared. If it is sticking to the bottom of the pan, it is most likely needs more time. It will take 2-5 minutes per side and longer if using a nonstick pan.
  2. Do I have to sear the meat?  As Gordon Ramsey says, “color  = flavor.”  Searing the meat creates the Maillard reaction resulting in rich, deep, complex flavor which cannot be achieved in any other way.  It also helps the inside of the meat from drying out.  You can skip this step, and your pork will still be good – just not as good.
  3. Spice Rub:  After we sear the meat, we rub it with our spice rub.  Instead of rubbing oil all over the meat, simply ladle some of the leftover juices/oil in the pan from searing.  If you skip searing your pork, you will need to rub it with some olive oil first so the spices stick.

 

  1. Cook until tender but not fall apart tender.  When your pork is tender enough shred into chunks but not fall apart tender, shred it into larger sections in the crock pot and continue to cook on LOW for 30 minutes until it is practically fall apart fork tender.  This allows the flavorful slow cooker contents to seep into every pork crevice without it becoming overcooked.
  2. Drain pork.  Once pork is tender, and ready to shred, I place my strainer on top of a large bowl to catch the slow cooker contents so the fat doesn’t go directly in my sink, then refrigerate the bowl and skim the fat later and ditch the rest in the sink sans fat.
  3. Add enchilada sauce and brown sugar to taste.  Once drained of excess liquid, we add our pork back to slow cooker along with enchilada sauce, brown sugar, green chiles and remaining spices.  Taste buds vary widely when it comes to how sweet people like their pork.  This Cafe Rio is supposed to be sweet – but just how sweet is up to you.  I recommend starting with ½ cup brown sugar and adding more to taste.  You can also add additional chipotle chili powder or hot sauce if you would like it spicier.  You can also add more or less enchilada sauce depending on how “saucy” you want your pork.

adding enchilada sauce to shredded chipotle pork in crockpot to make Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork

HOW TO MAKE PULLED PORK AHEAD OF TIME

You can make this pork mostly the day before if that’s easier and then you don’t have to worry about cooking times and it turns out just as good – or better.  I use this method often and is my preferred method for meats that take particularly long like my Beef Brisket. 

If making ahead, make the Sweet Pork Recipe through step 5 in which you shred the pork into large sections.  After you do this, let your slow cooker sit at room temperature for a bit so the crockpot ceramic insert can cool down and then cover and place ceramic insert into fridge (PORK AND ALL THE LIQUID).  The next day, skim off the hardened fat from the top and heat on LOW for about 1- 1 ½ hours to heat through, then continue with the rest of the recipe as written.

up close of tongs picking up best cafe rio sweet pulled pork

What to Make with Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork

There are soooo many options when it comes to this Slow Cooker Chipotle Sweet Pulled Pork.  I’m going to start with items directly off of the Cafe Rio Menu because they made the menu for a reason:

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Salad:  Layer a large burrito size tortilla with cheese and melt.  Top with black or pinto beans, cilantro lime rice, sweet pork, and romaine lettuce.  Top with Pico de Gallo, guacamole, salsa tortilla strips, cilantro, cotija cheese and Tomatillo Avocado Ranch or leave out the Avocado and make it Tomatillo Ranch.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Burrito:  Layer a burrito size tortilla with cilantro lime rice or Mexican Rice, black or pinto beans, cheese, sweet pulled pork, then baked in an oven.  Serve with your favs of pico de gallo, romaine lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, homemade salsa, salsa verde. etc.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Enchiladas:  Fill corn tortillas with layers of cheese and sweet pork and topped with red or green enchilada sauce and cheese and bake.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Tacos: Pile a flour tortilla with sweet pork, Mexican cheese, lettuce and serve with your favs of pico de gallo, romaine lettuce, guacamole, sour cream. etc.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork quesadillas:   Layer a burrito size tortilla  with Mexican cheese and sweet pork and grill until golden, cheesy perfection.  Serve with your favs of pico de gallo, romaine lettuce, guacamole, sour cream. etc.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Tostada:  Layer a A corn tortilla with sweet pork, cilantro lime rice, black or pinto beans, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, tortilla strips, cilantro, sour cream, and cotija cheese. Drizzle with Tomatillo (Avocado) Ranch.

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Nachos:  Pile thick restaurant style tortilla chips with Mexican cheeses or chile con queso, sweet pork, black or pinto beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, and fresh guacamole.

