Barbacoa in Ixmiquilpan
“The barbacoa from Hidalgo is lo más rico in all of Mexico,” my boyfriend Albert says. It is a winter’s evening, and we are sitting on an outdoor terrace at a mountaintop hotel overlooking the caves of Tolantongo in the state of Hidalgo, drinking cafés con leche and playing chess. Just as the cold threatens to drive us inside, a huge bonfire is lit in the large round fire pit on the terrace. I assume it’s for warmth, but I soon learn that they build a fire there every Saturday night for cooking barbacoa.
We all watch with growing interest as a group of men poke at the fire until it burns down to smoldering embers. Then they pull out huge, water-dampened, green maguey leaves. One flaps them up into the air like a matador’s cape and then tosses it to a companion who slaps them to the ground in a well-rehearsed ritual, before they lay them over the coals in an intricate circular pattern. The leaves, which resemble banana leaves but are thicker and more fibrous, have been scratched on one side to extract aguamiel, the key ingredient in pulque. Onto the leaves, they lay huge sides of goat meat, ribs and all, which they salt liberally before covering everything with another layer of maguey. They tuck a blanket over the leaves before heaping a pile of dark, wet earth on top, which they tamp down into a neat plateau. Upon inquiring, we are informed that the barbacoa will be ready by 8 a.m. the next day.
Having run out of pesos—the hotel only accepts cash—we hike up the mountain the next morning to catch a microbus back to Ixmiquilpan, the dawn light just peaking over the canyons. Albert has barbacoa on his mind, so after disembarking we head toward the central market. Albert follows his nose until we arrive at a bustling open-air restaurant with an orange awning bearing the name Barbacoa Carlitos, along with an illustration of a baby goat.
Before we can reach our seats at one of the white wooden communal tables, a waitress offers us large pottery bowls of hot consomé. It is excellent: a clear, flavorful goat bone broth bearing chunks of fresh carrot, potato, and a swirling constellation of finely diced onion, finished with a squeeze of lime that lends it a delicious tang. In short order, the barbacoa arrives. The soft corn tortillas on our plates each bear a cigar-shaped roll of velvety meat pearled with white fat. Copying our neighbors, I clutch a taco in one fist and spoon up the consomé with the other.
After paying our tab of 150 pesos (roughly $3.75 each), we take our leave and walk down the dusty streets of Ixmiquilpan, bathed in rosy pink light. I proclaim our barbacoa the food of the Gods and speculate aloud about the possibility of transporting a pound of the meat back home, before deciding that it will never pass through customs. “The food of the Gods isn’t going to the United States,” Albert says, and I let him have the last word.