Thursday, August 12, 2010

Barbabcoa Hidalguense "El Meson" Tezontepec,Hidalgo-A Pilgrimage to Sample Hidalgo's Deepest Tradition

After a gig in San Luis Potosi, and only about four hours sleep in two days, I landed in Mexico City with a layover before heading to LA. I thought, six hours isn't enough, how about a four day layover?

Mexico City is surrounded by the state of Mexico and is within striking distance of Puebla, Morelos, Michoacan, Queretaro,Guerrero, Tlaxcala, and Hidalgo states. I recently took advantage of this and did a Mexico City and Michoacan run, and also did a day trip to Puebla.

Well, experiencing barbacoa in Hidalgo had been on my mind for some time. Lamb barbacoa from Hidalgo carries the highest prestige, with the city of Texcoco,Mexico maintaining a respectable second standing. The states of Puebla,Guerrero, and the city of Toluca in the state of Mexico are the other strong barbacoa traditions.

Barbacoa Hidalguense utilizes pre-hispanic pit cooking with a set of ingredients and practices that haven't changes in over three centuries. It is considered to be best in Actopan, Hidalgo, but excellent barbacoa is found throughout Hidalgo, home to some of the finest cooking in Mexico.

After hitting Mexico City hard on Sunday, I called my regular cabbie in DF, and said,"I feel like having barbacoa for Hidalgo!" No problem, Tezontepec, Hidalgo is just a little over an hour's drive from Mexico City, so after a night of cantina indulgence, I made the 8AM lobby call to catch my ride.

Arriving at barbacoa El Meson in Tezontepec, Hidalgo felt as if I was treading on holy ground. This cooking style was an art of the Aztec Empire. I've had amazing barbacoa in two places, Aqui es Texcoco in San Diego, and Barbacoa Ermita in Tijuana.There was a pretty damn good one in Guanajuato, too. These were Hidalgans, except Aqui es Texcoco, which is....Texcoco style. The difference in cooking styles mainly occurs in the preparation of pancita the offal stuffed lamb's stomach, otherwise all regions prepare barbacoa in the same sacred tradition.

This place was the next level on so many accords. Man, people name their favorite barbacoa here in town, here and there in Mexico, but I argue, if you haven't had barbacoa in Hidalgo,you have not experienced this dish.Just down the street were a bunch of other stalls serving the lamb barbacoa, where El Meson's Arturo Cruz once operated, but he has moved into a barbacoa temple near the central bus terminal where he has practiced the art of barbacoa for the past 15 years.

Well, the excitement have deadend my feelings of sleep deprivation, and I was nervously surveiling the room for any and all activities.

I spotted the tortilla station fashioning blue corn tortillas for quesadillas and eyed the various fillings,squash blossoms, huitlacoche, tinga, chicken gizzards?

It was a mistake to start eating before the barbacoa arrived, but the quesadilla of chicken gizzards, or mollejas, is one I'll not regret.

The flavor was intense, accented by a rich amount of oil that yielded luxurious bites of chicken flavor.

But my dining experience was interrupted by a pleasant surprise. An invitation to watch the barbacoa master pull the dismembered animals from an earthern oven of antiquity.

The lamb has been cooking all night and the aromas of this.....cave are profound. A dank, musty,and vegetal scent hovers around the pit as 57 year old Arturo Cruz begins to sweep the dust that has gathered after an over night steaming in the oven.

Arturo has been a barbacoa master for 40 years. He was born in nearby Guadalupe Relinas, Hidalgo and married Margarita Bautista, a local girl from Tezontepec, Hidalgo.When Arturo entered the restaurant I felt the presence of someone important and deliberate. He slowly escorted his mother-in-law into the prep area like a pit roasting Al Capone. He was here for some serious business. This is a process he participates in from the slaughtering and butchering of the animal to the cutting and serving of barbacoa.

As the maguey spines are removed, the soot free spines, called pencas, are used to line a wooden box to keep the barbacoa warm. Roasting in the spines of the succulent known as the maguey predates the arrival of the Spaniards. A subtle flavor is imparted to the lamb and the plant provides nature's perfect insulation during the cooking process.

Arturo and his mother-in-law carefully remove pancita and various cuts of lamb from the pit, separating the blackened sticks used to stack the five whole lambs, allowing for an even steaming.

