Food Get Your Goat
Here’s something to chew on: the most succulent cabrito in Texas.
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Despite having an occasional plate of curried goat at a West Indian restaurant or cabrito at a Mexican establishment, I didn’t learn to love goat meat until I was invited to serve as a judge at the 1987 World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook Off in Brady. I have missed only one cookoff since, because, in addition to having a proper sense of humor about itself, the Brady event provides consistently good eating. The entries offer uniformly lean, tender, juicy meat, with nary an irredeemably bad bite in the bunch (unlike other cookoffs, where it’s necessary to spit out a few samples).
If Texans know more about goat meat than other Americans, it’s because cabrito is a northern Mexican delicacy that apparently originated around Monterrey and was brought across the Rio Grande by ranchers. Only in the Caribbean (where the islands are too small for grazing larger animals) and parts of the Middle East (where the land is too arid) have humans learned to cook goat as well as they do in Mexico.
This wasn’t always the case. The earliest Anglos to settle America ate more goat than beef, but the latter quickly assumed supremacy because the New World had so much open range to support cattle. Today most Americans think of goat as tough meat consumed largely by poor people. Even its boosters have trouble describing it, which doesn’t improve the meat’s image. It’s like lamb, some suggest, and recipes in many ethnic cookbooks indeed encourage interchanging goat and mutton. Goat should be tender but chewy, aficionados say, and cooked so that the outside is crunchy while the inside is sort of dry but with a little moisture. I’d say that it tastes like a cross between lamb and pork and that it’s best when … well … gummy—gummy in consistency but not that chewy. Does that help?
Goat is a lean meat, with the same caloric count as that of chicken (although it is higher in cholesterol); it also has lots of calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, and iron. Supermarket surveys by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service suggest that consumption of goat is on the rise across the nation. The maiden Brady cookoff in 1974 attracted 42 entries, but officials have had to limit the number of entries to 125 every year since 1981; Alpine has even launched a cabrito cookoff of its own.
In Texas most cabrito is still barbecued at home, but good stuff can be had at barbecue joints such as Cooper’s in Llano and Mac’s in Brady. But what of the urban goat-eater? Where is he to get his goat? To answer that, I searched out goat dishes at restaurants in six cities—which means cabrito in all but Houston, where the large West Indian population supports several eateries serving curried goat. In doing so, I learned a few lessons—the first, perhaps, being that I was never meant to eat goat seventeen times in thirty days. It’s most important to ascertain that what you are ordering is cabrito, which, strictly defined, is milk-fed kid slaughtered at thirty to forty days of age, when it is ten to eighteen pounds. Older goat, often sold as cabrito, has been dining on grass before you dine on it, and you can’t help but notice the consequences. Because of the reproduction cycles of the Spanish goat, true cabrito is in season only from May through October and is usually unavailable the rest of the year. You should also know that even though most menus describe their cabrito as al pastor (spit-cooked over coals) or al horno (oven-roasted), it’s actually prepared any number of ways.
For classic al pastor, you have to go to the border. El Pastor in Reynosa has one of the best reputations, but I couldn’t have been happier with Nuevo Laredo’s El Rincón del Viejo (Dr. Miers 4834, phone 011-52-871-2-2523). Located next to Parque Mendoza and well west of the noise and congestion of Calle Guerrero, the main drag, El Rincón del Viejo offers both a dining room and a covered courtyard in the rear, where tables are arranged around four long, shallow pools with blue bottoms. Breezes ripple through the trees, and birds serenade diners. But out front is the real star: an open rectangular stone pit with flames bending from the burning mesquite toward a skewered kid against the wall about three feet away. It takes about two hours to cook the cabrito, which is served with a small salad for about $10. The reddish-brown skin crunched and crackled, and the meat was cooked tenderly and evenly. I also tried a $5 half order of cabrito guisado, with the meat cooked until it shredded, almost like a pot roast, and covered with a thin tomato sauce seasoned lightly with serrano.
After seeing the Nuevo Laredo pit, I suspect that health and safety laws prevent restaurants from preparing true al pastor this side of the Rio Grande. The best Texas cabrito I had was in San Antonio at Johnny’s Mexican Restaurant (1808 N. New Braunfels, 512-225-9015), and even though it was called al pastor, it was anything but. Juan Espinoza has been specializing in cabrito for sixteen of his seventeen years in business, cooking it much as his mother did when he was a youth in Jalisco, Mexico. He begins by marinating the whole goat at least six hours in water seasoned with bay leaves, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, chile powder, and cumin (which he says masks the grassy taste of older goat). Then he covers the meat and marinade and simmers it for two to three hours. Just before serving the meat, he deep-fries it for three minutes to make it even more tender, then covers it with a ranchero sauce. Espinoza’s cabrito is so tender it pulls away from the bone with just a touch of a fork (you should expect lots of bones on your plate after a cabrito dinner). The regular meal comes with rice and beans for $4.75; the $6.75 large meal adds a cheese enchilada topped with chile meat gravy, a crispy beef taco, and a guacamole salad. Johnny’s is just the kind of San Antonio restaurant where you want to eat good cabrito: The floors are well-worn vinyl tile, the walls are festively decorated, ceiling fans whir overhead while a lone window unit wheezes out cool air, the jukebox has a sign that reads, “Out of Order,” and the phone has one that says, “Three Minute Limit.” The tables are occupied by working-class families, and a couple of waitresses bustle around in old-fashioned pink vest-aprons.
