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Barbacoa Destination: El Pica

Barbacoa Destination: El Pica

There are many wonderful places to eat barbacoa around Mexico, but a few places stand out as extraordinary, places that transcend the quality, as good as it may be, of the barbacoa. For El Pica, it’s the overwhelming spectacle of a town within a town, this barbacoa wonderland that serves far more people each day it’s open than the entire population of La Purificacion, the pueblo it inhabits.

Entering El Pica through the tunnel of trees brings back memories of hopping on the boat for the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. The whole complex is a maze of pathways through vines, vendors around every corner selling tlacoyos, menudo, pan dulce, salsas, avocados, tamales, chicharron, and, of course, barbacoa.

The Torres family started in 1967 with just one horno, but now serve as many as 48 lambs a day from 12 hornos. They cook mixiotes of rabbit and chicken, pancita, and consome in the hornos along with the barbacoa. Tortillas from nixtamal, fresh pulque, pork skins fried until bubbly and crisp before your eyes — the emphasis here is on quality.

Families picnic in verdant dining rooms wallpapered with the leaves of the trees surrounding them. Mariachis move from family to family offering their serenades. Abuelitas walk the pathways carrying buckets of consome to consume then or later.

Paco and I wandered El Pica just trying to absorb it all. Even after spending several hours there, we would discover something new and delightful.  There was so much to see, we barely took time to eat.  We tried a few things, but the sesos quesadilla, fried in the fat of the freshly-made chicharron and stuffed with barbacoa and salsa verde, offered to us by Saul, the son of the original barbacoyero, was spectacular.

Another place I can’t wait to return to.

El Pica, a barbacoa Disneyland in La Purificacion Texcoco

El Pica, a barbacoa Disneyland in La Purificacion Texcoco

El Pica, in La Purificacion, Texcoco, is a massive complex of Mexican food delights.  You enter through a tunnel of trees and vines, like a ride at Disneyland.  While the Torres family has been making barbacoa here since 1967, around 20 families from the town also sell various foods, such as tlacoyos, desayunos, pan, salsas, chicharron, tamales, and so on, to the thousands of people who come here each weekend.

Zona de Barbacoa: Texcoco

Zona de Barbacoa: Texcoco

For barbacoa de borrego aficionados, the reputation of the pit-cooked lamb in the state of Mexico is second only to that of Hidalgo. The state has dominated Mexican culture since at least the time of the Aztecs, who took an island in the middle of a lake no other tribe wanted and turned it into an empire. Texcoco was part of that prehispanic empire, one of the three city-states that founded the Triple Alliance.  Today it’s more of a blue collar suburb of Mexico City, just 20 miles east of the megopolis, just past the marshy vestiges of the lake that bore its name and the massive new airport being built. The greater municipality remains rather rural. Driving through the curvy mountain roads dotted with small pueblos it’s hard to imagine what people might survive doing that they weren’t doing 100 or 200 years ago.

As is often the case, the places that maintain their traditions the strongest are rarely those places that are the most successful on the national and international stage. Financial success requires changing with the times (some might say “selling out”). Maintaining centuries-old traditions is about survival (often of a community and families). Texcoco lacks Mexico City’s financial success, but its barbacoa tradition is strong.

While there are some very good spots for barbacoa in Mexico City, most are imports, families that brought their traditions with them and now serve Chilangos.  I know of no market in Mexico City with a “zona de barbacoa”. But when you walk into Texcoco’s central market, the Mercado de San Antonio, just off the central plaza, you are greeted with a sign directing you to just that, a zona de barbacoa.

I haven’t found a market with a larger concentration of barbacoa vendors yet, not even in the towns of Hidalgo. There are 20 or more stands, all claiming to make barbacoa in a traditional horno.  Quality varies, of course, but there are some gems.

Our favorite of the ones we tried was El Pichon.  It had two things going for it: 1) the barbacoyero had the girth of a man who knows food, and 2) when we walked up, he was dipping spring onions in liquid lamb fat to grill them.  He actually had a comal dedicated to sopes, quesadillas, and tlacoyos where everything was griddled in lamb fat.  That’s my kind of guy. And his barbacoa was quite good. The espadilla was unctuous, lightly seasoned with salt, and redolent with maguey flavor.

I haven’t had a chance to explore the offerings in the city of Texcoco entirely. We talked with a few barbacoyeros around town and planned to return Sunday, but the unique greatness of El Pica overwhelmed us and by the time we went back through the city, it was too late.  There are spots that open only on weekends with multiple hornos doing things right that I would love to try.  I will get back.