By David Rosengarten
I’m in central Texas this week, on a BBQ tear, rolling in a pick-up truck to all the great names (like the holy trinity of Lockhart: Smitty’s, Kreuz and Black’s) in the vainglorious attempt at tasting everything important. Sigh. It’s a big state out there.
But here’s how crazy I really am. On the way yesterday to lunch in Lockhart, at about 11:30 AM we passed a Mexican restaurant in Buda, Texas that elicited a rave review from my friend Mike. “That’s the best Mexican in the whole area,” he said. Reaching deep into my powers of persuasion, I was able to talk the whole BBQ-bound group into a little “vorspeis” at the unassuming-looking Chavelos. Oh, buddy. Even the tortilla chips were stellar.
But here’s the biggest thing I learned there–I’m almost embarrassed I didn’t know it before.
Another bud, Robert, who was commissioned for this journey to identify every last ligament in Lockhart, couldn’t contain himself when the Chavelos menus hit. “The one thing you gotta have is barbacoa!” he burbled.
“Barbacoa?” I said, with excruciating New York wise-ass-ness. Having seriously read my BBQ history, I knew that “barbacoa” was a word the Spanish started using, in the Caribbean, for the Arawak Indian practice of cooking meat slowly in the ground… and that our modern word “barbecue” is probably derived from it.
“Why would we want to eat BBQ,” I asked, “during our Tex-Mex warm-up on our way to a day of BBQ pig-out?”
I stepped into it.
“Uh… barbacoa ain’t BBQ, buddy,” quoth Robert.
And sure enough… if you google “barbacoa”… you’ll find lots of confused people like me posting barbacoa history, mistaking barbacoa for a Mexican word for BBQ, etc.
But when you find the real answer–at least for the Tex-Mex areas of Texas–it is just as Brother Robert told it. Barbacoa is almost like cowboy rillettes: a pile of shredded meat, in this case beef, so long-cooked it’s almost gooey, with about the most impossibly deep and buttery beef taste I have ever experienced. You put it on a tortilla with some lime, cilantro, salsa if you want… and… BABY! Tongue tacos have now moved over respectfully in my pantheon of all-time taco greats.
But it ain’t no coincidence that lengua and barbacoa would vie–because one of the defining features of barbacoa is that all the meat comes from the heads of cattle! The head is seasoned, wrapped in burlap, and placed over a slow fire for a good, long time… at least overnight.
Barbacoa… who knew! Yee-HAH!