Hey, sweet cheeks!
All around town
Barbacoa is not barbecue, though wordsmiths say they share an etymological origin: babracot, a word from the Haitian Taino dialect of the Arawak-Carib language referring to the green wood sticks, most likely allspice, that form a cooking grill. Barbacoa – in this case, classic South Texas/Norteño-style barbacoa – refers to a calf or cow's head, seasoned simply, wrapped in fire-softened maguey leaves, covered in burlap, and then buried with coals and hot rocks in an underground pit (en pozo) overnight. The process often started with a Saturday night party, followed by a Sunday morning feast of shredded meat, wrapped in freshly-patted tortillas, and topped with lime juice, onions, cilantro, and salsa.
The leaves of the maguey (Agave americana or century plant) steam underground, keeping the meat moist while breaking down the collagen and adding a smoky, herbal flavor. More often than not, maguey has been replaced by aluminum foil, the pit has been replaced by a gas oven, and the cabeza, or head, has been replaced by beef cheek (cachete) or sometimes even a rump roast. If you were in Central Mexico, it might be sheep or lamb (borrego); in Yucatán, it would be pork (puerco) wrapped in banana leaves; and in the North it would probably be cow or goat (chivo). "Hardly anybody uses the whole head anymore," explained one local restaurateur. "It's too big, and the meat is too greasy."
It used to be a dish you could get in restaurants that had barbacoa pits out back. Today, one of the few Texas restaurants still doing it the real way is Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, which has grandfathered pits. Austin is loaded with restaurants offering barbacoa tacos, some more genuine than others, but all having made adjustments for modern sanitation rules.
Our favorite used to be La Monita market on East Seventh, where the owner cooked up a fantastic version of borrego barbacoa by the pound to take home with a stack of fresh tortillas. He's in Houston now but is rumored to be returning to the Eastside in 2012. The next best version would have to be at El Taco Rico (see "El Taco Rico," Aug. 13, 2010), a little blue trailer taco temple where two sisters slow-roast cheek meat to unctuous perfection. For $2 you get a double fresh corn tortilla encasing an overflowing mountain of silky, shredded barbacoa that oozes rich, beefy flavor. Every bite is bliss, especially when you top it with the superb green salsa.
Most folks aren't digging pits in their backyards these days to slow roast cow's head but opt instead for a visit to their favorite local Mexican meat market, which is where our next two preferred versions come from. Las Delicias meat market (111 W. William Cannon #318, 326-2525) has a large taqueria counter inside, with two different versions of barbacoa ($1.79). Beef is offered all the time, while goat is available on weekends; get there early – supply is limited. Single corn tortillas bulge from mounds of excellent, rich, shredded beef or goat. A condiment bar is stocked with salsa, onion, cilantro, and minced jalapeño; expect your tortilla to explode halfway through, or better yet, ask for a double tortilla. La Michoacana Meat Market (various locations, www.lamichoacanameatmarket.com) makes a wonderfully flavorful barbacoa taco (corn $1.39/flour $1.59). You pay in advance at the register, get your receipt, and present it to the gals working the counter, and they give you a double corn tortilla filled with chunky, rich cheek meat. A big plus is the condiment bar with four salsas and spicy pickled jicama.
Mi Ranchito (5200 E. William Cannon, 632-9196; 1105 FM 1626, 292-8107) makes a very nice barbacoa taco ($1.79) – double-wrapped, with a massive, shredded filling with deep, beefy flavor; the excellent salsa bar is a definite plus. El Borrego de Oro (3900 S. Congress, 383-0031) offers a great cheek barbacoa taco ($2) that has good flavor. A bonus here is that you can also get a birria seco plate ($9.95) of barbacoalike shredded lamb meat with all the fixings. Taqueria Chapala (various locations) offers cheek barbacoa tacos ($1.69) in regular or seasoned versions. While this Jalisco-style eatery has a sterling reputation, we were left feeling a little forlorn, finding the seasoned version better but both lacking a lot of rich flavor. Ditto at La Canaria (810 E. 51st, 662-2952 day, 507-5401 night; $1.79), finding the flavor side of the equation a little lacking.
On your next taco tour, you'd have to be a moron to pass up the slow-roasted, shredded cheek meat. Just don't confuse it with barbecue, and be sure to stock up on dental picks, cause you'll be a very contented flossin' fool with a rich belly full.