Mexico City has always been one of my favorite places to travel to. The variety of foods that one can find there is endless. I’ve had many great restaurant experiences in Mexico City, but my personal favorite had to be at El Hidalguense, known for its delicate, slow cooked barbacoa de borrego.
The History of Barbacoa in Mexico
Barbacoa is an ancient cooking method that utilizes cooking underground in well or pit. Large logs of wood are lit up and then placed underground for hours to heat the underground, earthen oven. Once the underground oven has gathered enough heat from the fire, lamb meat that has been cut into large quarters and wrapped in the leaves of the maguey plant (the same plant that provides us with pulque and mezcal) is placed inside.
A large cauldron used to gather the meat drippings and provide steam for cooking is placed below the wrapped meat. The underground oven is then sealed shut and allowed to cook for anywhere from 8 to 16 hours, depending on the chef’s preference. When the meat is finally taken out of the underground oven, it arrives with an impeccably soft texture and a rich flavor from the combination of lamb fat, spices, herbs, and the maguey leaves themselves.
The cooking method associated with barbacoa originated during the Mayan era, and was called pib. During the pre-Colombian era, the Mayans utilized the meat of pheasants, deer, and peccaries (native North American warthogs). Pigs, sheep, cattle, and goats had not been introduced to the Americas yet. Though the Mayans disappeared by AD 900, other native cultures absorbed this cooking method.
The arrival of the Spaniards brought disease, proselytizing, and bloodshed. However, one of the bright spots of their arrival is the introduction of goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle. From there, lamb soon become an integral part of barbacoa, and barbacoa de borrego was born.
El Hidalguense, located in the colonia Roma district of Mexico City, has been making barbacoa this way for decades, and is widely known for having the best barbacoa de borrego in town. I joke that it’s Mexico City’s worst kept secret. In fact, El Hidalguense was highlighted in the Netflix Documentary Crónicas del Taco (The Taco Chronicles). I’d highly recommend watching it to get an inside view of the restaurant and what goes into making their famous barbacoa.
The actual process of making this barbacoa starts not in Mexico City, but instead at a farm about 75 miles away in Tulancingo, Hidalgo. Owner and chef proprietor Moisés Rodriguez runs a family operation, in which each member is in charge of a different aspect of the barbacoa process: livestock feed, maguey leaves, firewood, butchering, preparing the underground oven, and so on. Moisés starts the process by feeding his sheep a diet of straw, alfalfa, grass, and oats (for rumination) combined with rolled corn, wheat, sorghum, barley (for digestion).
Wood is dried for 5 years for better combustion. Once the oven is ready, it is lined completely with the pencas de maguey (maguey leaves) and checked to ensure that there are no gaps where steam could leak out. Then a large cauldron is placed on the bottom with the following ingredients in it: garbanzo beans, chile guajillo, rice, garlic, onion, epazote (a Mexican herb), and water. This is used both to provide steam to cook the lamb above it, and to catch the meat drippings for the consomé.
After the cauldron is placed, and the wrapped meat set above it to steam, the pencas de maguey are closed in a flower shape to maximize volume and ensure a tight seal. The hole is then topped with a lid and mud is placed around the edges to further safeguard against steam leaking out while cooking. Lastly, earth is shoveled onto the lid for complete closure.
The barbacoa is then left to cook all night long. Because of the laborious process and early morning finish time, barbacoa is generally only sold weekend mornings (in the case of El Hidalguense: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays), and can run out by afternoon or even noon, depending on the locale. In Hidalgo, barbacoa is traditionally a festive plate reserved for special occasions, which is how the tradition of vendors driving into Mexico City to sell their barbacoa came about.
From their family farm in Tulancingo, the staff at El Hidalguense then drive the finished barbacoa to their restaurant in Mexico City. Moisés serves the barbacoa and his wife makes the salsa. The meat comes out so soft and delicate that it can be taken cleanly off the bone with bare hands. The meat is actually softer than the tortilla it’s eaten on.
What to Order
In a similar fashion to the way one orders carnitas at a restaurant, you can order whichever piece of the animal that you’d like to eat, by the kilo, if needed. Ribs, leg quarters, cheeks, heart, you name it. In fact, one of the most popular cuts to order is the panza, which is the stomach. In the case of barbacoa, the stomach is filled with the ground intestines and viscera of the lamb, along with a healthy portion of herbs and spices, and then sewn shut with cooking thread. It’s kind of like a Mexican haggis, but even more flavorful.
My three favorite tacos to order are: rib meat, the aforementioned panza, and surtido (which is a little of everything). You can also order a taco campechano (a combination of any two cuts) as well. The tacos arrive in a hand made blue corn tortilla. These tacos are to die for, and are complimented even further by the many house salsas that they have on hand such as salsa roja, salsa verde, salsa borracha (with pulque in it), and even a salsa with chinicuiles in it.
You may be wondering to yourself, “what are chinicuiles?” Chinicuiles are known as “red maguey worms” in English. They reproduce within the roots of the maguey plant and are technically not worms, rather they are the larvae of a maguey moth (Comadia Redtenbacheri, to be exact). You may have seen their larger, whiter colored cousins inside bottles of mezcal, or even on extreme food shows, in attempt to gross you out.
The plain truth is that both varieties of these larvae taste great. You can order both types at El Hidalguense, though my preference is for chinicuiles, which in my opinion have an even better, more meat-like taste, in addition to a bigger crunch factor.
El Hidalguense also serves escamoles, which are ant eggs, or as locals call them, “Mexican caviar.” Escamoles look like slippery, wet, pine nuts at first appearance. You wouldn’t even think of them being ant eggs. With a rich, buttery taste, I can see why locals consider them a delicacy. They are priced accordingly, as gathering these specific ant eggs is labor intensive.
A Consomé with No Equal
If you’re not into eating bugs, stick to eating barbacoa de borrego. However, if you’d like to venture beyond that, El Hidalguense has a full menu of other dishes such as mixiotes, quesadillas, enmoladas, and much more. Whatever you order, I recommend that you always leave room for their consomé, which has no equal. It’s some of the best broth that I’ve had on this planet.
Did I mention that they have their own pulque? From the same maguey plants that provide the pencas de maguey for cooking their barbacoa, pulque is fermented. Each plant takes about 15 years of cultivation. The inner core is scraped, then covered (to prevent drunken animal intrusions), and left to ferment.
After gathering about 250 liters of pulque from the plant within a 3 month period, the plant then approaches its expiration date. This is the point in which its leaves are used for barbacoa de borrego. Nothing is left to waste. El Hidalguense also serves an excellent selection of mezcal varieties, each of which is served to you with oranges topped with sal de gusano (maguey worm salt).
If you’re looking for quite possibly the best barbacoa de borrego that you’ve ever had in your life, my advice would be to take a trip to Mexico City and stop by El Hidalguense. It’s the epitome of farm to table cooking, without even advertising it as such. The rich flavors of the food are matched only by the meticulous detail put into making it.
El Hidalguense is open from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.