Within the late summer time and early fall of 2020, I spent practically two months touring up and down the state in quest of California’s Barbacoa Path, a concrete patchwork of undisclosed pits and distinct communities linked by heritage and hearth. By a group of eating places, road stands, meals vehicles, and residential backyards, I explored the state’s various regional kinds of Mexico’s pit-roasted meat custom generally known as barbacoa. Preparations differ by meat (often goat or lamb), seasonings, and — simply as importantly — a panoply of accompanying dishes. Whereas most of those operations are open to the general public, they’re constructed to primarily feed their communities, and a few stay politely closed to outsiders. If you happen to lengthy to observe the path your self, be respectful of those communities and their traditions. And are available hungry.

“Jesus,” I believed because the automobile descended the stretch of Interstate 5 generally known as the Grapevine right into a glowing hellscape of smoke and falling ash. The entire state, it appeared, was on hearth.
I’ve made the five-hour-plus drive up I-5 from Los Angeles to my Central Valley hometown of Stockton numerous instances since shifting south in 1995. At one level I might calculate precisely how a lot time was left on my journey by the varied exit indicators I handed: Buttonwillow, Misplaced Hills, Kettleman Metropolis, Coalinga. My hand instinctively switches the vents to recycled air a mile or so earlier than I cross the 198 to reduce the noxious methane scent emanating from the Harris Ranch cattle farm; passing Andersen’s Pea Soup means there’s simply an hour to go. The monotony is helped by a handful of dependable pit stops: the roadside fruit stands alongside the Grapevine, some novelty blackberry wine at Casa de Fruta off the Pacheco Go, or the compulsory lunch break on the Harris Ranch Categorical for Santa Maria-style tri-tip sandwiches.

California wildfires in 2020Getty Photos

This journey, although, could be completely different. The momentary reduction gained by the late summer time flattening of California’s COVID-19 curve was diminished by August’s unrelenting wildfires that choked the state, and the worldwide pandemic meant any stops could be fast. Masks pulled double obligation that weekend for me and my trip-mates, defending us from the unfold of the virus in addition to air thickened with flecks of white ash. It rained down on the automobile in flurries as we drove and continued after we lastly arrived on the resort close to the Oakland airport the place we’d spend that Friday night. My journey that August was a part of an epic several-month statewide barbacoa crawl, and on this fiery leg — targeted on Hidalguense-style pit-cooked meat in and across the Bay Space — it appeared like my colleagues and I have been those getting smoked. Among the many locations on our checklist have been a number of backyards, some entrance lawns, and at the very least one laundry room, unfold among the many working-class Hayward neighborhood of Jackson Triangle, San Francisco, Richmond within the East Bay, and Napa County’s American Canyon.
We have been particularly searching for ximbó — a uncommon type of hen barbacoa — which, within the Indigenous Otomi language of Hñahñu Otomi, means “maguey stalks.” It’s a method of barbacoa that’s native to the municipality of Actopan within the Mexican state of Hidalgo, which is taken into account to be the cradle of barbacoa. What mole is to Oaxaca and birria is to Jalisco, barbacoa is to Hidalgo. The barbacoa pageant held annually in Actopan attracts a world viewers, showcasing conventional cooks who’re revered for his or her adherence to ancestral cooking methods in a land punctured by wood-fired barbecue pits that unfold all through the state.
We have been particularly searching for ximbó — a uncommon type of hen barbacoa — which, within the Indigenous Otomi language of Hñahñu Otomi, means “maguey stalks”
They prepare dinner varied forms of meat in Hidalgo, together with goat and lamb, however ximbó (additionally known as pollos en ximbó) is among the extra area of interest. It entails a complete spatchcocked hen that’s generously slathered in adobo (a conventional marinade of dried chiles, citrus, and spices), strewn with pork pores and skin and cactus strips, and neatly packaged in maguey leaves earlier than being slow-cooked in a pit. However there’s no “all the time” in Mexican meals, and so ximbó may embody minimize parts of hen together with ram, pork shank, pork ft, and pork ribs — all cooked in the identical pit. Regardless of the mixture, as soon as it’s cooked, use a tortilla to tug off a little bit of meat, closely scented with dried fruit from the chiles, and in a single movement scoop up a few of the salty salad of cactus and gelatinous pork rinds dripping with adobo. You’ll be three blissful bites in earlier than you even keep in mind so as to add the salsa.
Most guests to Mexico have their first style of barbacoa in Mexico Metropolis, the place — as within the U.S. — nearly all of the distributors signify Hidalgo-style barbacoa, cooking largely lamb. However virtually by no means ximbó. Even in Mexico, ximbó is the unicorn of the barbacoa world: uncommon, bordering on mythic, which solely provides to its mystique. The Bay Space is the one place in america the place you’ll discover it — properly, perhaps there’s that one condo in Pacoima — and as my colleagues and I shortly realized final August, even right here it’s a troublesome rating. Two hours into our Saturday morning mission and we’ve already had one failure: A stand I’d examine known as Hayward Barbacha turned up dry for ximbó, although the lamb was fairly nice. However there was a glimmer of hope at our second cease, a residence in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood.

