[ that's our 'cue ]
To experience a nearly religious take on meat, seek out Mexican barbacoa in South Philly — but make your pilgrimage on the correct day. The assiduous, time-consuming process, traditionally applied to lamb, goat or beef, typically translates to the weekend being the only time for you to pay your flesh-loving respects — and the long marinating and cooking process sometimes means it's a Sunday-only affair.
While the name is relatable enough, it's in no way a south-of-the-border translation of American charcoal or propane cooking. Barbacoa in its truest sense — prepared in a covered pit — puts the focus on meat's natural juices via a long, slow cook. In Hidalgo, Mexico, barbacoa masters take a pot equipped with a steam tray loaded with meat and cover it with maguey (agave) leaves, seal it with burlap and drop it onto a lit grill situated in a hole in the ground. That hole's covered with earth ahead of a fire being set over top. Garlic, onions and spices sit in the water beneath the steam tray, while drippings from the meat inform the steam and the resulting consommé, or broth, that's served on the side.
This old-school technique is not far removed from what's practiced today in Philly. "When I go back home," says Raul Castro of Plaza Garibaldi (935 Washington Ave.), "it's the barbacoa I can't wait to get." He notes that just like in the States, everyone in Mexico, block by block, state by state, does barbacoa differently.
Here, the process is most commonly reproduced on stove tops. At Garibaldi, lamb is salted for one to two days ahead of cooking — this denatures the protein, producing a result that's gloriously tender. The lamb meat peels apart as easily as the bands of fat that lend a pleasant, permeating flavor. Chef/owner Castro is one of many Pueblan transplants who bring with them a specific region's predilection for barbacoa — most commonly lamb, as opposed to the north's noted preference for goat or the Yucatan's love of pork barbacoa.
"If it's too hot, we don't do it," says Luz Jimenez of Los Gallos (951 Wolf St.), while admitting that he can never stay away for too long, heat waves be damned. Though he temporarily suspended his weekend barbacoa special in early July, he'll make an exception for large takeout requests for his lamb barbacoa (one lamb's worth can serve 28 or more people). He still has customers coming in asking for the lamb tacos he serves with guacamole, rice, queso fresco, salsa verde and salsa roja. Don't worry, they'll be back in September.
At Los Taquitos de Puebla (1149 S. Ninth St.), the cooking starts long before you arrive to order their Sunday-only offering: three brimming lamb tacos served with a side of consommé. While steaming may sound contradictory to all things barbecue, think about anything you've ever thrown on a grill wrapped in foil — it's all about retaining flavor. To do that, owner Juan Carlos Romero pre-roasts the broad, thick leaves of maguey to ensure pliability — this enables him to snuggly seal the top of the pot with them, which ensures the lamb stays moist.
Romero breaks down whole lambs and mixes together chunks of meat from all their parts, many still retaining fatty caps for flavor. He cooks it in a giant pot for three to four hours on Saturday night. As the evening winds down, he clicks off the stove, allowing the lamb to sit perched in a personal sauna for the night. The taqueria's consommé is the end result of the water beneath the steam tray, loaded with bones and blessed with lamb drippings over the lengthy cooking process. Just a few spoonfuls over the barbacoa tacos creates a soaked-with-flavor tortilla that drips as you raise it to your mouth.
This soup would be stellar on its own, rivaling Vietnamese pho as a hangover elixir — a light smokiness from plump chipotles, chickpeas bobbing on the surface amid cilantro flotsam. Diced mild guajillo pepper lends a subtle note, as does a lone, lanky stalk of epazote, a Mexican herb that looks like scrawnier broccoli rabe.
At Plaza de Garibaldi, Castro does two versions of the soup. For his "white," he takes the barbacoa broth and adds oregano, ginger, onions, garlic, thyme, Mexican cinnamon and bay leaf and lets it boil until "the onions and garlic start to disappear" (he forgoes chickpeas, as he doesn't want to mute the lamb). For his "red," he does the same thing, but this time boils everything with the meat, drizzling in a guajillo sauce once the fat renders.
With either soup, a user manual for tapping into tradition is not necessary: Dip a taco in, pour it over top or have the soup separately if you'd like. "There's no wrong way to eat barbacoa," Castro laughs.
For barbacoa de chivo (goat), go to Acapulco (1144 S. Ninth St.), where a neon sign advertises their Saturday-and-Sunday specialty. While owner Olegario Tadeo uses the same stovetop technique as his neighbors, his marinade harkens back to his restaurant's namesake city in Southern Mexico — they prefer things spicier there, with bold guajillo flavor jumping out from both the goat meat and the consommé. Eating Acapulco's massive tacos, you get the full experience of meat and spices, as well as the earthy-yet-herbal flavor that comes from avocado leaves Tadeo steeps in his pot.
For another take on chivo, proceed a few feet up Ninth to — who would've thought? — Bella Pizza (1140 S. Ninth St.). In any other neighborhood, that name may fool you, but not in South Philly. Just take a look at all the Mexican specialties scribbled on the dry-erase board, then note the scant pizza offerings sitting sheepishly under a heat lamp, adjacent to a steamer down below. Manager Flora Rojas says they employ a mix of dry ancho peppers, roasted red peppers and pepper flakes, along with garlic and onions, for the restaurant's goat barbacoa, which simmers in its own fat for five hours. There is no attempt made to dampen the inherent gaminess of the meat, served up with rice dotted with beans and flavorful corn — you'll love every splash of the goat-y goodness.
Philly's love of barbacoa is underscored by the ordered-ahead pots constantly being hurried off to birthdays, weddings and anniversary parties within Philly's Mexican community. But "it doesn't have to be something major," Los Taquitos de Puebla's Romero points out. "A simple celebration," he says, is reason enough to call ahead. Given the hours evinced by each bite, I'd say let's go dig a hole, though thank God we don't have to.