El Borrego restraunt in City Hieghts.
El Borrego restraunt in City Hieghts.

Authentic barbecue cooked to perfection

“Barbacoa,” Spanish for barbecue, is a popular type of Mexican cuisine enjoyed throughout it’s native land.  It is only available at true artisan barbacoa restaurants dedicated to the traditional preparation of good Mexican barbecue.

The American word “barbecue” came from the word barbacoa, and like American barbecue, the term refers the style of cooking and not the dish. For example, barbecue food could be chicken, pork, ribs or any other meat, as long as it’s cooked on a grill and smothered in a hickory smoked ketchup.

In Mexico, and specialized barbacoa restaurants, a whole lamb is slow roasted or braised in its own juices for up to 8 hours.

Two local restaurants that offer great barbacoa are El Borrego in City Heights and Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista. They both offer fresh  barbecued lamb done right, Mexican style.

Lamb cooked barbacoa style is roasted whole, either underground or in an enclosed oven built to keep in the heat and steam. This process helps the lamb retain its juices, oils and flavors.  An ancient style of cooking, the meat turns out rich, juicy, and with lamb you can expect it to taste gamey with strong, distinct flavors; succulent but not overpowering.  It certainly does not taste like chicken.

“The owner, Paco, is doing magical work there,” said Andrew Zimmerman, a famous food critic, during his visit to Texcoco.  On the San Diego episode of  his television show, Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods”  he ranked his 5 favorite places to visit in the city. To put things into perspective, Sea World was number 5, and Texcoco was number 2.

Aside from the barbacoa, which you can order by the kilo at these restaurants, they also offer other authentic dishes.One such dish, mixiote, is lamb shank braised in maguey leaves and served with the bone left in. The meat is so tender that a spoon would work fine as the “carne,” or meat, literally slides off the bone, melting in your mouth.

And for all the vegetarians, there are options for you as well.  El Borrego offers diced “ensalada de nopales,” a cactus salad, and both restaurants have quesadillas that you may not be too familiar with.  One quesadilla is made with melted Mexican cheese, poblano chile, and zucchini blossoms, the flower that blooms out of a zucchini in the ground.

Another quesadilla has Mexican cheese and “huitlacoche,” a fungus that infects corn crops and was termed by Americans as “corn smut,” a term that could have something to do with it not being part of our diet.  A rich, earthy flavor comparable to truffles, it is considered a delicacy throughout Mexico. It can take a little getting used to, but I still recommend it.  There have even been attempts by American farmers and chefs to adopt the consumption of huitalcoche into American diet, but to no avail. And with a name like corn smut, it’s no surprise.

If you love lamb, and you have not tried barbacoa, you are missing out on a world of lamb preparation that has been mastered over thousands of years. It’s a chance to eat food from a part of Mexico that does not exist in taco shops and by eating this food you may just better understand a part of the country that many San Diegans are oblivious to.

After recently visiting a Chipotle I shrieked when I noticed barbacoa was listed on the menu. I asked the man on the taco assembly line what the barbacoa was and what it was made of. His response? “Oh the barbacoa is just shredded beef.” I exhaled in relief.  They are owned by McDonalds after all, last thing we want is freeze dried lamb.

If you want the real stuff, try Aqui es Texcoco or El Borrego  In fact, according to their website, Aqui es Texcoco is one of only five restaurants in San Diego to be recognized by the Federal Government of Mexico as an authentic Mexican restaurant.

I’ve yet to find the other four, but I thought that having the Mexican government recognize anything in San Diego as “authentically Mexican” shows that they are as serious about the preservation and availability of their food and culture in San Diego as I am, hopefully more.

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Authentic barbecue cooked to perfection