How to Cook Authentic Barbacoa
“The kernel of South Texas cuisine is economy,” says Melissa Guerra, a South Texas native and the author of Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cooking of South Texas. “Barbacoa, made from the meat of a cow’s head, is cheap yet rich in flavor.” Customarily served at weekend breakfasts, the cheek, or cachete, is loaded with collagen, and slow-roasting enhances its savory flavor and silky texture. These days, nearly all meat called barbacoa is either a baked or steamed rump roast, but historically people cooked a cow’s head en pozo, in an underground pit. Armando Vera, the owner of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, in Brownsville, runs one of the last restaurants in the state that remains true to that centuries-old tradition. (Most cities have banned the practice, but his 55-year-old establishment operates under a grandfather clause.) Vera’s pit, which sells up to 65 heads a weekend, measures 3.5 feet wide, 5.5 feet long, and 5.5 feet deep and is lined with firebrick. To make your own authentic barbacoa—not the stuff you find at Chipotle—dig a hole in your backyard and follow Vera’s tips.
A local slaughterhouse sells cabezas to Vera, but he recommends backyard pitmasters buy their meat from a local carnicería, or butcher shop. (Some markets may carry only cheek meat, a fine substitution.) Rinse and remove any trace of hide or hair. Bundle the head in a burlap sack soaked with water or simply wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Burn large chunks of wood—Vera prefers mesquite, which is plentiful in South Texas—for several hours, until they are reduced to glowing embers. Add the meat and cover the pit with maguey, or agave, leaves to retain and conduct heat. Cook for eight to ten hours, replenishing the wood as necessary.
“An average head gives you seven pounds of meat,” Vera says. Pull the meat from the bone and separate the ojos (eyes), lengua (tongue), and mollejas (sweetbreads) from the cachete, or combine a little of everything to make a taco mixto. Fill a corn tortilla with meat, onion, cilantro, and un poquito de salsita. ¡Qué sabroso!