Two hours north of Mexico City, in the state of Hidalgo, is Actopan, commonly considered the epicenter of Mexican barbacoa. The city is known for its barbacoa de borrego (lamb barbacoa) and gastronomy festivals preserving Indigenous regional food traditions.
Barbacoa is prepared in hoyos (literally, “holes”) a meter or more deep and made with brick. In them, maguey-covered meat is placed on racks and then covered and sealed with a layer of metal or wood and dirt until the earth oven is airtight. The barbacoa cooks there for an extended period of time, usually overnight. Underneath the meat, pots collect the juices for consommé, a rich broth typically containing rice, garbanzos, and hardy vegetables that makes a great hangover cure for Sunday mornings, the traditional time barbacoa is served.
Alternatively, barbacoa can be cooked over superheated rocks in a partially underground horno (Spanish for “oven” and interchangeable with “hoyo”). The technique is mentioned in the 1896 Mexican cookbook Cocina Michoacana. In homes and some restaurants, barbacoa is often made using a large steamer, lined with agave leaves, similar to the pots used for tamales. But in central Mexico, customers seek out restaurants serving barbacoa a pie de horno (“at the foot of the oven”), where they know the lamb is cooked in the pre-Hispanic tradition.
It’s no simple thing. Rather, barbacoa is a laborious and time-intensive process—not just an ingredient—whose practitioners across Mexico are called barbacoyeros (barbacoa masters).
About two hours west of Actopan, along the Autopista México–Querétaro in the town of Palmillas, is Barbacoa Santiago, a palatial restaurant with several brick-lined ovens in the ground at its center. Inside, families and small groups wait for tables to clear so they too can indulge in the specialty of the house: barbacoa de borrego. Served as tacos, in other masa preparations, or by the kilo with consommé and tortillas, the meat is sweet, with a gaminess so hard to detect that it takes intense concentration or a fiery dislike of lamb to notice.
The tender meat slides easily from the bones in cuts like shoulder, rib, or neck, juicy with rendered fat and a sheen that gives the lamb a haloed appearance. For customers who’d rather order barbacoa to go, there is a wooden box packed with various cuts in front of the restaurant manned by a barbacoyero. Barbacoa Santiago is one of several restaurants specializing in the classic Mexican preparation along the highway, but it’s the only one I saw with a line out the door on a Tuesday.
The head of the animal is considered a delicacy. In central Mexico, the stomach is thoroughly washed and stuffed with chopped offal, such as lungs and heart, that has been seasoned with a chile sauce, herbs, and spices to create pancita, which can be served alone in tacos or mixed in with lamb barbacoa.
Regional differences are myriad. Even within central Mexico, goat is occasionally used instead of lamb, especially in the state of Morelos and in northern Guerrero. Ingredients for the consommé, the salsas, the side dishes, and the antojitos (appetizers) change from town to town.
In Oaxaca, you can get goat or lamb cooked with or without red chile sauce. In Córdoba, Veracruz, they have barbacoa de pollo, a whole chicken marinated in red chile sauce and wrapped in hoja santa, avocado, and banana leaves. Ximbó (pronounced “cheembo,” with the stress on the last syllable) from Hidalgo and the Estado de México can feature chicken or pork or a combination of cuts of both meats. The proteins are slathered in a chile-based marinade and cooked wrapped in maguey leaves until hot and easily shredded. The herbaceous fragrance that erupts from the unwrapped maguey is due partially to the plant matter but also to the spices and seasonings. If you’re lucky, you will find someone serving jackrabbit barbacoa in Sonora, venison barbacoa in Sinaloa, langoustine barbacoa along the coast of Veracruz, or iguana barbacoa at Christmastime in Morelos. Beef is a common ingredient for barbacoa throughout Mexico, but especially in northern Mexico and the former part of Mexico that is Texas.