No matter how you choose to serve your Cafe Rio Sweet Pork they all will taste AMAZING because they include this pork!

far away shot of Best Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork in a white bowl with gold tongs

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up close of Best Cafe Rio Sweet Pork in a white bowl

 

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side shot of Best Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork in a white bowl with cilantro

Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork

Cafe Rio Sweet Pulled Pork like you’ve never had it before – AKA the real, juicy, saucy, sweet and spicy deal! Cafe Rio Sweet Pork is on of the most tantalizing delicious Mexican meats on the planet – and now you can make it in the comfort of your own home and in the ease of your own slow cooker!  This melt-in-your-mouth sweet pork is wonderfully versatile and the perfect make-ahead meat for tacos, salads, burritos, tostadas enchiladas, etc.   It’s also fabulous for crowds and entertaining!
Servings: 12 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 8 hours

Ingredients

Mixed Spices

  • 4-5 lbs boneless pork shoulder (pork butt) trimmed of excess fat
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 TBS EACH chili pwdr, garlic pwdr
  • 1 ½ – 2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp EACH salt, onion pwdr, smoked paprika, cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon pepper

Slow Cooker Phase 1

  • 3/4 cup Coke, NOT diet
  • 1/2 cup mild salsa
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 4 oz. can mild diced green chilies

Slow Cooker Phase 2

  • 3/4 cup mild red enchilada sauce
  • 1/2-3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 4 oz. can mild diced green chilies
  • All remaining Mixed Spices
  • salt to taste
  • Hot sauce to taste

Instructions

  • Mix all of the Mixed Spices together in a resealable container. Set aside. Lightly grease slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
  • Heat 2 tablespoon vegetable oil in Dutch oven, cast iron or stainless steel skillet (you can use nonstick but it will just take longer) over medium-high heat. Using tongs or 2 forks, sear pork on all sides until lightly browned.
  • Transfer pork to slow cooker. Ladle a spoonful of the pan juices over the meat so the spices will stick. Separate out 1 ½ tablespoons spices to use after the pork is cooked. Rub all remaining spices evenly over all sides of pork (it will seem like a lot but use all of it).
  • Add all Slow Cooker Phase 1 Ingredients to the pork. Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours or until pork is tender enough to shred. Shred pork into larger sections in crock pot and continue to cook on LOW for 30 minutes.
  • Transfer all of the slow cooker contents to a strainer to drain off excess liquid from pork. Transfer pork to cutting board and shred into smaller pieces and discard any excess fat.
  • Add pork back to slow cooker (along with any accumulated green chiles, etc.) then stir in all of Phase 2 ingredients starting with just ½ cup brown sugar. Cook another 15-30 minutes on LOW or until heated through OR just keep on the warm setting if you aren’t serving immediately. Taste and add additional brown sugar for sweeter, hot sauce for spicier or more enchilada sauce for saucier.
  • Serve in tacos, enchiladas, burrito bowls, etc. with Tomatillo Avocado Ranch Dressing.

Notes

 
  1. Sear Meat:   When searing, the pork will naturally release from the pan once it is properly seared. If it is sticking to the bottom of the pan, it is most likely needs more time. It will take 2-5 minutes per side and longer if using a nonstick pan.
  2. Do I have to sear the meat?  As Gordon Ramsey says, “color  – flavor.”  Searing the meat creates the Maillard reaction resulting in rich, deep, complex flavor which cannot be achieved in any other way.  It also helps the inside of the meat from drying out.  You can skip this step, and your pork will still be good – just not as good.
  3. Spice Rub:   If you skip searing your pork, you will need to rub it with some olive oil first so the spices stick.
  4. Cook until tender but not fall apart tender.  When your pork is tender enough shred but not fall apart tender, shred it into larger sections in the crock pot and continue to cook on LOW for 30 minutes until it is practically fall apart fork tender.  This allows the flavorful slow cooker contents to seep into every pork crevice without it becoming overcooked.
  5. Drain pork.  Once pork is tender, and ready to shred, I place my strainer on top of a large bowl to catch the slow cooker contents so the fat doesn’t go directly in my sink, then refrigerate the bowl and skim the fat later and ditch the rest in the sink sans fat.
  6. Add enchilada sauce and brown sugar to taste.    Taste buds vary widely when it comes to how sweet people like their pork.  This Cafe Rio is supposed to be sweet – but just how sweet is up to you.  I recommend starting with ½ cup brown sugar and adding more to taste.  You can also add additional chipotle chili powder or hot sauce if you would like it spicier.  You also add more or less enchilada sauce depending on how “saucy” you want your pork.

HOW TO MAKE PULLED PORK AHEAD OF TIME

You can make this pork mostly the day before if that’s easier and then you don’t have to worry about cooking times and it turns out just as good – or better.  If making ahead, make the recipe through step 5 in which you shred the pork into large sections.  After you do this, let slow cooker sit at room temperature for a bit so the crockpot ceramic insert can cool down and then cover and place ceramic insert into fridge (PORK AND ALL THE LIQUID).  The next day, skim off the hardened fat from the top and heat on LOW for about 1- 1 ½ hours to heat through, then continue with the rest of the recipe as written.

