Road Food Round-Up: Barbacoa and the Search for Taco Greatness

                                                  “Barbacoa Don Cuco”

The white rabbit blinks pink eyes and settles deeper into its nest of foil-wrapped lollipops. No, this isn’t a department store Easter display–it’s just another day at a roadside barbacoa restaurant on the highway between San Miguel de Allende and Queretero.

Barbacoa Don Cuco

Barbacoa Don Cuco

Barbacoa Don Cuco is an airy room furnished with Mexico’s ubiquitous white plastic chairs and tables, a large horno, a sturdy wooden slab where a teenage boy dices meat with a cleaver and an old lady vigorously chops cilantro, and a glass display case of candy where the restaurant’s pet rabbit seems to have taken up residence on the bottom shelf.

A pretty woman in jeans and a sweatshirt shoos the rabbit from the display and approaches our table to rattle out an array of options that I don’t quite understand.

“Uh, we want enough barbacoa for two people,” I say hesitantly. I don’t know much about barbacoa. In fact, I don’t even know what type of meat we are talking about here, but I don’t really care because the smell of the place tells me everything I really need to know: I want to eat whatever they are serving.

100 pesos (8 USD) buys us a slab or roasted maguey piled with steaming barbacoa, served with queso fresco, giant, deliciosu handmade tortillas, and an excellent selection of homemade salsas. Oh, and a large quesadilla and two Victorias. The meat is succulent and dripping with its own juices. I’m assuming it’s sheep, but it’s hard to say–it’s not gamey, nor does it have any noticeable mutton flavor. Pork? Rabbit?

note: Overall, this is one of the best meals we ate on the entire trip.

Read more on barbacoa.

A plate of tacos al pastor.

Tacos al pastor in Atlixco, Puebla.

 

“El Sabroso y los Molcajetes”

Mexico City is taco central, and I fully expected to find the trip’s best tacos al pastor in one of the giant city’s countless hole-in-the-wall taquerias. And we did eat some damn good tacos during our stay. A lot of damn good tacos. But to my surprise, we discovered the best tacos al pastor of the trip  in Atlixco, a colonial town near Puebla.

The well-named taqueria “El Sabroso y los Molcajetes” is dimly lit by ghastly flourescents, but features a promisingly large lunchtime crowd. We soon discover why.

Served with grilled onions and pickled vegetables, my tacos al pastor feature tiny, delicate corn tortillas heaped with juicy pork that hits every flavor mark on the pastor scale of greatness. I sprinkle green salsa on my first taco and red salsa on the next. The green salsa is dynamite–fresh and knock-your-socks off spicy. The smoky red salsa tastes so authentic it could have come straight from a Mexico City market–circa 1496. In fact, both salsas are so good that I have a serious problem deciding how to dress my third taco. This sort of dilemma really begs another plate, doesn’t it?

update: After digging around in the history of tacos al pastor, I discover that the tacos are the legacy of Lebanese immigrants, and that the original stand (or the supposed original stand–as a student of culinary history I am always skeptical about these claims) is in Puebla, so it actually makes sense that we’d find these unsurpassed specimens in Atlixco, in the state of Puebla.

update number 2: According to Nicholas Gilman, author of the excellent blog Good Food in Mexico City, the legacy is even murkier, and tacos el pastor may have originated in DF after all…I knew there wasn’t going to be a simple answer to this…

photos by Gina Dilello and Felisa Rogers

8 Responses to “Road Food Round-Up: Barbacoa and the Search for Taco Greatness”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. El Codo says:

    Churpa, may I urge your finding of a wandering vendor while you’re still in coconut palm country that sells TUBA, fermented coconut palm sap. Ask for the peanuts which will float on top.

    North of San Marcos on Mex 200 (which is 35 miles south of Acapulco) on the west side of the highway is Restaurant Nuevo Millenio. The restaurant is about 4 miles past San Marcos, and is one of my all-time favorite stops. No art deco here; the place simply reeks atmosphere of the 1960’s except for the plastic furnishings. Wood fire “leña” cooking. A peek at the gargantuan list of dishes on the menu itself is worth a stop.

    I am hoping your return will take you up the coast.

    • churpa says:

      Ack! Now you are torturing me…We are already home, though our adventure still continues online. I’ve been trying to post everything in order, but wasn’t online much, so as you can see, I am a bit behind!

      • El Codo says:

        Ah Jeez, Amiga,

        A month down here is just the start of unwinding. Your announcement was a shock to me. But, at your age work is mandatory and empty piggy banks squeal in agony. A free beautiful beach campsite awaited you in Las Peñas and a chance to dine with mi famila, and Brenda is positively one of the best cocineras in las republica. Alas, but an entremés is a heck of a lot better than nothing, right? I cannot wait for your next installment. I am such a glutton I could be canoeing the Amazon, while reading a copy of National Geographic – about the Amazon. Tomorrow I get awakened as usual on a Sunday by a distant “Clang, clang, clang (14 times” a pause then one, two, or three more clangs. Time to get up brew a pot of French Roast, squeeze a half dozen valencias from Vizcaino then try out Celso’s new batch of Chorizo with that bag of fresh nopalitos la señora handed me this morning. I am as needful (and sated) of it all as a hopeless addict in a Columbian drug lab.
        This is one of the very few rewards of getting old. Retirement south-of-the-border. Returning north only at need to get a medical lube job and tuneup when forced to.

  2. churpa says:

    We were in Mexico for two months, but you are correct: It was not enough. What is this about chorizo? Aren’t you a VEGETARIAN?

  3. Don Cuevas says:

    The best barbacoa de borrego a la penca we have had was on a Sunday morning at Las Grutas de Tolantongo, in Hidalgo state. Our experience may have been enhanced by watching the building of the fire the evening before, the uncovering of the pit in the morning, and the spectacular view of the cañon below the outdoor comedor. But we think that the barbacoa can stand on its own merits, especially with the sharp Salsa Cruda Verde provided. But the best part was the consomé. When I asked, the servers gave me a free refill.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

Trackbacks

  1. […] that they make an exemplary taco. Some of the best food I ate on my last trip to Mexico was at a barbacoa joint outside of Queretero, so I have utmost faith in the region’s chops (no pun intended). On the […]