The Austin food trailer La Santa Barbacha is owned and operated by Daniela, Uriel, and Rosa de Lima Hernández. The eatery is an homage to the siblings’ parents, Marcos Hernández and Alicia Landaverde, who, in the family’s hometown of Querétaro, Mexico, practiced the craft of barbacoa. The two sisters and brother grew up eating all kinds of barbacoa, but their parents’ specialty was beef. As the siblings were planning their own barbacoa joint, they knew they could use lamb or goat to hew closely to Mexican expectations. However, they wanted their barbacoa to express tradition. “We decided we had to make something that carried part of our family’s story, something that carried our culture,” Rosa said. “It had to be more than a commodity to sell.” Of course, they were also aware that beef barbacoa would give them a commercial advantage. It’s the most familiar barbacoa protein to Texans.
What strikes me most about barbacoa is the group effort it requires and the tradition that it embraces. It is the one shared attribute across all barbacoa styles. “[Barbacoa] evokes tradition and community cooking, as the process would have to be done by a group of people for a group of people,” says Adrian Davila, third-generation pitmaster at Davila’s BBQ in Seguin. “It is the ultimate comfort food because of the long process, which automatically leads to a different gratification.”
Davila’s lamb barbacoa, an occasional special at Davila’s BBQ, was featured in a June 2018 episode of Man Fire Food on the Cooking Channel. The barbacoa, prepared in a pozo (pit) at Davila’s ranch, was offered in tacos. The meat was loaded with chiles, dried oregano, and dark spices. It reminds Davila of the importance of tradition and culture. “I remember we’d go to school and the other little kids would show up with their greasy bags of tacos, and other kids would say, ‘Ew, you’re eating brains,’ ” he recalls. “It was eating and using all the ingredients. When you harvest an animal, that’s doing the animal respect.”
The lamb barbacoa at Davila’s BBQ, which opened in 1959, is made on the family ranch. The dish fits into “vaquero barbecue,” Davila’s self-defined style of smoked meats. This category links the barbacoa tradition—starting in the early days of Mexican ranch hands and cowboys—to Central Texas barbecue and the resurgent interest in open-fire cooking.
The terms “vaquero,” “barbacoa,” and “barbecue” are intimately linked. The word “barbecue” is the English rendering of the Spanish word “barbacoa.” What we know as barbecue in the United States was originally encountered by Europeans in the Caribbean Basin and on what is the modern Latin American mainland. As Spanish explorers and missionaries noted at the time, “barbacoa” (derived from the native Taíno word “barabicu”) was used to describe a grain store or a stick framework upon which meat or fish was roasted or grilled. In a letter to the Spanish king dated 1520, Hernán Cortés described it as meat cooked under the ground and sold by vendors in the main market of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City).
Although evidence of earth-oven cooking in Texas goes back several thousand years, South Texas barbacoa de cabeza practitioners trace the practice back to the the nineteenth century, when Americans began immigrating to Texas. When Anglo ranchers butchered beef, they would pass on the unwanted heads—brains and all—to their Mexican ranch hands and vaqueros. These workers did what they could with the scraps. They cleaned each discarded head, wrapped it in maguey leaves and/or burlap, and placed it into a pit heated by mesquite coals. The pit was covered with maguey and soil, and the heads would be left to cook overnight or longer. It was an example of human ingenuity and survival.
In that tradition, Armando Vera is perhaps the most important barbacoyero in Texas. As the owner of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, in Brownsville, he is the last of his kind. Vera’s is the only food establishment in Texas permitted to make in-ground barbacoa. It was grandfathered in after health-regulation reform banned in-ground cooking. Vera’s specialty is called barbacoa de cabeza de res en pozo a la leña, or whole beef head slowly pit-cooked over mesquite charcoal. The meat served at Vera’s isn’t just beef cheek (the most common cut in Texas), but lengua, paladar (“palate”), and ojo (“eye”) as well. The last is a prized delicacy, which Vera calls “Mexican caviar,” and is usually reserved for elders. It’s the first item to sell out at Vera’s, opened by Vera’s father in 1955.
