In the late summer and early fall of 2020, I spent nearly two months traveling up and down the state in search of California’s Barbacoa Trail, a concrete patchwork of undisclosed pits and distinct communities linked by heritage and fire. Through a collection of restaurants, street stands, food trucks, and residential backyards, I explored the state’s diverse regional styles of Mexico’s pit-roasted meat tradition known as barbacoa. Preparations vary by meat (usually goat or lamb), seasonings, and — just as importantly — a panoply of accompanying dishes. While most of these operations are open to the public, they are built to primarily feed their communities, and some remain politely closed to outsiders. If you long to follow the trail yourself, be respectful of these communities and their traditions. And come hungry.
Hidden under a lemon yellow tarp in the parking lot of an old print shop, just a half block south of Slauson Avenue’s frenetic street food corridor of taco trucks and grilled chicken stands, is indisputable proof that Los Angeles is one of the best places on earth for barbacoa, Mexico’s pit-roasted meat tradition. Called Taxco Gro., the humming street stand features a style that’s uncommon even in Mexico and is almost exclusively known by those from the city of Taxco de Alarcón, in the state of Guerrero. And yet here it is, just a few miles south of LA’s trendy Arts District, with a line of customers at 8 a.m.
The stand’s barbacoyero — the Mexican equivalent of the pitmaster — is Julio Jaimes, a former Mexico City police officer who learned Taxco-style barbacoa de chivo (goat barbacoa) from his wife, Micaela, and then took over the business himself. “My wife got tired of it, but I’m a fan of the process,” says Jaimes.
The process he’s talking about is barbacoa: an ancestral Mexican cooking technique of wrapping meat in leaves — often maguey — stacking it over a wood fire, and cooking it slowly in an underground pit oven lined with yet more leaves. A stockpot is tucked beneath to catch the drippings for what eventually becomes a rich consomé, which you sip alongside tacos filled with the slow-cooked barbacoa meat for what’s indisputably Mexico’s most celebrated weekend breakfast. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on the method, and they aren’t just regional — they’re micro-regional.
Before Europeans conquered what is now Mexico in the early 16th century, barbacoa featured Indigenous proteins like iguana, deer, and armadillo; today, it’s mostly lamb and goat in the Mexican Central Plateau, beef head in the north, and pork for cochinita pibil in the Yucatán. Whatever the meat, it’s usually seasoned simply with salt or rubbed in adobo (a pungent marinade of dried chiles, herbs, spices, and acid). More often than not, there are other items in the cook, too — pancita (taut pouches of offal-stuffed stomach), mixiotes (packets of seasoned meat wrapped in leaves or parchment), and whole heads — that are considered key parts of barbacoa and ooze with the primal essence of the pit.
Jaimes cooks multiple meats, but his specialty is goat barbacoa, a nod to the Taxco-born customers who come at dawn for delicacies like consomé con pata (consomme with goat foot) with fresh goat marrow scooped straight from the bone to the bowl and eaten with corn tortillas. There are also other favorites from the Taxco bill of fare like chopped sesos (goat brains) and sweet, fragrant pancita that’s slathered in the same brick red adobo that dresses the cuts of juicy roasted goat meat.
Barbacoa is almost exclusively eaten on weekend mornings or for large celebrations in barbacoa regions. It’s less of a meal than it is an event — an early gathering of friends, family, and coworkers who linger and chat over piles of ancestral foods. By 10 a.m. at Taxco Gro., most traces of the goat delicacies have been stripped off the bone and devoured by regulars in the know, as the fattier scent of the more fashionable lamb takes over. The best cuts go to the ones who arrive early.
Jaimes’s barbacoa represents one regional style — in this case, Taxco style — among a panoply of hyper-local barbacoa variations that originated across Mexico. When we’re talking about regional variations of barbacoa, we’re often talking less about the meat itself and more about the accompanying dishes and accoutrements. Like the base model of a new car, the style is in the options and the aftermarket parts. The innard dishes, stews, and local antojitos (small snacks) that adorn the menu alongside the smoky lamb or goat are what signal a barbacoyero’s particular hometown. Same goes for the different chiles used in salsas and adobos or the spread of condiments on hand to finish each bite.
