The City Where Barbacoa Comes From
The streets surrounding my home in the historic center of Mexico City are essentially one giant market: a perfect grid—used first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish—in which each street has its own specific role to play in the commercial morass. Mesones is for school supplies, Bolivar is for sound equipment, the eastern end of Bolivia is for oversized stuffed animals, etc. Over the course of centuries, Mexico’s central valleys developed in much the same way as villages and towns were pulled into the city’s economic orbit. Before they became notoriously dangerous suburbs, Ecatepec and Cuauhtitlan were agave towns. The villages of Milpa Alta, a rural area technically contained within the state of Mexico City, specialize in nopales (cactus paddles) and mole. The village of Capulhuac, about 15 miles southwest of Mexico City, is for barbacoa.
A specialty of central Mexico, barbacoa is traditionally made by burying a whole sheep or goat (usually broken down into large chunks) in an underground oven lined with seething hot stones and sealed with agave leaves, then leaving it to cook overnight. On Saturday and Sunday mornings in Mexico City, barbacoa stalls materialize suddenly on street corners, in local storefronts, and under decrepit stairwells. Men wielding big knives carve meat to order from the shoulder, ribs, or shank. They cut chunks from the honeycombed bag of the stomach stuffed with chopped bits of offal (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, intestines—even udder and testicles), a cut called panzita that is my personal favorite part of barbacoa. All of this gets served alongside steaming bowls of consomé, a simple garbanzo bean soup typically cooked under the meat to absorb its drippings as it cooks. They start selling at about 8 a.m. and serve until they finish their day’s supply, rarely later than 4 p.m. Technically, I guess that makes barbacoa Mexico City’s favorite brunch, but no one would call it that.
The barbacoa stall closest to my apartment belongs to Rafael Jimenez, the third generation in his family to sell the dish in town. Now 47, Rafa has run his stall out of the same storefront on Calle Regina for 30 years, and has watched the street’s transformation from a stretch of old colonial homes half-abandoned after the earthquake in ’85, to the pedestrianized centerpiece of a gentrification campaign led by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico and among the richest on earth. In the last decade or so, old mechanics’ workshops have been replaced by bars and cafes catering to students and tourists. The storefront that Rafa rents for 1500 pesos (about $80) per weekend switched five years ago from a local convenience store to an Herbalife center. And there went the neighborhood.
Fortunately for Rafa, demographic changes in the area haven’t had much of an effect on business. “Before my customers were all people who lived in the area, but they all left when the rent went up. Now it’s a lot of visitors who come through,” Rafa told me recently. “The most important thing is to sell everything you bring.”
Rafa begins his preparations for the weekends on Wednesday mornings when he buys six live sheep from his neighbor Evaristo Sanchez Vargas, who trucks the animals down every Tuesday from farms in Jalisco, a seven-hour drive north. Jimenez and his wife, Violeta, will spend most of each Thursday slaughtering the sheep, carefully removing their innards so as not to contaminate the meat, washing and chopping the offal, then hanging the carcasses to drain what remains of the blood. The process is, in its basic format, not unlike a simplified version of kosher butchery. Raúl Guerrero, a journalist in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, the central Mexican state most closely associated with barbacoa, told me this had to do with the Jewish commander under Hernán Cortés who had first been put in charge of the region that’s now Hidalgo and who first introduced sheep farming—and, therefore, modern barbacoa—to Mexico in the 16th century.
On Friday evenings, Rafa and Violeta load the meat into big metal steamers (Capulhuac has long since stopped using underground ovens), top it with agave leaves, and leave it to cook for about eight hours, adding the panzita for only an hour and using the steaming liquid, enriched with fat, as their consomé. At 5 o’clock the next morning, they load the meat into their truck along with big pots of consomé and three homemade salsas—verde, rojo, and a third made with three varieties of dark dried chile—and drive into Mexico City. In the course of a day, Rafa, Violeta, and their children Victor and Jessie, will typically serve between 60 and 70 pounds of meat. That’s about three sheep or 700 tacos.
And that’s just Rafa’s stand. Of the 21,000 people who live in Capulhuac, some 85 percent earn their livings by selling barbacoa across the length and breadth of Mexico City, most of them at a similar scale. Rafa told me that his family alone controls as many as 30 stalls. “There are lots of brothers, sisters, cousins,” he said, “and now grandkids.” Hidalgo, northeast of the city, may be more famous for its barbacoa (and a clutch of vendors do truck in from there each weekend), but if you’re eating barbacoa in Mexico City, it’ almost certainly from Capulhuac.
Rafa’s grandfather started making barbacoa about 50 years back, and was one of the first three Capulhuac families to earn their livings that way. “In those days, Capulhuac was mostly agricultural. Barbacoa was a luxury,” Rafa told me a on a humid, gray Wednesday a few weeks back when I came out to Capulhuac for a visit. “Then little by little people saw their neighbors doing well, so they started selling their land to buy cars so they could get to the city, or to buy tables and chairs for their stands.”
In the early days, when Rafa’s father and grandfather carried their load of roasted meat into the city by bus, most of the barbacoa vendors set up in and around La Merced in the city center, still then the city’s largest wholesale market. At the end of 1982, the city government moved the wholesale market to a new complex south of the historic center to alleviate traffic at La Merced. Three years later, the devastation of the 1985 earthquake scattered the population of the city center. The barbacoa families followed suit. Cousins and sisters and brothers struck out on their own, patrolling neighborhoods all over the city to find their own spots to rent, or following former customers to their new neighborhoods. Rafa found his space two years after the earthquake, when he was just 17 years old. His aunt and uncle, who still sell barbacoa each weekend, found their respective spots in the Colonia Guerrero just west of the Centro Historico ten years after that, and his mother now mans what was once his father’s stand in La Merced.
Capulhuac has done well for itself off the barbacoa trade. It looks more or less like any village being slowly metabolized into a larger city: there’s the old church, the accretion of tightly packed concrete houses choking out the old adobe structures, the occasional patch of lonely tilled earth, and the gray sprawl of Toluca—the capital of Mexico State that starts just five miles away—approaching like a glacier from the west. And though Victor and Jessie help out on the weekends—Victor chops the meat, Jessie helps Violeta serve while Rafa handles the bills—both are finishing up school so they can, as Rafa puts it, become professionals. “With barbacoa, there was always a way to make your fortune, as everyone says. But now there’s so much more competition,” Rafa explained, “so it’s harder and harder to find a place to sell.”
Before I got on the bus back to Mexico City, Rafa and I went for lunch at a barbacoa stall run by a cousin just down the street from his childhood home, one of just a handful of barbacoa joints in Capulhuac itself. Family and friends stopped by our table to say hi and introduce themselves, invariably telling me where in Mexico City I could find their barbacoa stalls in case I ever wanted to stop by. We ordered panzita and consomé and he told me what it used to be like as a kid before he had a car, before the highway, when he and his father would load kilos of fragrant meat wrapped in agave leaves onto the ramshackle bus that connected Capulhuac, still its own village, to Mexico City, a whole other world over the crest of the volcanoes. “Both cities used to be far,” he said. “Now they’re next door.”