Pit-cooking barbacoa isn’t extinct—it’s just not officially sanctioned. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que’s special status allows it to showcase South Texas–style barbacoa in all its shimmering, smoke-anointed fattiness. It is the template for Texas barbacoa far removed from pressure-cooked, offset-smoked, or braised preparations that have become standard across the state and country. Barbacoa is often one of the fillings in the omnipresent pork-beef-chicken taco category. It’s on the menus of taquerias, food trucks, and barbecue joints alike. It’s served by the pound, in tacos, and with other elements. For example, at LeRoy and Lewis, in Austin, the cooks top avocado halves with glimmering, fatty smoked barbacoa.
In San Antonio, barbacoa is a way of life. It’s so integral to life in the River City that there is a Barbacoa & Big Red Festival, which pairs the beef preparation with the beloved soda. You can find barbacoa at South Texas–style diners, breakfast taco joints, supermarkets, trailers, and restaurants like Tommy’s, Pepe’s Barbacoa, and Stixs & Stone. At the last one, barbacoa and Big Red get a modern twist in a flight of tacos in which the brightly hued soda is infused into nixtamalized corn tortillas. The three tortillas nestle applewood-smoked barbacoa marinated in a guajillo-based adobo with strawberry–Big Red jam and pecan pesto. The dish, in part, represents owner Leo Davila’s childhood memories of weekends at his grandfather’s house eating backyard barbacoa.
While Stixs & Stone offers a modern interpretation, barbacoa and barbecue tacos aren’t new. Barbecue joints across Texas—including now-closed Wilson’s Barbecue in El Paso and the former Bar-B-Que Pit in Brownsville—peddled the dishes throughout the twentieth century, with more joining with each passing year. Newspapers disseminated recipes nationwide—even in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where it was written that “[t]he Mexican ‘barbacoa’ has been adapted and taken over North of the Border, becoming the favorite for family cookouts and casual entertaining in the summer months.” According to a 1966 recipe printed in several newspapers across the country, the meat of choice for “Barbacoa Mexicana” was chicken, which was marinated in dry vermouth, cinnamon, honey, lime juice, garlic, and salt.
Most businesses—for example, Guajardo’s Taco House, the now-closed breakfast taco emporium in Del Rio—didn’t differentiate between barbacoa and barbecue, per se, listing what they sold as simply “barbeque.” But others, like Taco Village in McAllen, distinguished between the two. In 1967, the restaurant sold orders of three tacos with tomatoes, white onion, and lettuce for 25 cents per order; choices of meat included “bar-B-Q” and “barbacoa.” Farther down the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in Brownsville, the Bar-B-Que Pit sold “Bar-B-Que Tacos” for a dime each in 1964.
Perhaps barbacoa’s biggest nationwide exposure was in the 1956 film Giant, starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. There is a scene in which Hudson’s character, rancher Bick Benedict, throws a party to introduce neighbors and friends to his new bride, Leslie (played by Taylor). The culinary centerpiece of the shindig is barbacoa. The camera focuses on men removing the meat from a pozo. Later, Bick describes barbacoa as “the best food you ever ate, honey” and “where we get the word ‘barbecue.’ ” Bick explains the cooking process to Leslie, the camera homes in on barbacoyeros unwrapping and separating the meat from the cow’s head, and the genteel rancher’s wife faints. While barbacoa and barbecue are familiar to all Americans, the Lone Star State is the beefy heart of the classic Mexican preparation.
418 W. Kingsbury, Seguin
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday 11–8
La Santa Barbacha
807 E. Fourth, Austin
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday 11–5
LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue
121 Pickle Road, Austin
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday 11–9
Stixs & Stone
5718B Wurzbach Road, San Antonio
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 12–9, Sunday 10–3
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que
2404 Southmost Road, Brownsville
Hours: Friday 5:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 5–2:30