Norma Morales serves conventional Hildaguese barbacoa at her house in San Francisco.

Barbacoa taco and consomé at Norma Morales’s house

Crossing the San Mateo Bridge, the longest bridge in California, gave me a while to digest the meal of heady lamb and denied expectations.
The street led us up the 101 freeway to San Francisco’s southernmost limits, finally dropping us on the laundry room taquería of an Italianate row home in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood, which appears like getting into a time warp, earlier than the dot-com increase erased town’s edge. It was rumored that one might purchase Hildaguese-style ximbó right here, and the sight of two girls within the slender walkway chopping greens and warming corn tortillas had me feeling optimistic. A 3rd girl instructed us to attend a couple of minutes, then defined that the place is run by a lady from Puebla, Norma Morales, whose husband is from Hidalgo. “So most of our clients are from Puebla,” she defined, “they usually solely need lamb.”
That’s why, it turned out, ximbó is barely generally on the menu — and at present was not a kind of instances. Such are the challenges of catering to Mexico’s discerning provincial palates. We determined we’d attempt the lamb anyway, one other glistening comfort prize wrapped in a corn tortilla. The consomé, particularly, was wealthy and soulful, and we fortunately slurped it whereas sitting on the backside of Morales’s concrete staircase, relishing a plate of barbacoa pretty much as good as you’ll discover wherever within the U.S. — not to mention within the Bay Space, a spot the place it’s largely believed that the Mexican meals scene begins and ends at burritos.
Like most Mexican meals on this a part of California, the barbacoa scene right here is nebulous and scattered
Like most Mexican meals on this a part of California, the barbacoa scene right here is nebulous and scattered, with Hidalguense origins rising as the one whiff of a continuing. Neat, brick-lined pits are dug in backyards, aimlessly unfold out, fragmented by the Bay Space’s lengthy historical past of segregation, discriminatory housing practices, and tech-fueled gentrification that, beginning within the early 2000s, dismantled the Mission District as a Mexican and Central-American stronghold.
Having grown up about an hour’s drive away in Stockton, I spent many weekends going to Giants and A’s video games, taking journeys to Sausalito and Pier 39. I noticed my first live performance, Van Halen, on the Oakland Coliseum in 1981. From ’90 to ’95, I used to be a touring musician dwelling in Oakland and had greater than my justifiable share of Mission burritos earlier than units on the Elbo Room, Biscuits and Blues, or Harry Denton’s in San Francisco. Just lately, after a e-book signing at Omnivore Books, I used to be taken for a brief stroll down nostalgia lane, to La Taquería, the place James Beard-honored burrito goals are unwrapped in foil.

Prime: The house of Hayward Barbacha in Hayward, California. Left: Lamb head barbacoa with consomé and accoutrements at Hayward Barbacha. Proper: A stellar lamb barbacoa taco.

