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Barbacoa: Underground Cuisine
Baste in knowledge with Groupon’s look at Mexico’s take on barbecue.
Barbecue is tomato-soaked beef brisket in Texas, vinegary shredded pork in the Carolinas, and brats and burgers in backyards across the country. Mexico’s analogue, barbacoa, is as smoky and social as patio grilling, but a little more elaborate than most. To start, traditional barbacoa artists will dig a large pit and line it with stones. Within, they start a slow-burning charcoal fire, onto which they throw the meat (wrapped in banana, maguey, or avocado leaves). The meats are they buried, sometimes for as long as a day or two. The earth insulates the coals to keep them burning low and steady while preventing the aroma from making the neighbors worry that there’s a fire at the butcher shop. In Northern Mexico, goat is the meat of choice; farther south, lamb and pork are more common. Whatever the meat, it’s transformed by this cooking method into a state of advanced and flavorful tenderness—steamed by the moisture trapped in the leaves, but also smoked by the flame.
Today, restaurants without access to an earthen pit out back often braise their barbacoa in a standard oven, with a tray of water underneath to replicate the melt-in-your-mouth texture. Even if these versions lack the smokiness of a wood or charcoal fire, the flavor profile will still be vibrant—cumin, garlic, and chipotle, guajillo, or adobo chilies are all commonly applied to the meat as it cooks. Though it can form the heart of just about any Mexican dish, the most popular barbacoa presentation may be the simplest: just a sprinkling of cilantro and raw onions for crunch inside warm corn tortillas to catch the savory juices.