This is, of course, a generalization. Many American food writers tend to get hung up on these types of broad truths about regional Mexican cooking — how in one state the consomé always features chipotle, say, or how in another they always make quesadillas with the lamb’s sweetbreads. But these are false dogmas, and clinging to them as metrics of authenticity diminishes the creative contributions of the barbacoa masters themselves while erasing small-town conventions. Yes, most recipes follow a local tradition, but they can also be highly personal, and the individual cooks who have carried these intricate recipes through the generations have more than enough authority to break the rules.
There is one thing we can confidently say is true: No matter the style or regional touchstone, all barbacoa eventually gets eaten as tacos. It usually begins with a warm corn tortilla filled with the meat of your choice and dressed with any number of salsas, sauces, herbs, and other garnishes. At the central market in the Mexican city of Texcoco, women carry large flat baskets loaded with plastic cups of salsa, guacamole, doble crema (a rich cream cheese), cactus salad, roasted grubs, and fava beans — ready to rush your table the minute the barbacoa arrives. Here in LA, you’ll often find a lineup of small containers holding everything from quelites, the term for any sort of wild herby greens like pápaloquelite or pipicha; cilantro and onions; salsas of infinite hues — red, green, drunken, dark, and smoky — and if you’re lucky, even crushed insects like chinicuiles or gusanos. A second taco might include some pancita pinched with a tortilla and spooned with salsa, or whatever other special offerings emerge from the pit: mixiotes, skulls, blood sausage, or a shank. And, of course, there’s always a cup of potent consomé for sipping on the side.
My own first experience with barbacoa came relatively late in life, as an adult. I’m what you’d call a pocho — a Central Valley-born Mexican American who grew up neither here nor there — and I came to know the dishes and techniques of barbacoa through a handful of popular spots around Southern California, Tijuana, and Mexico City. Later, my career as a touring musician and food writer gave me the chance to eat my way across Mexico, where I encountered a mind-boggling range of cooking traditions, including seemingly endless styles of pit-cooked meat. But while I’ve now sampled the very best of Mexico’s barbacoa towns, I’ve repeatedly found myself equally excited by my finds right here in California. After 15 years of exploring food more or less for a living, I continue to giddily stumble upon hyper-regional practices specific to small Mexican towns and Indigenous communities in suburban backyards and Sunday-only street stands across the state. I’m repeatedly floored by deft barbacoyeros like Jaimes, who are eager to show off the flavors of their pueblos thousands of miles from home. There are, it seems, infinite permutations of barbacoa to try throughout my home state.
This, then, is the beginning of a journey — a series of smoke-filled road trips up and down California’s highways to explore the vast range of local barbacoa. It’s a quest that, in itself, is a bit like a slow underground cook, carefully peeling layer after layer of charred maguey spines to prove my thesis: that California has a hidden barbacoa trail cut by waves of immigration, a unique collection of recipes, cooks, street stands, backyards, and restaurants that could never exist in any one Mexican state but by some delicious miracle, you’ll find commingling here in the Golden State. And it all begins in Los Angeles, which happens to be the best place outside of Mexico to expand your barbacoa palate.
It’s been argued that the second-largest city in Mexico is, in fact, Los Angeles. Despite its well-earned reputation for standstill traffic, LA is a fast town.
For most Angelenos, life here is an all-out, back-breaking, odd-jobbing hustle — there’s a word for this in Spanish, chambeando — and the hardest hustlers in town are the ones who are often the least rewarded. Immigrants from Mexico represent 13 percent of the population of LA County — nearly 2 million people all told — and 64 percent of all LA Latinos are in the local labor force in one way or another. They hail from almost every village, city, and town within every region within every state in Mexico. These immigrants are the ones disproportionately churning through their days at construction sites, in sweatshops, in factories, in restaurant kitchens, and in hotel bowels — gutting it out Monday through Friday (at the least) with their eyes and appetites set on one thing: the weekend, and the foods that go with it.
