Beef Cheek Barbacoa with Pickled Nopalitos

Beef Cheek Barbacoa

Other Recipes from Planet Barbecue Episode 104: San Antonio Grill

2M Smokehouse occupies the sort of unassuming cinder block shack you could drive by scarcely noticing it. But there’s nothing unassuming about Esaul Ramos Jr’s barbecue. The year they opened, Esaul and his partner Melig made Texas Monthly’s coveted top 50 barbecue restaurant list. The accolades came fast and furious: Hulu, Netflix, Bon Appetit, the Wall Street Journal. When invited on Planet Barbecue, Esaul chose a dish beloved by Mexican and Mexican-Americans on both sides of the border: barbacoa—beef cheeks wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in an underground pit.

Note: If beef cheeks are unavailable, substitute well-marbled beef chuck, brisket, or short ribs.

Serves 4


Beef Cheek Barbacoa with Pickled Nopalitos


For the rub:

  • 1/3 cup coarse salt
  • 1/3 cup freshly and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder

  • Two beef cheeks, trimmed, each 14 ounces (see Note above)

To assemble the sandwiches:

  • 4 bolillo rolls, tortas, or other large crusty rolls, halved lengthwise
  • Mayonnaise
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Crumbled Oaxacan cheese
  • Your favorite salsa verde
  • Mexican crema
  • Pickled nopalitos (See Recipe)

You’ll also need:

  • Post oak wood chunks; banana leaves; foil

Recipe Steps

1: In a small bowl, combine the rub ingredients and mix well with your fingers or a small whisk. Season the meat on all sides. (You’ll have rub left, which you can save for another use.)

2: Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to 250 degrees. Brush and oil the grill grate, and arrange the wood chunks on the coals. Place the meat on the grate and close the grill lid. Smoke for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

3: Briefly warm the banana leaves on the grate to soften them, then arrange on two large sheets of foil. Arrange the meat on the leaves and foil and wrap tightly, completely enclosing the meat. Place the packet in a Dutch oven or other deep pan. Add water to come about halfway up the sides of the meat packet. Cover the pan tightly with foil and place on the grill. Braise the meat for 12 to 14 hours, replenishing the fuel as needed. (It is not necessary to add more wood chunks, however.) Make the pickled nopalitos.

4: Carefully uncover the pan and unwrap the meat. Shred the barbacoa with gloved hands or two forks.

5: Assemble the sandwiches: Spread the cut sides of each bolillo with mayonnaise. Top the bottom half with shredded meat, tomato slices, lettuce, cheese, and a few nopalitos. Drizzle with crema. Spoon salsa verde on the top half and place it on the sandwich.

Recipe Tips

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Steven Raichlen’s Planet Barbecue is a production of Barbacoa, Inc., and Resolution Pictures. © 2023 Barbacoa, Inc. Photos by Chris Bierlein