In Fort Worth, Loredo’s (601 W. Northside Drive, 817-624-3916) serves a cabrito guisado that is closely related to Espinoza’s al pastor. Arturo Loredo, who grew up in Monterrey, fries the meat first, then boils it furiously for only fifteen to twenty minutes with tomato, onion, cumin, garlic, oregano, and pepper. The flavorful cabrito comes to the table in the rich sauce created by cooking the vegetables down so quickly, and it is served with rice and refried beans for $6.69. During cabrito season, Loredo also smokes cabrito al pastor on a grill of his own design. Loredo’s is a bright neighborhood restaurant with a row of yellow booths running down one wall and tables the rest of the way around the room (with a few more outside on the patio). Up front is a bakery counter full of colorful Mexican pastries and breads cooked on the premises.
Elsewhere in the Metroplex, El Ranchito Cafe and Club in Dallas (610 W. Jefferson, 214-946-4238) is unusually meat-intensive. El Ranchito is a cavernous Oak Cliff restaurant with a bandstand at one end, stone walls and pillars, exposed dark wood beams across the ceilings, rugs scattered on the red-tile floors, Tex-Mexana on the walls, and a stuffed Longhorn head over the fireplace at the entrance. Though the menu includes cabrito en salsa for $12.50, I ordered cabrito a la parrilla ($13.75), three large pieces that—with rice, beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole—proved to be too much to finish. This cabrito is baked whole with just salt and pepper, then grilled until charred black on the outside; it comes to the table on a small flaming hibachi. Because it’s basically huge cuts of barely seasoned meat, you had better like cabrito for its flavor alone.
I’ve been eating cabrito in Austin at El Azteca (2600 E. Seventh, 512-477-4701) for years. Part of the allure here is the decor, for this is a restaurant that is always being added to. The walls are covered with black velvet paintings, Mexican calendar art (with and without the calendars), framed foreign money, and shelves of figurines. There’s an altar cum grotto in one wall, and on a front window, painted in big red letters, is the single word “Cabrito.” They’re not joking. Owners Jorge and Ninfa Guerra cook cabrito the way Jorge learned from his uncle in Reynosa. The meat is cut into serving-size pieces and baked three hours with garlic, cumin, salt, onion, and chopped celery. The pieces are then quickly deep-fried, which gives the meat a crunchy coat, leaving the inside tender and textured, moist but firm. The plate ($8.95) includes rice, beans, guacamole salad, and a salsa ranchero that I never bother to pour over the meat.
If the cabrito search was a pleasure, tracking down the Jamaican restaurants of southwest Houston was a revelation. I tried four and was unable to decide between Caribbean Cuisine (7038 Bissonnet, 713-774-7428) and Tropicana Grill (6521 Bissonnet, 713-771-3399). Jamaicans chop the goat into bite-size pieces and marinate them overnight in a mix that can include scallions, black pepper, thyme, garlic, salt, and West Indian curry powder (itself a blend of herbs and spices, especially tumeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper). Then the pot is filled with water, and the meat mixture is cooked down, which creates a thick, brownish-yellow sauce. A meal at a West Indian restaurant usually includes rice, a salad or a hot vegetable, and fried plantains or some kind of dumpling or tuber, and it’s often cheaper ($6.60 at Caribbean Cuisine, $5.95 at Tropicana Grill) than a cabrito plate.
When I visited Caribbean Cuisine, it was in a strip mall at 7433 Bissonnet, and you ordered at the counter off the blackboard before taking a table; it has since moved into its own building down the street and now has waiters and printed menus. Tropicana Grill remains a small diner with brick and wood-paneled walls decorated with travel posters, and you order at the counter. The difference between my two favorites is that although the meat at Tropicana Grill was more tender, the seasoning at Caribbean Cuisine includes—as it always does on the island—the volatile scotch bonnet pepper, the regional term for the habanero, which gives the curry a bracing afterburn. And that’s just the kind of satisfying burn I need to get me through until Labor Day weekend in Brady, when I can sample more of the smoky stuff and sigh in contentment, “Let them eat goat.”