In some cities, weekends are marked by the smell of fresh-cut turf and old books, of fried chicken and Sunday gravy. In Mexican-American communities across LA, weekends are ushered in with the thick oily scent of barbacoa, an aroma so dense it seems to slow the very pace of life. It’s not just barbacoa, of course — there are other weekend-only Mexican specialties too, like birria de chivo for Tapatíos, and mariscos con banda for sinaloenses and nayaritas. But for large swaths of people from central and parts of southern Mexico, barbacoa, usually lamb or goat, is how you begin the weekend, alongside neighbors, paisas, and all the squinty-eyed ramblers seeking a cure for last night.
At 8 a.m. on any given Sunday, gathered under tarps, along curbsides, and in backyards, you’ll find thousands of Mexicans who worked their bodies to the brink all week but have managed to get up at dawn for the chance to eat alongside friends and family. The cook? They’ve been up for hours already. A few miles across town in the cushy homes and apartments of Silver Lake or Malibu, a very different kind of Angeleno won’t roll out for their boozy brunch till noon. For them — but more importantly, for the droves of immigrant workers who can’t afford the luxury of a weekend off — there’s also the uniquely LA phenomenon of barbacoa for dinner. That’s sacrilege in Mexico, but it’s hard to survive on two morning’s worth of income a week in a town like Los Angeles, so the barbacoyeros here do what immigrants have done for centuries: They adapt.
Within the 25,806 square miles of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange counties, you can feast on regional barbacoa traditions from the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Estado de México, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, Puebla, and more, perhaps, counting subregions. There’s chivo blanco, or white goat barbacoa tacos from Tlacotepec, Puebla, in East LA. Twenty minutes away in Baldwin Park, it’s Tepeaca-style lamb barbacoa tacos with mole de panza enchilada (lamb menudo). You’ll find lamb in adobo from Texcoco in Commerce, and at Compton’s open-air Restaurant Onofre, the tacos de pancita blanca (white pancita) draw a Morelos crowd. There’s even the rare steamed lamb barbacoa from Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte at Poncho’s Tlayudas. It would not be overselling to say that there are more styles of barbacoa crammed together in the city of Los Angeles than in the very capital of Mexico, CDMX. You just have to know where to look.
Leaving Jaimes and his Taxco-style feasts in South LA, I head up the ever-widening 110 freeway to the 10 west — whizzing (on a good day) past Hidalgo-style barbacoa carts and the Adams-Normandie collection of Capulhuac-style barbacoa trucks and backyard stands — all the way to Arlington Heights, one of LA’s handful of Oaxacan enclaves. There’s a term that’s used to reflect the unique cultural overlap of Indigenous Oaxacans and their adopted home of Southern California — Oaxacalifornia. It’s a word invented by Oaxacans to describe transnational relationships between Oaxacan villages and their Indigenous cultures represented in barrios across California, and it permeates every inch of the Arlington Heights restaurant known as Gish Bac.
Gish Bac is peak Oaxacalifornia. Here, dressed in a chef’s jacket and toque behind a line of giant stockpots, is where you’ll find María Ramos, a third-generation barbacoyera and bona fide Oaxacalifornia legend from Oaxaca’s famed Mercado de Tlacolula. In the native Zapotec language, “Gish Bac’’ translates to “our town of Tlacolula,” which is a village in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales, and the menu spotlight’s the region’s renowned gastronomy. On red-and-white zapoteco patterned tablecloths, you’ll find dishes like barbacoa enchilada, steamed goat meat rubbed in smoky adobo and served swimming in the bright red consomé. Ramos also makes excellent barbacoa blanca, the Tlacolula version of lamb barbacoa that’s seasoned with just salt and pepper, and pancita that’s steamed, uncased.
In Tlacolula, barbacoa is a matriarchal dominion where traditional cooks partially fill a stockpot with water and seasoning for the consomé, cover it with a grate, then add layers of avocado leaves to support large pieces of goat slathered in a fruity adobo. More leaves are added, then the whole pot is steamed in an earthen pit — this is a one-pot cook. Like its namesake, Gish Bac also uses a large pot in which Ramos inserts a fitted grate and stacks the meat like a cathedral dome of flesh and bones. Here, the whole pot is covered in avocado leaves and sealed with oven wrap to trap the juices before it’s subjected to hours of slow steaming.
