Behind the Barbacoa in Mexico City : New Worlder

Entering the market’s main building at the break of dawn there is the slightest whiff of nopal cactus hanging in the air. A few bare bulbs burn in the semi-darkness and the coo of the doves that roost in the market’s rafters mingles with the quick snap of Renato Cruz’s shoes as he moves across the cement floor.

Hoping to beat the crowds that will soon turn the massive Merced market into a labyrinth of buying and selling, we’re here early to shop for Renato’s restaurant, Barbacoa Renatos, home to some of Mexico City’s best barbacoa (slow-cooked lamb). Renato whispers a quick “vamos” after each stop, and I trail after him like Alice and the white rabbit.

Glasses perched on his forehead, list in hand, Renato simply can’t understand why the chile vendor has not arrived.

“This market used to never sleep,” he says. When Renato started coming to the Merced with his mother almost 50 years ago, it was the city’s main bulk market and its largest, taking up, as it does, an entire city block.

This morning the vendors chat with us half-asleep as we make our rounds. The tomatoes shimmer, the mangos are at their peak. Renato sees me eyeing them and buys me four. With our shopping almost finished, Renato’s son Bruno leads me to a stand in the Merced that I’ve never been here early enough to visit.

A round woman in a red apron ladles the most exquisite hot chocolate I have ever had out of a metal pot. She hands us each a hot egg sandwich with chile toreados and we take a moment to chat. Bruno worked as an agricultural engineer in Guerrero until about 2 years ago when his son was born and he returned to Mexico City. Work in his field was impossible to find in the city, so he started working full time at the family restaurant.

The following day we are up again before the sun. I have a slight cold coming on and am not feeling my best for confronting the day’s visit: the slaughterhouse.

We drive out to a small warehouse in the dead of the morning that’s ablaze with lights. Men haul lamb carcasses on their backs from the delivery truck to a main storage room, separating them by age and sex.

“There are types for all kinds of tastes,” Bruno tells me, “big restaurants try to maximize their amount of meat and go for older, meatier animals. I think the younger, male sheep are the best quality. Look at them, they’re so fresh they’re still warm!”

I begin to feel a little weak-kneed. A shopping cart full of sheep heads bound for tacos de cabeza sits beside me, a box full of hooves next to that. The blood spots on the floor are starting to dance when a rubber-booted butcher comes in delivering steaming lemongrass tea. My stomach recedes from my throat.

Saul, a big butcher in a white lab coat explains that most imported lamb comes from New Zealand but that the current quantity and quality of Mexican meat on the market and higher meat prices overall–both the result of an increasing peso-dollar exchange rate–have made local meat much more popular with his customers. All the meat delivered this morning is raised nationally.

A block away the agave leaf vendors sit in the dark mouth of their delivery truck. Dozens of leaves are wrapped in bundles and several stacks are laid out flat for customers to pick through. A vendor in his twenties explains how they carefully cut the leaves from the outside of the plants once they reach about 10 years old, careful not to kill the plant.

They also sell pulque–fermented agave sapto local bars for curados, a mixture of pulque with sugar and fruit juice. Pulque fresh from the plant (blended with a little unfermented sap to sweeten it) is mildly sweet and yeasty. I get a free, heavenly taste.

Friday starts at 6:30am. The oven needs to be lit and the meat buried inside it by 10am if it’s to be ready for tomorrow morning’s crowd.

“The oven is like another person in the room,” Bruno tells me in the half-darkness of his kitchen. “and she’s very jealous. The fact that you are here means that she might not want to light for me. Everything we do in this kitchen revolves around her.”

He makes the sign of the cross over the oven’s edge with a piece of lit cardboard before his drops it into its depths. The air stings with smoke, but I’m the only one that seems to notice. Eyeing Bruno from a distance I can see the shadow of his ancestors, tending to their earthen ovens thousands of years ago.

The ancient Mayans slow-cooked deer and other wild game in much of the same fashion as what Bruno is preparing to do now. When the Spanish introduced grazing animals like sheep and cows as well as domesticated pigs to the Mexica palate the blending of these two cuisines resulted in some of Mexico’s most quintessential dishes – cochinita pibil and barbacoa.