While I gawked and snapped photos, Arturo's mother-in-law handed me a warrior's prize. A leg of lamb directly from the pit blanketed in a warm blue corn tortilla. I felt like a Mexican Henry the VIII, gnawing away like a heathen. In my fatigued state, as I was after the previous nights of partying, I might have more resembled a zombie from a Dawn of the Dead movie, moaning in languid, flesh-lust over this piece of meat.

The consome is removed last. Just the right amount of water, chickpeas, and seasonings must be placed in the pot that catches the lamb's drippings. There are no corrections in this process, the pit is sealed and can't be opened until serving time. About the only thing you can do is salt the broth if underseasoned, otherwise, you must trust in your craft.

Arturo's pride shows in his counter work. He doesn't take a siesta while someone else does the carving. Everything must be perfect.

This was my first encounter with natural pancita. Pancita is the offal stuffed stomach of the lamb that always accompanies authentic barbacoa. A chile rub is customary as an antibacterial and to balance the funky essence of pancita. Aficionados are drawn to pancita's powerful flavors.

But this was a regal presentation, and the absence of a chile rub excited my curiosities.

After Arturo chopped and wrapped our customized order, we headed back to the table where vendors of foods and consumer goods like these sombreros roamed the dining hall.

Trio Incomparable de la Sierra played fantastic regional music, like this chileno michoacano from the state of Michoacan. Their voices were outstanding and resonant. I thought this was the perfect time for a drink when....

a pulque vendor caught my eye carrying two plastic jugs. Pulque is made from the fermented sap of the prized maguey. It's such a versatile plant, and its paper found inside the spines are used for steaming meat, called mixiotes.

I got to sample his two choices and went with the pine nut pulque. Pulque is also a specialty of Hidalgo and the Valley of Mexico, a pre-hispanic alcohol coveted by the working class, and many weekend visitors to the nearby pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

It has a sappy, slimy texture and had a nice amount of wood in the finish, balanced by fermented sweet pine nuts.

The culture of barbacoa includes a consome made from the lamb's dripping, with chickpeas and spiced by chipotles.

Hand made blue corn tortillas are the preferred wrapper.

A red salsa of guajillo chiles and a fresh green salsa with frothy jalapeno. A pico de gallo with avocado and some lime and onions.

A mound of barbacoa and pancita rests upon butcher paper, as you strategically seek out the pieces and chunks you crave.

The taco of barbacoa is magnificent, with time-stopping pleasure in each bite.

The pancita is a thing of beauty, pure, naked, and frank. The fact that the animal was killed, butchered, and plunged into an earthen pit within 24 hours has left each piece of lung, heart, tripe,liver, kidneys, and various offal in full bloom. The pieces of lung are topaz, here a bit of pink, and flecks of bright green jalapeno in the mixture.

El Meson is more than a restaurant. It's a community gathering of familes that walk behind their elders in ceremonial procession, and no one is seated before the old man. It's where a table of hard featured men are silent and introspective during the playing of corridos and then laugh and talk loudly over son huasteco music.

Although Arturo appears to be as warm as a shark after shredding apart a baby seal, he pulls up a chair next to me during a moment of down time, staring directly into my eyes with serious intent, and says, "what do you think?" I say,"I've had great barbacoa,but nothing as amazing as this." " Arturo nods a cowboy's thanks, and distracted by a customer approaching the barbacoa scale, dashes off to get to the table and intercept his guest.

I couldn't stay awake much longer than for a short stroll around the nearby market, and passed out on the way back to DF. I was like a snake in my hotel room for around 5 hours, immobilized and vulnerable trying to digest a large prey.

I say that all true barbacoa lovers and devotees need to make the journey at least once in their lifetime, to Hidalgo, home to the best barbacoa form in Mexico.

El Meson
Saturday, Sunday(2 servings), and Monday mornings
Av. Belisario Dominguez
just northeast of 5 de Mayo.
Tezontepec, Hidalgo


Food GPS said...

That barbacoa and pancita looks amazing. I hope to one day reach the fourth layer of El Meson's barbacoa pit.

mattatouille said...

what an amazing memoir of your experience bill. you are a supremely gifted writer and gourmet. i love that last image you made there, with the snake after eating his prey. i can totally relate.

streetgourmetla said...

Thanks Foodgps and Mattatouille-funny thing is, you were both invited and should have been there with me, hissing and slithering with contentment.

mattatouille said...

I know, I wish I had the sort of complete freedom that allows me to go wherever and whenever I want. I'm striving toward it. In the meantime, I'll have to live vicariously.