Seated at one of the small tables on Gish Bac’s covered patio lined with tropical plants, I tear off a piece of the large, hand-pressed corn tortilla called a blandita and plunge it into a bowl of Ramos’s pungent consomé. Pinching off a morsel of tender goat meat, I dunk it several times to ensure a thorough coat of the auburn-hued broth seasoned with dried chiles, cloves, and any number of other ancestral secrets passed down to Ramos. One bite is transportive; two and I’m gone, lost somewhere in a fog of aromatic bliss.
“This the only Oaxacan restaurant I ever go to,” says José Ruiz, a craft vendor at LA’s annual Feria de Tejate, a celebration of the pre-Hispanic drink of cacao and maize, where Gish Bac is a frequent vendor and organizer. “For me, she is the only one that makes barbacoa enchilada like the original,” he says of Ramos. Like many Oaxacan-born Angelenos, Ruiz can likely enjoy Oaxacan staples like memelas and molotes at home, made by his mother, aunts, and grandmother. For barbacoa, though, he goes to a specialist — someone who’s been bestowed with a sacred recipe honed by generations of traditional cooks. “It’s not a recipe,” says Maria’s husband, David Ramos. “It’s our heritage.”
As I drop down to the 10 via Crenshaw, it’s due east 30 minutes to the San Gabriel Valley, known for its regional Chinese restaurants and, for many Mexicans anyway, its vibrant underground taquería scene. I arrive at a Baldwin Park home where, in her backyard, Petra Zavaleta channels her heritage by practicing the art of barbacoa that she learned from her father in Tepeaca, Puebla — Oaxaca’s neighbor — where lamb is king. Walking up the driveway reveals a dry-erase-board menu and the silhouette of Zavaleta chopping barbacoa orders with a large, heavy cleaver while her husband runs the register. Arrive early enough and you’ll see steam still rising from the in-ground pit.
The cook here is a group affair — it takes multiple people to tackle the pinkish lamb barbacoa cuts and the whole lamb skulls that regulars eagerly dismember to extract the precious tongue, eyeballs, and cheeks. (Zavaleta graciously offers to crack the forehead so I can get at the brains.) I take my order and fold it all in a large corn tortilla along with pipicha (a cilantro-like herb) and a dark red salsa. And while consomé is a must at any barbacoa stand, the dish I’m here for is the mole de panza, a dark red menudo of diced lamb liver, stomach, and tendon that dissolves into bites of gelatinous softness. Zavaleta’s nine-hour cook in an underground pit, as well as her dense menu of dishes from Tepeaca, is a remarkable commitment, even in a barbacoa haven like LA.
When Zavaleta started her business in 2016, her son Delfino Rodríguez had the idea to split the word “barbacoa” and combine it with “kush,” the name of an indica strain of marijuana. “For weed smokers, kush stands for quality,” says Rodríguez, who hoped the niche branding of Barba Kush would help get younger people interested in barbacoa. It worked — within three years of opening, Barba Kush had a brick-and-mortar in the quickly gentrifying Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The pandemic forced its closure a year later, but today you can still find Zavaleta, in her Baldwin Park backyard pop-up, serving mole de panza and tacos and quesadillas de barbacoa to a mixed crowd of hipsters, Latinos, and homesick Pueblans.
As the sun begins to dip, I cruise farther south, down the 5 freeway toward the city of Commerce and possibly one of Southern California’s most famous barbacoa practitioners, Aqui es Texcoco. As I said before, only in Los Angeles can you eat barbacoa for dinner. “If I want to pay my bills, I have to sell barbacoa all day long,” says barbacoyero Paco Pérez, who helped establish the all-day barbacoa restaurant as a viable model.
Pérez first learned Texcoco-style barbacoa from his uncle but left the business to study and work as an engineer in Spain. “Later on, I moved back to Tijuana to coordinate on an engineering project but found myself more and more drawn back to barbacoa,” says Pérez. “I just couldn’t get it out of my system.” He eventually used his engineering skills to design his own oven that closely replicates the underground conditions of pit roasting. “It’s the best solution for a business that’s selling barbacoa in a restaurant every day,” says Pérez, explaining that the demands of an underground pit would have been unsustainable. His oven “produces a much better result than using a regular oven,” he says.
