Tacos have their own vocabulary that I never learned in Spanish class. What is barbacoa, exactly? It takes on different forms throughout Mexico, but the South Texas version most prevalent in Austin is rooted in ranching traditions. When a cow is slaughtered, the head is roasted in a pit dug into the ground and lined with hot mesquite coals and maguey leaves. Every bit of the head, from the eyes to the brains, is consumed. In the Rio Grande Valley, the velvety shredded beef is traditionally eaten on Sundays with fresh tortillas, cilantro, onion, lime, and tangy salsa.
Today many health departments in Texas cities have declared the traditional cooking method unsanitary. Most taquerias and meat markets now serve an abbreviated version of slow roasted and finely shredded beef cheeks. This dish derives its unmistakably rich flavor and sticky texture from the luscious fat and connective tissue that is unique to that part of the animal. This isn't Chipotle's barbacoa.
I tried over 25 different restaurants, taco trucks, and meat markets, making just a small dent in Austin's barbacoa selection. Here's the good news: most establishments use cheek meat—not beef shoulder in disguise. But there's also some abhorrently tough barbacoa out there. The cheeks should be cooked long enough to disintegrate the collagen and connective tissue. Also, beware of funky smelling or underseasoned beef that is reminiscent of a wet rag.
South Texas barbacoa is not heavily seasoned. Today Austin is home to immigrants from many different regions of Mexico, so you'll find barbacoa flavored with cloves and other aromatic spices. This offends some purists, but I welcome the variety. Some will also complain when the meat is greasy, but I consider that a vital characteristic of good barbacoa. A few places distinguished themselves by cooking the beef cheeks so that they were ever so slightly crispy and caramelized.
All of the meat markets served decent barbacoa, so start there. With so many taco trucks and Mexico hole-in-the-wall spots in Austin, this is by no means a comprehensive list.
Where is your favorite place to eat barbacoa in Austin?
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