Why you should care
Because tasting food made from a 500-year-old process is magical.
The musty, tangy smells of roasting meat and cactus find us the moment we step out of the car after a three-hour drive northeast from Mexico City. On the side of the unilluminated and desolate two-lane highway sits a modest one-story home, fronting a restaurant with smoke billowing from its backyard. It’s dawn, and we’re the first ones here at Barbacoa Don Delfino, located in the town of Tinaco, Hidalgo, beating the ardent local customers and truckers. Some locals, like ultramarathoner Antonio Garcia, says the lamb barbacoa’s flavor is the best in the region.
It’s a traditional BBQ art that dates back 500 years. First, explains restaurant owner and cook Delfino, a lamb is killed — a knife drawn across its throat — and bled out, then its skin is peeled off and its entrails cleaned and wrapped in cactus leaves. Next, a tub of boiling water is placed inside a pit oven warmed by wood chips, and covered with large planks of firewood set flush against the mouth of the hole. The meat, which sits on a top grill, is covered with spice branches, leaves and dirt, creating a natural smoker that cooks overnight. The result: a slab of silky-soft lamb with a savory, musky taste. The meat costs around $20 per kilo, or $5 for two large, belly-filling tacos topped with a smoky homemade salsa.
The quality of the animal is key: “not too fat or too skinny, fed with organic vegetables.”
Pit cooking happens throughout Mexico, but here in the center of the country, it’s an obsession. Delfino Perez Ceron, whose family has been cooking barbacoa for 80 years, says the quality of the animal is key (“not too fat or too skinny, fed with organic vegetables”) as is the deft touch of local cooks. Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor of food history at the University of Toronto, says barbacoa has been made the same way since the seminomadic Chichimecas and the Otomi were eliminated by Spanish conquistadores. Barbacoa, Pilcher explains, is “a nostalgic event that reflects its people’s struggles with its mixed heritage” of indigenous and Spanish peoples.
The culinary delight isn’t limited to Mexico. You can also find versions in Hawaii and Central Asia. Some allow the smoke to seep out — Samoans believe this makes the meat tastier. Others prefer pit-hole BBQ without the hole. At Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo in Dallas, owner Reymundo Sanchez, originally from Tulancingo, Mexico, cooks the meat in a brick oven. “Clean meat aboveground is the best!” he boasts. Delfino says his countryman has it wrong, that cooking on oven tops “doesn’t produce the same flavor.” He likens it to making beans in a metal pot as opposed to a clay one.
As we sit in plastic chairs enjoying BBQ tacos, sopes and tlacoyos, Delfino tells us he’ll keep cooking, three times a week, for as long as he can stand it. Though business has shrunk 40 percent over the past decade, there are days that make it worth it. A few years ago, his restaurant prepared and cooked 30 lambs in a single day for a quinceañera party of 1,500 people. For now, he just wants his sons “to know how to do it, to be proud.”