A whole cabeza de vaca (cow head)—wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and cooked in the ground—used to be the norm when discussing barbacoa in Texas. This image has quickly been overtaken by boxes of vacuum-packed beef cheeks steaming in an industrial kitchen. The resulting product is similar in name only to the traditional backyard meal.
In Cesar Coronado's small backyard in West Dallas, the old way of barbacoa is alive and well. On a recent evening, he demonstrated the method—passed down from his grandfather—to an intimate assembly of the barbecue faithful. Real barbacoa requires only wood, meat, maguey leaves, and a hole in the ground. Seasoning is only applied at the table. Cesar has turned a concrete drainage pipe on its side and buried it in his backyard. A few blocks away, his father's backyard boasts a similar setup, and my guess is that one day, his son's will, too.
|Cesar Coronado tends to his barbacoa pit. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter|
When we arrived at Cesar's house, the mesquite fire was already blazing. The goal, Cesar explained, is to cook it down to just coals. Once the coals were ready, Cesar lined the hole with leaves and dropped in the head, along with assorted other cuts of beef. He folded the tops of the leaves over the head, and then covered the whole shebang with a metal lid and more dirt, to serve as insulation.
|This is where the magic happens. Photo by Daniel Vaughn|
The next day, we watched as Cesar uncovered the hole. The meat was hot and ready to go, and we worked quickly to bring it to the table, where fresh tortillas, salsa, guacamole, and salt shakers were waiting. Smoking the meat gives it a drier, richer taste and texture than the steamed cabeza you'd get at a restaurant. And nothing compares to the experience of eating a taco filled with cheek meat, freshly pulled from the skull.
|Hey there, sweet cheeks. Photo by Daniel Vaughn|