Dalia Carr remembers the pit behind her family’s café where they’d cook barbacoa on the weekends.
They’d build a big fire, place coals in the pit, then place the beef head in a bucket — with water for steam — and put on the lid. Then they’d put the bucket in the pit, place more coals on top and cover it with a sheet of tin. By the next morning, they had a tender, delicious load of “cheek” meat to relish the entire day.
The days of cooking barbacoa in the pit behind El Fenix Café are long gone, as they are in many places, but barbacoa itself is alive and well at the diner where Carr and her family have served locals for decades. These days she steams the meat for several hours in a pot — beginning at about 4 a.m. Sunday — and serves it with tortillas.
“By 7:30 and 8, it’s already getting there, and usually by 8:30 and 9, that’s when my customers start asking for it,” she said. “It’s because I only sell it here in the restaurant as a plate and as a taco. I don’t sell it to go. I don’t sell it by the pound. I only sell it here. I let it boil, and then I reduce it to medium heat all the way, until six to eight hours, and it just comes out really good.”
Many people throughout the world have stumbled upon the idea of preparing meat in a hole dug into the ground, said Melissa Guerra, owner of the Melissa Guerra store and author of the book Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cooking of South Texas. Some Peruvian peoples, she said, have cooked in pits in the ground for a festivity called a pachamanca.
They lined the pits with burlaps bags or palm fronds and filled the holes with hot stones.
“Then you start layering foods in there,” Guerra said. “So you have meat, you’ll have vegetables, potatoes, corn, it’s almost like a New England clam bake, but it’s baked underground. They’ll cover it up, and it bakes there overnight. Having a pachamanca is like us having a pachanga, and I’m somewhat convinced the words have a correlation.”
Guerra said that, traditionally, barbacoa was produced by placing a calf’s head in a pit lined with hot mesquite coals and maguey (century plant) leaves. Carr remembers her family sometimes rubbed the head with spices — comino, black pepper, salt and garlic — and wrapped it in a brown paper bag with twine, then covered it with tin foil before placing it in a bucket. However, it can be done just as easily with an oven, which is what her recipe calls for in her book.
“When you do it in a hole, it’s basically an earthenware oven,” Guerra said. “That is what it is. You are making an earthenware oven out of a hole in the ground. It’s not really such a huge leap. So, instead of using an earthenware oven, you move it to an electric oven or a gas oven.”
Guerra’s recipe for barbacoa calls for heating the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, sprinkling the meat with salt and wrapping it aluminum, then placing the package in a pan in the oven and letting it bake for six hours. Afterward, she removes the meat from the oven, chops it into fine pieces and serve it as tacos with cilantro, onion and salsa, plus a few drops of lime juice. She loves barbacoa so much, she said, that she serves it in her restaurant, Taco Meli, in Edinburg.
“For me there is not a better part of (the animal), I mean it’s just such an excellent piece of beef, it really is,” she said. “But you can only like eat a couple of tablespoons at a time. I only can; it’s very, very rich.”
Ruben Hinojosa, Jr., vice-president for sales at H&H Foods in Mercedes, where Guerra purchases barbacoa for her restaurant, said barbacoa is in “huge demand.”
“We even service some major chains that serve it on their breakfast buffets, national chains,” Hinojosa said. “The restaurants that we service are usually the ones along the border, or in high Hispanic population areas like Atlanta, Chicago.”
The reason for this popularity is that it’s so traditional, Hinojosa said.
“Most young people, young Hispanics who grew up in Hispanic households,” he said, “and people who grew up in high Hispanic areas, Anglo people that have friends that are Hispanic, it’s a tradition that’s been passed down from one generation to the area.”
However, Carr had a different explanation.
“It’s the tenderness,” she said. “It’s very tender. There’s a lot of places that claim they’re doing barbacoa and they are not. What they are doing is steaming meat, basically regular beef, just a chuck roast or something. … Barbacoa is not that, because when you steam a roast it will usually come out, it’s a different grade, it doesn’t fall apart. Barbacoa meat, you get it between your fingers and you roll it back and forth and it will just fall apart.”
The real, old-fashioned barbacoa includes the whole head — brains, tongue, bone and cartilage — a rather dense package that requires a lengthy cooking time. However, most places don’t sell the whole beef head anymore, Hinojosa said. Most meatpackers, he said, de-bone the head and sell the component parts. For their commercial customers, H&H takes the straight beef cheek meat, trims it, adds spices (including salt, pepper and garlic), and slow cooks it in steamers for about eight hours.
While many people do season their barbacoa while it cooks, both Guerra and Carr prefer not to do this.
“Some people put pepper, some people put garlic,” Guerra said. “I don’t believe that it needs any of that. I think it needs a little salt.”
“I just add salt, nothing else, I don’t like adding a lot of spices to it,” she said. “I just like it, you know, just plain.”
Because H&H’s meat has been trimmed from the bone, it’s about 82 percent lean, Hinojosa said.
“Ours would be leaner in most cases than most other people’s barbacoa,” he said. “And especially if you took a whole head and cooked it, it’s going to be much fattier or have a higher percentage of meat to fat ratio.”
Carr shops around for her barbacoa meat. She sometimes gets whole heads from local businesses, but usually she gets only the cheek meat.
“Right now I don’t have a lot of people that have acquired the taste for the whole head anymore,” she said. “We usually get the cheek meat at H.E.B. and buy beef tongue also.”
For whatever kind of meat she buys, she knows, and her customers know, just how they like it.
“My customers will order, tomato, onion, cilantro on the side,” she said. “And they’ll add eggs, they’ll add beans, they’ll add rice…”
Travis Whitehead covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4452. For this and more local stories, visit www.themonitor.com.
• Two pounds of beef cheek
• 24 to 34 fresh corn tortillas
• ½ c. finely chopped cilantro
• 1 c. finely chopped onion
• Any recipe salsa
• 4 limes, sliced into wedges
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Sprinkle the meat lightly with salt and wrap in a double layer of aluminum foil so as to not allow any steam to escape. Place the foil packet in a baking pan and bake for at least six hours, until tender.
Remove the meat from the foil and finely chop it. Serve immediately, making tacos with the meat, cilantro, onion and salsa, adding just a few drops of lime juice on top.
Source: Melissa Guerra’s Dishes From The Wild Horse Desert