You could call it Mexico’s version of soup and a sandwich. But you would be seriously understating barbacoa’s charms.
Few Americans—with the exception of some who hail from South Texas—have ever tried barbacoa (Or even heard of it.) And those who have can’t be sure if they’ve had an authentic experience or not. Because like so many dishes in the barbecue pantheon, barbacoa has been reinterpreted by contemporary cultures—in Mexico alone, from Puebla to the Yucatán, it has morphed into something different from region to region. It is thought to have originated in the Caribbean, but even appears in the Philippines (there, the dish is called balbacua).
Barbacoa is egalitarian when it comes to meats: sheep, goat, lamb, beef, and pork (and hunks of any one of those) are all fair game. Only one restaurant that I know of—Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas, still sells cow’s heads (cabezas), pit-roasted and smoked over mesquite, thanks to a benevolent grandfather clause in city food laws.
Fundamentally, barbacoa is meat that is slathered with chile paste, wrapped with aromatic leaves (maguey or avocado), and smoke-roasted over a kettle filled with water, vegetables, aromatics, and sometimes, beans. Originally, the meat was cooked overnight in deep, almost man-high pits. When tender, the meat is sliced or chopped and served in fresh tortillas with salsa borracha (“drunken salsa”). The flavorful consommé, which has been enriched by smoked meat drippings during the cook, is served in bowls on the side. (Soup and a sandwich, like I said.)
When writing menus for Season 2 of Project Smoke, which I recently shot in Palm Springs, California (look for it on Public Television around Memorial Day), I wanted to include my version of barbacoa; it’s made with pork shoulder. (You can find another version of this recipe in The Barbecue! Bible, but it is made with lamb.) There’s a lot of satisfaction in reinterpreting what seem like complicated recipes for backyard pit masters. The crew of Project Smoke went nuts over the recipe—the consommé and the tender pork tacos.
For equipment, you’ll need a Dutch oven (we love the ones with wire bail handles from Lodge Manufacturing), and a wire cooling rack (optional). Avocado leaves might be unfamiliar to you, but they can be usually be bought dried online. We were lucky enough to find fresh ones at a large Hispanic supermarket in Southern California. If you can find them, fresh tortillas take this meal over the top.