At 49, Pérez and his family now run three branches of Aqui es Texcoco — the original just across the border in Tijuana, one in the San Diego town of Chula Vista, and this one in the City of Commerce, an area dominated by office buildings, the Commerce Casino, and the towering fortress-like outlet mall, the Citadel. Texcoco is one of the most esteemed cities in Mexico for barbacoa, known for its more austere style in which only the pancita is rubbed in adobo. For the rest, whole lambs are seasoned simply with salt and cooked in an underground pit along with pancita, mixiotes, and whole lamb skulls. Pérez’s menu strays a little to accommodate diverse, all-day diners, and it includes antojitos and Tijuana-style quesatacos (tacos with fried cheese), but the pale pink hue of the lamb is evidence of Pérez’s talents as a barbacoyero.
The Commerce branch of Aqui es Texcoco looks a bit like a remodeled Marie Callender’s, but with lamb skulls as decor. It’s late afternoon, and patrons are knocking back boozy pulques curados (cured pulque) with spreads of mixiotes, tearing tongue and cheek meat off lamb skulls and rolling tacos of pancita enchilada. At another table, diners stuff Texcoco-style lamb barbacoa into puffy rounds of pita bread with a cool yogurt and dill salsa, a noteworthy accommodation Pérez made to lure in lamb-loving Middle Eastern customers outside the traditional barbacoa hours. I sit down and order the ribs, served whole, and tear at the jiggling lamb meat slipping off the bone with a corn tortilla. After acquiring a taco’s worth of meat, I add a little bit of pápalo, a sharp herb also known as summer cilantro, and pulque-spiked salsa borracha, reveling in the tender meat with each bite and each lamb-scented breath in between.
The following weekend, I pull over in front of a rusty pickup camper parked in front of a home in an East LA residential neighborhood where, out of a small window, Javier Ramírez sells chivo blanco, or adobo-less goat barbacoa that’s seasoned with salt.
Ramírez’s barbacoa tradition is from Tlacotepec de Benito Juárez, Puebla, a small town to the southeast of Puebla de Zaragoza, the state’s capital city. Ramírez’s hometown isn’t far from Tepeaca, where Petra Zavalata of Barba Kush comes from, but their cooks couldn’t be more different. The consomé at Ramirez’s Barbacoa Puebla features garbanzos, carrots, fresh epazote, and a little adobo for flavor; it’s a bright, piquant foil for the natural, lean goat barbacoa meat that’s cooked in his underground pit. Goat barbacoa has become one of my favorites, and coming here is a beloved new ritual whenever I find myself with a rare slow weekend.
After I place my order at the back of the pickup, my attention turns toward some local gardeners crouched on the sidewalk over a pile of tacos and a few Modelos they’ve brought from home. “It’s been a long week, and we deserve a beer — so do you!” one of them says to me, and hands me an ice cold can of Modelo. This is Mexican life on weekend mornings in neighborhoods all over the greater Los Angeles area, where communities from across Mexico come together to share their food, their culture, and conversation. Today it’s a relatively quiet crowd, with chatter barely audible above the measured chopping of a cleaver on a cutting board and the creaking of tortilla presses. Regulars bring newbies, itching to show off the flavors of their hometown over sacred meals that are as slow-paced as the cook itself. We take this time to raise a can to the pinche LA hustle and smile defiantly when it doesn’t toast back. Finishing my plate, I wave goodbye to the taquero and send a friendly nod to my fellow weekend revelers, still eating, faces obscured by steam rising from hot bowls of consomé. “Provecho,” I shout, deliriously full, and head off to my next stop.
There’s a barbacoa for every Mexican community in Los Angeles. Even if your particular town or state isn’t represented, there’s a stand close enough that will happily adopt you. These shared mornings on picnic benches, on plastic stools, and in wooden booths bring us together as Angelenos through food, in ways that Mexicans in Texcoco, Tlacolula, and Taxco might not ever experience, while Mexican Americans like myself connect with our heritage one taco at a time. Dishes such as barbacoa are an integral part of the immigrant experience for Mexicans — their just reward for making the perilous journey north to find work, family, and community. Buried in earthen pits underneath Los Angeles — beneath the whole state — it’s there, just waiting to be dug up, rolled into tortillas, and devoured. Let’s go get it.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.