Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo Masters Real Slow Food
If you want to eat authentic Mexican food, certain aesthetic concessions may be required. The heart and soul of Mexican cooking is built on ground corn and guts. And while some restaurants put up a quaint facade and a freshly painted dining room, if you want to find the best taquerias in town, you'll have to endure a little grit more often than not.
That's how it is with Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo. The orange and yellow lettering marking the dingy, cream-colored building is the only breath of color against the neighboring industrial landscape. A body shop sits just north of the taqueria, belching the smell of wet auto paint into the air, and to the south a salvage business is home to stray dogs and trucks full of commercial scrap.
This is where owner Raymundo Sanchez roasts lambs served in freshly made tortillas to his predominantly Latino customers. His southern Dallas restaurant, located on a dusty terminus of Lake June Road, just off C.F. Hawn Freeway, is cobbled together inside an old print shop and has been serving barbacoa de borrego for the past 12 years.
It's not a welcoming entrance. Metal mesh chokes out any light that might seep through a single front window, and cars often obscure the doorway. But as soon as you walk through the steel front door you know you're in the right place. It's not the bright orange paint on the walls or the sunny yellow sign offering barbacoa, pancita and tamales that reassures you. It's the slightly gamey and robust scent of roasted lamb and toasting masa.
Pop open a bottled drink from the reach-in at the back of the dining room and have a seat at any of the open spaces at the communal picnic tables that fill the dining room. Families sharing a weekend meal from a Sterno-heated chafing dish of simmering meat will surround many of the tables, but you can always find an open space. And you're about to eat very well.
Sanchez doesn't sell diminutive street-style tacos you order five at a time. Tucked inside his freshly made, massive and bready corn tortillas is enough roasted lamb to make you question where tacos end and burritos begin. Order two, three if you're starving, and follow these steps as though one of the more interesting meals of your life depends on it. (It really may.)
Open up your taco and start with a measured sprinkle of salt. The food here is cautiously seasoned more often than not. Next, grab half a lime from the bowl on your table and cast away all restraint — hold it in your fist above your taco and make it rain. With tacos like these, it's almost impossible to abuse the fruit.
Add chopped cilantro and onion and don't let a fear of heat govern your salsa use — neither of them here is excessively spicy. Choose the verde for its acidic brightness or the red one for its subtle warmth, smoke and earth. Both are made at the restaurant. So is everything else you're eating.
I asked Sanchez how he cooked the lamb and he waved me back behind the counter, through a small door and into his labyrinth of a kitchen. Through several disjointed rooms and hallways we walked past two tortilla machines for pressing flour and corn rounds, a sink filled with chunks of raw beef tripe soaking with limes, a band saw used for butchery and several refrigerator doors. At the very back of the building Sanchez pointed to a large metal grill smoldering with oak, hickory and mesquite from a woodpile nearby.
Sanchez showed me another walk-in full of black plastic bins, each filled with the protruding limbs of the five to six lambs he roasts a day. After brining the meat overnight, he rubs it with a mixture of cilantro, onion and guajillo chili and then tosses it on the red-hot grill to brown for a few minutes on each side.
For the next nine hours the meat slowly roasts in a special oven that suspends the lamb over a water bath filled with garbanzo beans. Juices and fat slowly drip down and infuse the legumes with the rich flavor of lamb. While steam trapped inside the oven keeps the meat tender and moist, the drip pan collects a rich and delicious chickpea consomé de barbacoa. This is exactly how barbacoa de borrego has been cooked for generations. Sanchez simply uses a stainless steel oven instead of a hole in the ground.
When you first bite into a taco and sunset-orange juice the consistency of melted butter gushes from the open end, it's instantly apparent you've stumbled onto something special. While the meat on its own is a little bland, with a little salt, salsa and lime juice, the tacos blossom with complex lamb and chili flavors. If you're the type who enjoys finding obscure and authentic eats, you'll feel lucky to be there.
Try the pancita. The mix of pork heart and liver, flavored with rosemary, pineapple and more guajillo, makes for a hearty, thick stew that's perfect tucked inside a soft tortilla.
Just don't forget those garbanzo beans that steeped in lamb drippings for half a day, which join soft rice in a rich and murky consomé. Sitting down with a bowl of this soup is a calming meditation. This is slow food. That's why it's relatively quiet in this dining room, even when all the tables are full. Everyone is contemplating the simple roast meats, soups and tortillas they bought for next to nothing, while not a single morsel tastes concessionary. You can feed a whole family here for less than it costs to fill up a car. And they're parked outside in droves.
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