Barbacoa defies health being the greasiest substance I have ever eaten. Take the beef from the cow's face or head meat and mix with some chopped onion and a bit of cilantro. Strangely enough, it tastes good. Barbacoa is a make or break you solution to a hangover, vegetarian's worst nightmare, and white in color if you leave it out due to the grease factor.

Barbacoa is the greatest of all the Mexican meats. It's fine blend of facial meats includes all the most tender meats, cheek, jowl, occasionally tongue. It is all boiled till the meat just falls off the skull, then the meat is gathered and mixed with sautéed onion, cilantro and other wonderful spices. It is then baked for a short time to let the meat caramelize. Serve on a torta, or in taquitos, with tomato and avocado, and you have my favorite Mexican meal. Available at your local Taqueria. See also: Adobada, carnitas.

Barbacoa De Cabeza or Barbecued beef head is a tradition along the Rio Grande coast of Texas, it is also very popular in San Antonio were I grew up. Consider it the Mexican equivalent of a Hawaiian Luau. When I was a kid growing up, my dad would get up at five in the morning on Sundays to go stand in line to buy Barbacoa. When I woke up I would rush down stairs to get my serving of steaming Barbacoa. I would get a large tortilla put a good helping of Barbacoa on it then add whatever combination of diced onions, salsa, pico de gallo, peppers, or guacamole that struck my fancy. So good, the steaming Barbacoa was so moist and tender, with a flavor so rich my mouth waters to think of it.

It’s now illegal, for a restaurant to make Barbacoa in the traditional way in Texas, except for those places who have a grandfather exemption. But don’t let that stop you.

Here is the traditional recipe.

1 cabeza (beef head)
4 onions, quartered
3 heads garlic, separated
2 bunches cilantro, separated
corn or flour tortillas
2 heads of cabbage (for wrapping)
salt to taste

Clean the cabeza, removing the ears. Remove the tongue. In Mexico the head would be wrapped in large banana leaves, here I use cabbage leaves, which gives a great flavor. Wrap the cabeza, with the onions, garlic, and cilantro. Once wrapped in cabbage, wrap in 3 layers of burlap.

Dig a hole about 3 feet wide and at least 2 feet deep. Line the bottom of the hole with large rocks, about the size of a softball. Build a large fire in the pit. Allow the fire to burn down to coals. The hole should be about 1/3 full of coals when done.

Add another layer of large rocks on top of the coals. Cover the rocks with 1 to 2 inches of dirt. Cover the dirt with 1 layer of wet burlap sacks, (don’t go overboard with wetting the bags, soak then squeeze so they are just moist.) Place the cabeza in the center, cover with 2 more layers of moist burlap sacks, then cover with at least 6 inches of dirt. Build another large fire on the dirt mound, let it burn rapidly down to coals, and keep the coals going for at least 4 to 5 hours, add more wood if necessary. Use a good wood like oak, which is best, mesquite or hickory.

Dig up the cabeza, discard the burlap and cabbage leaves, shred the meat from the bone into a large bowl, cover to keep the Barbacoa moist. Serve with tortillas, diced onions, salsa, pico de gallo, peppers, and guacamole. Good luck, and a last note, making Barbacoa this way is an art.

Ok now a confession, I have never done this myself, I have seen it done several times, I’ve even helped. But when I make Barbacoa I make it in the oven. He is the recipe I use.

Using the above ingredients, place all the ingredients in a large turkey roasting bag, being sure to wrap the cabeza with the cabbage leaves, and cut a slit in the top of the bag.

Put in a baking dish in the bottom rack of oven, put a another bowl filled with water, (at least half a gallon) in the oven, set at 250 degrees and cook for 5 hours. While the cabeza is cooking, put the tongue in a large pan cover with water bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on the stovetop for 3 hours, when done peel the tongue and shred or slice the meat, serve with the Barbacoa. When done, shred the meat from the cabeza as above, and serve with tortillas, diced onions, salsa, pico de gallo, peppers, and guacamole. Excuse me I have some cooking to do.


The last time I had Barbacoa cooked in the traditional way was at my family reunion. They did it up big time, and gave the whole cow the Barbacoa treatment. Can you believe we ate the whole thing, along with a plenty of pork, sausage, beans, rice, potato salad, guacamole, beer, tea, margaritas and desserts. Of course there were about 60 of us and the party went on for two days. This was out on the ranch near Alpine, Texas, about a year and a half ago.

Crock-Pot Barbacoa

So, you want to make Barbacoa but your amigo snagged the cabeza from the last vaca you slaughtered? Or maybe, since you're an un-landed techno-geek you don't have access to open land in which to dig the cooking pit? Well, come on down! Have I got the solution for YOU!

Actually, I got the mailer from the carniceria down the street and while perusing it I wondered what 'Cachetes de res' were and what the heck you'd do with them. So, 'Beef Cheeks'; OK, no big deal. I often buy Mexican Chorizo, which is a wet 'sausage' made from pig jowls. Searching on the web I found lots of references for Barbacoa de res using beef cheeks, most including lips and tongue as well. Looking a half-dozen sources over I boiled down a basic recipe using a crock pot as follows.


4 lbs. Cachete de res (Beef Cheeks)
2 Oranges
2 Bay Leaves
1/2 tsp Cumin (ground Coriander seed)
3 Garlic Cloves
1 medium Yellow Onion, large dice
1 tsp. Salt (or to taste)

For Serving:
Tortillas, Flour or Corn (warm or as crisp taco shells)
Cilantro, chopped
Limes, quartered
Onions, finely diced
Cheese, shredded (Cheddar or Jack)
Tomatoes, medium dice
Iceberg Lettuce, shredded
Hot Sauce


Rinse the cheeks and place them in a good size crock pot, discarding any chunks that are purely fat.
Add the Bay Leaves, Cumin, Garlic (use a garlic press), Onion, and Salt. Juice the two Oranges over the contents.

Set the crock pot on high and ignore it for two hours, then stir the contents a bit with a big old spoon. Stir every hour after that. In six hours it should be starting to fall apart. Give it another hour just because.

Remove from the crock pot to a large bowl with a slotted spoon, pausing to let the juices (fat) drain. It will still retain an incredible amount of fat.

Serve with tortillas and extras. The very best is to scoop some on a warm flour tortilla, top with cilantro, squirt on some lime juice and hot sauce, roll up and enjoy. Eat over the sink or a paper towel.

If you chill the leftovers in a bowl you can slice them out in slabs the next day. The slabs bear a striking resemblance to head cheese, an item offered in supermarkets across the USA next to the bologna and salami which is not really meant to be purchased and consumed; it's just there to lend atmosphere.

I made it again August 21, 2009, using 5 Lbs. of beef cheeks. They were mostly frozen so it took 10 hours in the crock pot to completely fall apart. I drained off 1 1/2 cups of fat straight away when I'd decided it was done. Added a 1/4 cup of sliced Jalapeno peppers for the last hour; didn't really have much effect, just added a background heat element. Still velvety beef goodness with cilantro and lime accents.

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