HOW TO COOK LARGER COSTCO PORK

I often purchase my pork shoulder from Costco.  Each pork shoulder package is approximately 16 pounds and contains 2 7-8 pound halves. For convenience I like to cook the entire half so I wanted to include instructions for Costco pork.  It is generally the same with these exceptions (and below measurements).
  • You will separate out 2 tablespoons (instead of 1 1/2) Spice Mix to add to the pork in Phase 2.
  • The cooking time might increase by one hour.  My Costco pork generally takes 8 hours.
  • To cook one of these halves, the adjusted measurements are as follows:
COSTCO PORK
  • (7-9 pounds) boneless pork shoulder/butt (half package from Costco)
Mixed Spices
  • 2 TBS EACH chili powder, garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle chili powder
  • 2 tsp EACH salt, onion powder, smoked paprika, ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
Slow Cooker Phase 1
  • 1 cup coke – NOT DIET
  • ¾ cup mild salsa
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 (4 oz.) can mild diced green chilies
Slow Cooker Phase 2
  • 1 10 oz. can mild red enchilada sauce
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 (4 oz.) can mild diced green chilies
  • All remaining Mixed Spices (2 tablespoons)
 

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99 Comments

  1. Elaina says

    I’ve made this several times, adjusting slightly (less coke, no sugar, adding chipotle & adobo) to our tastes and cooking in an Instantpot at elevation. I serve it with your deliciously fresh Avocado Tomatillo Ranch sauce and get rave reviews every time! Thank you so much for sharing and all the work you put into your recipes!

    • Jen says

      You are so welcome Elaina, thank YOU for such a kind comment! I love hearing you are enjoying my recipes and have made this several times! And you are so right- it is perfect with the Avocado Tomatillo Ranch!

  2. Stephanie says

    Hi Jen! I’ve been eyeing this recipe for a while (I usually use your pulled pork recipe from your MIL) and while I LOVE chipotle, my husbands stomach has been reacting to spicy foods lately and I now have a one year old, so I was just curious how spicy this recipe is? I know it’s called SWEET so I wouldn’t expect it to be overly spicy but before I make a large amount of this I wanted to make sure that it’s okay for my daughter to eat 🙂

    • Jen says

      Hi Stephanie, I would use 1 teaspoon chipotle powder and that way it definitely won’t be to spicy. You can always add hot sauce later if needed. Enjoy!

      • Stephanie says

        I used the 1 teaspoon of chipotle as you instructed and it was so so so yummy! I live in Canada so have never been to cafe rio but this pork is amazing! Definitely my new go to pulled pork recipe 🙂 I love the saucy side with the enchilada sauce! My husband and daughter both loved it as well.

        • Jen says

          Oh good, I’m glad 1 tsp was the perfect amount of heat for you and that it was a hit with the fam! Thanks so much!

  3. April Zeiher says

    OMG this recipe is the best! I could make this every week. Sadly my store doesn’t always carry poblanos or fresh tomatillos! I make it when they do carry the poblanos for the salsa and then use jarred tomatillo green salsa for the sauce! This is a becoming a weekly meal in our house for sure!

    • Jen says

      YAY! Thanks so much April! I’m so pleased this is such a family favorite!

  4. Natalie says

    I made this yesterday exactly as it was written and WOW!!! Absolutely delicious! We had tacos with it and my picky 12yr old kept going back for more. I had to stop them so we’d have leftovers lol. Making enchiladas with them tonight. Next time I’ll buy a bigger piece of meat. It’s a little work but totally worth it. Thank you for a keeper! 🙂 p.s. seasonings were spot on.

    • Jen says

      Thanks for making my day Natalie, I’m thrilled even your picky eater loved the pulled pork! I also love having leftovers – so much you can do with it!

  5. lisa p says

    This recipe is SO GOOD!!! I made it for a group of 6 and they kept going back for seconds resulting in NO leftovers. Everyone was talking about it all weekend! The spices compliment each other so well and the tender slow cook of the pork absorbing all of those flavors is absolutely worth the wait. Makes the house smell incredible. I can’t wait to make it again! 🙂

    • Jen says

      Thanks so much for your awesome comment Lisa! I’m thrilled it was such a hit with everyone and is going to be a repeat favorite!

  6. Laura says

    This recipe is just perfect! We love it and have made it 3 times now!! Also want to let you know we have made so many other of your recipes (lemon garlic salmon, best pulled pork, tomatillo ranch, soy cashew salmon, just to name a few off the top of my head!) I don’t use google or Allrecipes as my go-to anymore, I just come to your website to find new recipes! Thanks for being such an inspiration to try new flavors and use lots of spices! I am so thankful I found your website!
    Laura

    • Jen says

      Thank you so much Laura for making my day and taking the time to comment! I’m thrilled this recipe is a winner and you have loved so many others! I am honored I have become your go-to recipe source – the ultimate compliment! xoxox

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