You’ve had the fajitas, you’ve had the chimichangas, you’ve had the blue-corn tortillas. One after another, the dishes from your favorite Mexican restaurant have fallen to the trendmongers, and before you know it, Jack in the Box has the once-hip food on its menu. But one dish—could it be the sole survivor?—has yet to become the sort of quick-peaking trend that can lead to palate burnout. There is still cabrito, and cabrito is still real goat for real people.
Cabrito could always be found in border-town restaurants, but cooking Spanish goat is a long-standing tradition on the ranches of the Southwest. The wiry little goats—not to be confused with Angoras—roam freely on many ranches, and cabrito (Spanish for “kid goat”) has provided many a meal for cowboys on the isolated Texas range, especially in the spring, when the kids are plentiful.
In the evening, ranch hands build a mesquite or oak fire in a three-foot-deep pit, according to Ronnie McCarty, whose family has ranched in the Hill Country for four generations. By dawn, the fire’s heat has radiated about three feet around the hole, creating an earth oven. “They wrap the skinned cabrito in a gunnysack bound in wire so that it can be lifted from the hot pit when it’s ready,” recalls McCarty. After setting the meat in the pit, they cover it with dirt to seal in the heat. By evening the smoke-seasoned meat is so tender it falls from the bones.
Suckling kid is what aficionados yearn for, says Porter Garner, who ran the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo from 1947 until 1979. Claims Garner, “The best cabrito is twenty-eight to thirty days old and weighs about seven and a half to eight and a half pounds dressed. Once the kids begin to browse, they develop a mutton flavor that true cabrito fanciers will readily recognize.”
Garner is a believer in simplicity and holds that the delicacy of cabrito should not be masked by heavy sauces or spices. He places half a cabrito in a roasting pan with salt, pepper, and two or three onions cut in chunks and bastes it with hot lard or shortening. Then he cooks it for an hour and 45 minutes or until tender in a 375-degree oven, turning it every 20 minutes or so. “Good cabrito requires nothing but some salt and pepper,” he says with conviction.
Another cabrito fan, Jim Link, grew up on a ranch outside of Laredo, and he knows that finding suckling kid is difficult. Too often, old goats are peddled as cabrito. “You can cook them a week, and they’ll still jump out of the pot and kick you,” he says with a laugh.
Doña Viola Barrios includes cabrito on the menu of Los Barrios, her home style Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. Over a steaming platter of cabrito, Barrios explains that it was cooked al vapor (in a kettle on the stove, pot-roast fashion) and flavored with garlic, onions, oregano, comino (cumin), salt, and pepper. Wrapping the cooked meat loosely in foil and placing it on the grill immediately before serving add the final touches. A mild red-chile sauce (see recipe), rice, and corn tortillas are perfect side dishes for this simple meal.
Rogelio Treviño recounts how his father, Don Catarino, first introduced cabrito commercially in the thirties at his La Reforma meat market in San Antonio. Treviño preserves the tradition by supplying cabrito to wholesalers and restaurants and by shipping cabrito to retail customers directly from his United Meat company.
Treviño says that more people are barbecuing cabrito now because it makes an affordable and festive outdoor meal. “The secret to tender barbecue,” he states with authority, “is to soak the cabrito in water for an hour before grilling and not to add salt until the end, to help retain the moisture.”
If milk-fed kid goat is unavailable (or too expensive), older goats can be prepared in ways that approximate the succulence of true cabrito. Mary and Al Luckett, who once raised goats among the livestock on their West Texas ranch, have devised spirited ways to cook larger goats. The stronger flavor of the meat can hold up to a lustier barrage of spices—in savory enchiladas, fiery chili, or tasty tamales. A particularly impressive recipe that is easy to prepare in your own kitchen involves studding slivers of garlic and whole comino seeds beneath the membrane surrounding the meat. “When I insert the garlic and comino,” Mary cautions, “I try to do it without penetrating the meat, to limit the escape of the natural juices.” She then sprinkles the cabrito generously with chile powder and spices and nests it in a roasting pan with whole chiles, garlic pods, and chunks of onions. Dry red wine provides moisture as the meat bakes for several hours in a low oven (see recipe). It can make you forget all about fajitas.