Barbacoa helped build at least one Mexican mom-and-pop eatery into a multimillion dollar restaurant that serves up to 5,000 guests a day. Arroyo, founded in 1940 in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán (about 40 minutes south of downtown), has become a gustatory amusement park. Occupying a city block, it is complete with roving orchestras and a private bullfighting ring.
Jesus Arroyo Bergeyre is the third-generation owner of the restaurant and a passionate spokesman for the cultural traditions it strives to preserve. I began my tour of the restaurant in a garden of maguey cactus. The leaves are an essential part of barbacoa, not to mention home to the gusano, a cactus worm that is a beloved delicacy in Mexico (it’s enjoyed crisply fried).
Next, Bergeyre led me to the focal point and pride of the restaurant, a row of barbacoa pits, six kettle-shaped holes built into a raised brick dais. Each pit was so deep, I could have stood in one and still barely seen over the edge. The evening before, the pits were loaded with wood and ignited. It’s only when the wood burns down to glowing coals that the cooking of the barbacoa begins.
A cook appeared with a huge steel kettle filled with water, beans, vegetables, garlic, and bunches of cilantro and epazote. This would become the consommé de cordeiro (lamb soup, flavored with the drippings) and it, too, is an essential part of barbacoa. The pot was lowered into the pit on top of the coals. Meanwhile, whole hindquarters or shoulders of lamb were wrapped and tied in flame-scorched maguey cactus leaves. The cook positioned the lamb on a metal rack over the kettle. The pit was then closed with a metal lid whose edges were sealed the old-fashioned way: with dirt.
The barbacoa will roast "underground," as it were, for 8 to 10 hours. When it emerges from the pit, it will be tender enough to pull apart with fingers. The herbal-tequilla taste of the cactus leaves, the herb-scented steam from the soup kettle, and the smoke from the wood will combine to produce a lamb with an extraordinary flavor-a lamb unique in the world of barbecue.
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