When he co-opened Pinche Gringo BBQ, in late 2013, Dan DeFossey regularly found himself explaining to Mexico City residents what “brisket” meant. “They thought it could have been lips or eyes or anything, so we had to explain what it was,” he said. After nearly five years in business, brisket is the most popular meat on the menu, and he feels like his barbecue joint has helped popularize the cut there. “The word ‘brisket’ has now become part of the vernacular of the city,” he said. (Like “taco,” there’s no direct translation.) And with new competitors quickly coming into the market, Texas barbecue is hotter than ever in Mexico City.
DeFossey, a native New Yorker, found his love for Texas barbecue beside a barbecue pit in Roma, Texas. He worked in the Rio Grande Valley as a Teach for America educator, and his neighbor smoked briskets with mesquite. He could find similar barbecue when he went back home to New York but was surprised to find no American-style barbecue while traveling in Mexico City. It’s a huge, multicultural metropolis with just about any cuisine you can think of, so why not barbecue? He floated the idea to Roberto Luna, a business acquaintance of his at the time, and their journey began.
The two, who are now co-owners of Pinche Gringo BBQ, began their barbecue research in the Austin area before traveling across the state. They got some barbecue tips at Valentina’s, in the Franklin Barbecue pit room, and from John Lewis, who was then at La Barbecue. They tried Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, and Black’s in Lockhart. DeFossey said Ladd Pepper at Old 300 BBQ in Blanco was particularly helpful, as were the folks at Stiles Switch, who let them shadow the pitmasters during a shift. It was a crash course for a couple guys who had never cooked barbecue before, but they wanted to get into the business quickly. They bought an airstream trailer in Reynosa and rented a truck to haul it to Mexico City.
The pair hit some snags along the way. DeFossey didn’t want to serve real lemonade, so he packed the trailer full of Country Time lemonade mix. They were pulled over eleven times by the federal police on the way down. “We were driving a shiny trailer filled with fifty cases of white powder,” DeFossey said. Each stop required a good explanation of their intentions. The drive took sixteen hours, and they arrived in Mexico City at 6:30 a.m. instead of their planned 3:00 a.m. arrival, when the roads would be empty. The trailer was wider than the highway lanes, so the police stopped them again. Finally, the trailer and the Country Time lemonade were safely delivered to their future restaurant site.
The day they opened the first Pinche Gringo, now known as the “Patio” location, the pair had $200 in their account. They made just $40 in the first day of sales. In February 2014, a few months after opening, Channel 11, Mexico’s version of PBS, did a story on them. They’ve had people lining up ever since. Last month they sold 13,200 pounds of meat at the original and the new, larger warehouse location combined. It’s all sold by the pound, which DeFossey said helped raise the profile of the brisket. Customers unfamiliar with it could order just a slice to taste it alongside the more familiar ribs, so it wasn’t as big a commitment as ordering a whole plateful.
I visited the warehouse location with my family on a Sunday a couple weeks back. DeFossey’s goal is to make Pinche Gringo BBQ feel like a Texas barbecue, and it worked, mostly: Halloween decorations greeted us at the front door, and the NFL was on the big screen. Other than everything being weighed in grams, the menu is familiar. Brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage, and smoked turkey are available, and beef ribs are a weekend special. They offer sides of mac and cheese, slaw, beans, and potato salad. They even offer craft beer on draft, which is a rarity in Mexico City, where bottles of the big beer brands are ubiquitous. The team also uses five authentically Texan smokers, on display through a window between the dining room and the pit room: all-wood, 1,000-gallon, and built based on those at Franklin Barbecue. “We are the absolute, authentic, one-hundred percent Texas barbecue in Mexico,” explains DeFossey.
The ordering counter and menu at Pinche Gringo BBQ.
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
The offset smokers on display at Pinche Gringo BBQ.
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
My favorite of the meats was the sausages, which are made locally by an English butcher. The jalapeño cheddar version was an immediate hit with the Mexican clientele, and the kielbasa was inspired by DeFossey’s New York childhood. He remembers going to East Village Meat Market with his grandmother and picking up an order of kielbasa for Easter dinner, and on a more recent trip, he brought some back with him from New York to his butcher in Mexico City to replicate. They have large chunks of meat within the coarse grind. It’s well seasoned, juicy, and smoky. All the sides hit the right notes as well and could hold up against their Texas counterparts.
The rest of the barbecue could use some work, but they’re starting off at a disadvantage with the cuts. Meaty American pork ribs and fatty beef briskets are too expensive, and they don’t want to raise prices, so they use leaner Mexican beef and pork. “It’s the thing that is keeping us from being better than we are,” said DeFossey, and he’s right. The baby backs reflected their name in size. The meat was thin on the bone, making them pretty easy to dry out in the smoker. A layer of sauce was the remedy. The brisket was tender, but there’s not enough fat to keep the lean side juicy. It really needed more salt in the rub as well. The turkey could have used less salt, but I liked the side of gravy, which they kept on the menu after creating it for a Thanksgiving feast.
The quality of the barbecue is something they’re continuing to work on. In 2017 the team secured a travel visa for their pitmaster, Abel Solis, a Mexico City native who flipped burgers before Pinche Gringo, to travel to Austin and stage with the pit crew at Stiles Switch. They’re coming back to town this weekend for more barbecue exploration and to attend the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival for inspiration. They have the tools back in Mexico City to make great barbecue and the willingness to keep improving. I like their odds.
The restaurant’s mission is more than just barbecue. “We’re positioned as a purveyor of American culture in Mexico,” DeFossey said. That cuts both ways. During and after the presidential election, filled with anti-Mexican rhetoric, he was worried that Mexicans would be turned off by an American barbecue joint, but it never happened. “I’ve never been treated unfairly,” he said. “People embrace what we do because they can separate our politics from our people. They don’t think I’m a representative of Donald Trump just because he’s my president.” To emphasize his goal of cultural diplomacy, DeFossey has made a point to hire deportees from the U.S. For people who grew up in the United States and are unfamiliar with life in Mexico, a sudden deportation is disorienting, and DeFossey hopes Pinche Gringo BBQ can serve as a familiar place to them—a slice of Texan and American culture that can make them feel more comfortable. “I’m an immigrant,” DeFossey, now an eight-year resident of Mexico City, emphasizes. “Sometimes they call me an expat because it’s a socioeconomic thing, but I’m an immigrant.”
There’s a mural on the side of the building, painted with the words “Nuestras Culturas y Tradiciones,” which translates to “Our Cultures and Traditions.” On the surface it’s a nod to the co-owners, Mexico City native Luna and American DeFossey, who came together on a unique restaurant venture. But it’s also a reemphasis that Pinche Gringo BBQ can succeed at sharing a piece of American culture with Mexico only if Mexico City embraces them. That’s how they create a truly shared culture, and it’s working thus far. DeFossey said they just started offering courses on smoking meat and 150 slots sold out in two days, so there’s a possibility of more Texas-style pitmasters in Mexico in the future.
DeFossey wasn’t all that far ahead of his students in the barbecue field just a few years back. “I didn’t have any experience working in a kitchen before. I’d never run a restaurant, and neither had my partner,” he said, which is where the rather striking name of the barbecue joint came from. “I’m a pinche gringo.” The self-deprecating term has multiple meanings depending on the use and the region, most of them emphatic and negative, but DeFossey said he want the name to reflect some humility on his part, and it’s not meant to be offensive. He notes that the word “pinche” literally translates to “assistant to the cook.” Whether it means the freaking white American or the less-than-proficient assistant to the pitmaster, DeFossey’s just happy to be in this position. “I’ve been given a beautiful opportunity to present my culture,” he said.