Lately it’s comparatively simple to seek out an incredible taco round Oakland’s Fruitvale barrio and components of Richmond, particularly because the quesabirria increase of 2019. The early aughts noticed a rise in Mayan immigration from the Yucatán — the Bay Space now has extra Yucatán-style eating places than LA — and arrivals from Guanajuato, amongst different states, have additionally contributed to the bump within the space’s meals scene. However the main Mexican inhabitants right here nonetheless comes from Hidalgo; the state’s strained financial system has drawn a gradual stream of immigrants for years, and Hidalguenses born within the Bay Space proceed to lure others north with guarantees of household and work, primarily in development. Collectively, the inflow of cultures has introduced new dishes and flavors to the aforementioned, underappreciated Mexican desk right here, particularly over the past decade.
The goat barbacoa’s excellence was additional oil-slicked testimony about this a part of California and its so-called sucky Mexican meals
However, regardless of its fame as one of some U.S. cities that boasts an iconic Mexican-American burrito, Mexican meals within the Bay Space continues to be largely thought to be not nice by the self-anointed guardians of authenticity. The price of dwelling in San Francisco compelled a lot of the Mexican inhabitants into extra inexpensive neighboring cities like Hayward and Richmond, each of that are greater than an hour’s drive from San Francisco with site visitors, and town’s wealthy barrio communities are actually fragmented, separated by excessive rents and lengthy bridges. Inside these enclaves, although, skilled development employees from Hidalgo have begun outfitting their very own backyards with a very helpful DIY challenge, one which might be one other huge boon to the area’s culinary status: a barbacoa pit.
In Richmond’s North & East neighborhood, a sluggish gentrification is going down as the previous WWII delivery hub turned poisonous seaport (the Chevron refinery is a significant polluter) has discovered itself an inexpensive possibility for middle-class whites, who’ve been priced out of in all places else. Whereas gentrification is creeping shortly, for now, Richmond stays a thriving Latino enclave, the place Mexicans and Central People make up 40 p.c of the inhabitants.
By late morning that Saturday, the heart beat of cumbia beats overdubbed with the rhythmic thumps of a meat cleaver directed us to our third cease, a barbacoa operation run out of the storage of a captivating pink single-family house. We have been nonetheless chasing ximbó, and as soon as once more this was not the place for it — the smells alone instructed us that this was goat barbacoa, Guanajuato-style it turned out — and our stomachs sank, however the discover appeared too serendipitous to cross up. Apart from, we have been hungry once more.

Ramon Coss and his mother-in-law Araceli Arreguin put together goat barbacoa at Barbacoa Los Ramones in Richmond California.

Ramon Coss at his barbacoa operation at his Richmond, California house

Ramon Coss weighs the barbacoa on a scaleWonho Frank Lee

The consomé at Barbacoa Los Ramones.

Consomé at Barbacoa Los Ramones

Goat barbacoa and pancita tacos at Barbacoa Los Ramones

The salsas and sides are as a lot part of the barbacoa expertise because the meat.