Bruno has been prepping the meat since yesterday, meticulously cleaning and checking it for any imperfections.

The lungs, hearts and intestines, ground and seasoned, are stuffed into the cleaned sheep stomach for pancita. Chunks of meat, cleaned and salted are wrapped inside heated agave leaves with a few leaves of avocado and lowered into the oven in a circular cage. A massive metal pan sits below the cage and collects the meat’s juices. Inside the pan is an oversized sachet with seasonings. Raw grains of rice and garbanzo beans are scattered in the pan’s bottom. All this will transform into consomme, a fragrant lamb broth.

Once the meat is placed in the oven, a metal lid, followed by a layer of wet newspapers, followed by a mound of packed earth seals the meat in the oven for 24 hours. The Cruz house is slowly waking up as we finish.

Bruno’s niece and nephew stumble downstairs in their school uniforms. Renato hums in the kitchen while he works on a catering order they have for the day. His wife, Maria Eugenia, calls down to light the hot water heater.

Bruno’s little boy, bleary-eyed from sleep is wrapped in a blanket against the morning cold. The woodsmoke, the sounds of the kitchen, and the smell of barbacoa will be some of the very first memories to implant on his tiny brain.

Over chilaquiles and Nescafe Maria Eugenia tells me the story of how she and Renato met.

“My parents had a chicken stall and Renato’s a barbacoa stand in the market,” she says smiling. “Every day he would send me a taco and a bowl of consomme. I kept saying ‘I didn’t order this!’ until I figured it out. Eventually I traded in the chickens for barbacoa.”

The family has been in the business for over 55 years. Three years ago they went through a financial crisis and almost lost everything.

“We were growing without developing,” explains Bruno. He and his siblings enlisted help to improve the restaurant’s management and they brought it back to life.

Getting to the restaurant the next morning I arrive just in time to see Bruno and his brother-in-law Javier peel back the oven’s metal lid and slowly pull the meat from where it’s been sleeping overnight.

Agave-spiced steam escapes from the oven’s depths. The agave leaves, called pencas, are now soft and dark green, the meat underneath it is the color of burnt butter. Bruno points out the different delectables as he unwraps his cactus bundle: mixiotes, intestines, kidneys, stuffed sheep’s stomach, ribs – all pressure-cooked to a silky finish.

The place buzzes. Waiters prep tables and scrub floors, the tortilla maker sets up her station, Bruno’s sister Adriana is sweeping out front. Bruno calls everyone together for a pep talk.

“A new article just came out calling us the best barbacoa in the city,” he says. “It shouldn’t make us nervous, just more committed. Let’s remember today how our clients want to be treated, with attentiveness, kindness, professionalism.”

As they brace for the onslaught of the next few hours, everything stops for a moment and everyone, down to the smallest member of the family, sits down.

A comer,” Bruno says. Let’s eat.

The waitress serves me sweet cafe de olla and Bruno begins the parade of dishes to the table. First it’s barbacoa sopes with grilled nopal cactus, cream, queso fresco, avocado, and salsa borracha – a blend of chile pasilla, garlic, orange juice, pulque. Then he brings out a smoky consomme with blue-tinged guayaba atole and a tiny cup of cinnamon-y guayaba pulque. Sweet rolls, three kinds of salsas, limes, churros, and finally, a steaming hunk of lamb ribs with meat that peels off at the touch of finger, its silky texture complemented by the roughness of the hand-pressed tortillas.

All this family’s passion has been translated into this meal’s warmth and abundance. As we smear on pipicha-flavored guacamole and dip our tacos in the cloudy consomme a giddy feeling overwhelms me. There’s nothing left to do but eat. A comer.

Restaurante Barbacoa Renatos
Jacarandas 443, Azcapotzalco, Pasteros, Mexico City
Tel: 01 55 5319 8967
Open Sat & Sun 9am to 4pm.