If you’re talking barbeque, in America it all generally started in the late 1600s near what became Virginia. In Mexico, they were working on cooking meat using indirect heat before any foreign interlopers used “God’s will” and claimed ownership of the Americas. The foundation of this style of cooking is pre-Columbian, but at this point in central Mexico, the ingredients and processes are a multi-generational hybrid of historic and traditional Spanish, Arabic, and Mexican approaches. Today, they cook sheep, beef, or goat, but they don’t barbeque like we barbeque in the US. Here, they cook the slabs of meat for 13hrs in a pit/oven about a cubic meter in size dug into the ground and lined with rocks. When the meat is done, it tastes like you’re eating something elemental, like you’re eating your grandmother's pot roast made from cactus and the dirt of high desert earth. They make this everywhere in Mexico, and each restaurant and every family has its own recipe - they call it barbacoa. If you come to Mexico, you need to try this - you need to eat barbacoa. I know a place near here.
To be straight up fair, there’s a lot of barbacoa restaurants around, and it’s generally pretty damn good. But like any other better-built mousetrap, some businesses work better and last longer than others. I was honored to be the guest of the folks at Barbacoa de Miranda, a barbacoa roadside joint in Queretaro, a city with a great mix of very modern and very old culture and architecture about an hr southeast out of San Miguel, near the center of Mexico. The restaurant sits right next to the main highway to Mexico City, about three hrs. away.
The Fortanell family has been around Mexico since the end of the Mexican Revolution. Fifty+ years ago ángel Fortanell Diaz put a shack up in Queretaro and began making Barbacoa with 4-year-old sheep, using a recipe from his mother’s side. As the business grew, he bought an old farm site next to the dirt main road, and the current version of the business began. The fourth generation is now cooking barbacoa. Marcela Judith Fortanell Vega is the matriarch, but the business is clearly shared by the whole family. They’ve got about fifty people working for them, including multiple members of 15 other families who have been with them pretty much forever. The Barbacoa comes from their hearts. They treat their customers like family, and as you probably know, if it were a race, in Mexico, the family is in a photo finish with God.
Juanito is about 22 now. He’s been making barbacoa in the Smokehouse here since he was 10. He’s now in charge of the cooking pits, the belly of the beast. The Smokehouse is a burnt, charred, concrete structure with two rock-lined cooking pits in the center of a dirt floor and a huge manual metal vent covering the entire cooking area. It smells like 50 years of wood cooked lamb and grease. The entire barbacoa process takes 18 to 20 hours. They start the Mesquite fire in the rock-lined pit about 2:00 PM, the day before they serve the food. Around 5 PM that night, they start to organize the blazing hot oven. The Mesquite fire has burnt down to coals mixed with the volcanic basalt rocks that hold the heat. Maguey cactus leaves are spread over everything, even with the smokehouse floor. A giant open pot of chickpea and vegetable consommé sits on top of the maguey leaves and rocks. A grid is put over the consommé and then every single part of the sheep is piled around and on top of the oven and the pot. Everything is covered again with Maguey leaves. The leaves extinguish the intense fire and insulate the heat and smoke that will, overnight, penetrate the sheep and the soup, along with the flavors from the leaves. Nothing but the leaves, the heat, the wood, the rocks, and a few spices make up the mix. They cover everything in burlap sacks and then bury the entire lot of it in a mound of dirt about 30 cm/1ft thick and 3 feet high. As a final gesture, they use a thin 8 ft pole of wood and press the mark of The Cross into the top of the dirt mound to insure a blessing for the meal. At this point, God alone is in charge. Nobody else.
For 13 hrs the sheep steams in its own juices – cooked by an intensely soft heat from the pit oven. As the sheep begins to literally melt, the juices and grease drip into the pot of cosommé. Not exactly your low-fat vegan masterpiece this. I’m gonna guess that “stick to your ribs” is more than likely an old Mexican saying referring to barbacoa and what it does to you.
Barbacoa is principally a breakfast meal in Mexico, but it’s also served for lunch. Mexicans think Americans are, shall we say, misinformed, to make the last meal of the day a big heavy one. Call it one of the many “disadvantages of living in a first-world country” :-). At a minimum, they have a fair point to make here. Juanito and his team uncover the meat and transfer it to the restaurant from the smokehouse around 6 AM.
The basic barbacoa breakfast could not be more simple. Freshly made tortillas, fresh onions, fresh cilantro, fresh lime, fresh hand-made salsa, and ancient smoked meat that flows into your mouth, consumes an appetite and satisfies the morning. That’s it - perfection. Grab a Mexican Coke, real orange juice, coffee, and or a cold beer - you die and you go to heaven - at least for breakfast anyway. The first customers come to the restaurant around 7 AM, and on Saturday or Sunday, it’s an even bet a bunch of those first people are seriously hungover. Mexicans wrote the book on how to party, and Barbacoa is considered the perfect cure for any hangover. You eat this stuff, and everything bad goes away. As it should, everything good comes back and fills the space.
By 9:00 am, the place is packed with families and folks from all walks of life. Each of the two pit ovens can hold up to and around a ton of meat. On a good weekend alone, these guys will serve around 800 kilos of meat. You eat barbacoa and it could be argued you don’t need to eat again period, ever.
The Fortanell’s and their staff have a rhythm to the process. You can see it in how they move through the morning. There are customers everywhere. Nonstop conversation, people coming, people going and people eating. Each employee knows their role and how they fit into this dance. It's a food-based ballet. The only way this many people can pull this off is to know and respect where each person will be before that person actually gets there. Everyone going to the same destination. As I said, they’ve been at the process of making barbacoa for a bit. It’s in their common bloodline now. I spent some time with them and simply watched this whole process happen, and with their permission, I took a few photos. You’ll see what I mean. The customers come because that’s what you do in Mexico. You eat barbacoa in order to live another day.