Dressed with cilantro and onions, drizzled with salsa verde, sprinkled with salt and spritzed with lime: That’s how I like my tacos de barbacoa.
My mom adds a little more salsa and salt. My dad adds a little less.
We all drink coffee, prepared with a dash of cinnamon, with our tacos.
This is our Mexican family tradition: On Sundays, up to 10 of us get together once or twice a month over 2 pounds of barbacoa and a stack of warm corn tortillas. We call it breakfast, even though it’s technically lunchtime by the time everyone arrives.
I never questioned it until I started thinking about what we’re doing: I’m a 26-year-old guy eating shredded lamb with practically every family member I have. It’s not Christmas or Thanksgiving, it’s just the way my family catches up. Most families have a way to bond; ours is over barbacoa.
“Do all Mexican families eat barbacoa for breakfast on the weekends, or is it just us?” I asked my parents.
Eating barbacoa is a long-running tradition for Latino families all over North and Central America. José Ralat, a taco expert, explains that the origins of barbacoa can be traced back hundred of years to indigenous tribes in the 15th century.
Ralat is the food editor at Cowboys & Indians magazine, and he has a book on tacos coming out next year titled American Tacos: A History and Guide to the Taco Trail North of the Border (University of Texas Press). Ralat says barbacoa has roots in the Caribbean basin. Then it became popular in Mexico and now in Texas, especially near the border.
“Barbacoa refers to the preparation, not the meat,” Ralat explains. “You can make barbacoa out of anything.” Depending on where you’re from or where you buy it, barbacoa can be beef, pork or lamb.
Since I was a kid and into adulthood, the barbacoa was just there when I woke up on the weekends. If my family was hosting, we’d make the coffee, my uncle would bring the barbacoa and another uncle would bring Cokes or beers. No one ever cooks. We always pick it up from somewhere, but I had never known from where.
On a recent Sunday morning, it was my turn to pick it up for the first time. My mom had already placed the order; I just needed to drive over and get it.
“But what do I do?” I asked my mom. “What do I ask for?”
“Just tell the lady you’re there for 2 pounds of barbacoa,” my mom said.
“Is it under your name?”
“No. She’ll know what you’re there for. If they don’t know which order it is, just tell them I’m the lady who asked for extra tortillas.”
When I arrived at Cilantros Taqueria in far north Dallas, where Dallas meets Richardson, I understood why my mom had placed an order two hours ahead. There was a line about seven people deep waiting to order. You wouldn’t expect such a crowd for a hole-in-the-wall inside of a convenience store wedged between a laundromat and a Mexican food store.
Because barbacoa is slow-cooked for about six to eight hours, it’s not available every day at most Mexican restaurants -- not the good joints, at least. In Latino circles, barbacoa is a speciality meat, only available on the weekends.
As I was waiting for my order, I wanted to ask Esperanza Gonzales, the owner of Cilantros, about the process of making barbacoa. But she was too busy taking orders and prepping dishes. I got a quicker version: that dozens and dozens of people order barbacoa on the weekends.
Our barbacoa was served in a Styrofoam box with chopped cilantro, diced onions, tortillas and tiny containers filled with salsa verde and salsa roja.
These family get-togethers are steeped in tradition, running decades long from when my family lived in Mexico. As a kid, if we had barbacoa on a Saturday, that usually meant our morning meal was followed by rec league soccer games in the afternoon. If we ate barbacoa on a Sunday, breakfast was followed by watching Mexican league soccer match at noon featuring my dad’s alma mater, Pumas UNAM. In the fall, barbacoa breakfast was often followed by football of the American variety -- ideally, an early game for the Dallas Cowboys (my uncles’ favorite team).
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that these breakfasts are a lot more than just eating meat. They’re weekend reunions, an opportunity to talk about our week or chat about the week ahead. It’s a time for questions like: How’s school going? Work? Did you watch that thing on TV this week? As we slow down to catch up on the things we might have been too busy for during the week, we also slow down to savor a special meal.
We could just have huevos con frijoles (eggs and beans) or chilaquiles. But those are foods we often eat during the week; barbacoa is reserved especially for the weekend.
We save other foods for celebrations. Like most Hispanic families and even some Texans, we eat tamales during the holidays. When it’s cold around Christmas or New Years, my mom cooks spicy posole. And we enjoy carne asada cookouts on summer birthdays and on holidays like the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.
But barbacoa is perfect all year long -- served best with generous amounts of diced onions and cilantro, salsa verde, a dash of salt, some lime. And family.
Other popular Mexican dishes
PozoleA soup made with hominy (coarsely ground corn) and meat (usually pork)
Most popular during... the holiday season or anytime it’s cold
Best with... shredded cabbage, radishes and lime
TamalesMasa, or dough, steamed in a corn husk and usually filled with pork, beans or chicken
Most popular during... the holiday season
Best with... nothing; they’re perfect as is. However, Tex-Mex restaurants will typically offer sauces like chili con carne or sour cream to drizzle on top.
MenudoA soup made from tripe (beef stomach), typically only served at restaurants on weekends
Most popular during... the holidays and/or morning hangovers
Best with... hominy, lime, onions and cilantro
Carne asadaGrilled beef
Most popular during... summer cookouts
Best with... a corn tortilla to make it a taco: onions, cilantro, lime and salsa
CaldoA soup, usually made with chicken or beef, and vegetables like carrots, potatoes and celery
Most popular during... the wintertime, though Mexican mothers believe caldo is served best on hot summer days
Best with... plenty of lime and rice