On the again patio have been a few picnic benches and a dear all-cedar playset. Inside, a big white-tiled kitchen island is the place Ramon Coss’s mother-in-law, Araceli Arreguin, was urgent handmade corn tortillas that will finally cradle crispy goat montalayo — the regional identify for pancita in Guanajuato, an offal-stuffed goat abdomen that’s cooked within the pit together with every thing else — served alongside a wealthy consomé swirling with trails of red-orange fats. The goat barbacoa at Coss’s place was impeccable, pretty much as good as something I’d had in LA — or in Mexico, for that matter. It wasn’t ximbó, however its hanging excellence was additional oil-slicked testimony about this a part of California and its so-called sucky Mexican meals. It didn’t go unnoticed that this was my third meal of devastatingly nice Bay Space barbacoa in a row, and I used to be barely even making an attempt.
A brief drive away from Coss’s house is the Richmond Flea Market, recognized to locals as La Pulga. Right here we discovered Barbacoa Mejía, the place Omar Mejía serves lamb barbacoa, pollos en ximbó, and antojitos that his household has been cooking for greater than 80 years at their barbacoa stand in Tulancingo, Hidalgo. Located on the finish of a blighted street, in an unscenic parking zone behind an auto-wrecking yard, Richmond’s La Pulga is a barbacoa lover’s dream with half a dozen lamb barbacoa distributors from completely different cities in Hidalgo spaced out between raveled wood tables lined in dishware, used home equipment, low cost cellphone equipment, and a pupusa stand.
The stand Mejía runs on Saturdays is tucked on the very finish of one of many rows of pink repurposed delivery container stalls, shaded by canopies of aluminum, a stand that’s earned the approval of NorCal Hidalguenses. “I like the flavour right here, it makes me keep in mind my land,” stated Sagrario Bravo, who’d pushed an hour and a half from Lockeford that Saturday to carry barbacoa again to her household. That day, Bravo was one in all a handful of patrons on the stand, however earlier than the pandemic, Mejía had 13 waitresses, 25 full tables, a ready checklist, and a busy line of to-go clients.
The wafts of lamb have been sufficient to encourage our appetites, so we sat all the way down to our fourth lamb barbacoa feast of the day
We noticed heapfuls of juicy lamb barbacoa however have been crushed to as soon as once more discover no ximbó in sight. Whereas I used to be greater than inspired — impressed even — by all the opposite glorious examples of Hidalguense barbacoa, at that second I’d have actually killed for a hen.
However we have been right here, and Mejía was past pleasant, and the wafts of lamb have been sufficient to encourage our appetites, and so we not so begrudgingly sat all the way down to our fourth lamb barbacoa feast of the day. In spite of everything, this man’s household identify is legend again house for greater than ximbó. “Nearly all of my household does barbacoa,” stated Mejía. “My father continues to promote there [in Tulancingo], my brothers, my cousins [also sell barbacoa].” Like many Hidalguenses, Mejía got here to the Bay Space to work in development. Whereas he continues to take jobs, the barbacoa enterprise has turn out to be his fundamental focus. Along with working the stand, he cooks and delivers barbacoa that’s served at Victoria’s, a restaurant in Santa Rosa, however he by no means brings his ximbó — that stays within the household.
If Mejía solely cooked lamb, consomé, pancita (offal-stuffed abdomen) — particularly, his delicately flavored pancita blanca (white pancita with out adobo) — his model could be with out peer. Pancita blanca needs to be cleaned with further care, since there’s no adodo to masks the gruddy perils that lie hidden within the cracks and crevices of the spongy delicacies which can be packed right into a lamb’s abdomen and cooked within the barbacoa pit. Right here, in a corn tortilla, dressed with a inexperienced salsa of tomatillos, xoconostles (savory prickly pear), and chinicuiles (grubs), it’s a nuanced offal dish. His lamb, too, was very good and soothed our heavy, drained eyes with smoky satisfaction — virtually sufficient to smother the ximbó disappointment.
As we ready to slink again to our resort beds the place we’d sleep off our unfulfilled goals of hen barbacoa, Mejía walked over. In a reassuring voice he stated gently, “Come to my house in American Canyon tomorrow morning. I do ximbó on Sundays.”

The stand of Barbacoa Mejía on the Richmond Pulga

Consomé at Barbacoa Mejía

Barbacoa dressed with salsa at Barbacoa Mejía

Ash was nonetheless falling from the sky from one more hearth as we drove by way of the calm residential neighborhood in American Canyon the following morning.
The gateway to Napa, stuffed with two-story houses with giant fenced yards that clock in round half one million every, this isn’t sometimes the type of place the place you discover hyper-regional barbacoa. The semitrailer-size taco truck we handed on the way in which was the one signal we would, in truth, be in the appropriate place. The scent of scorched earth from the close by LNU Lightning Advanced hearth mingled with the scent of roasting chiles and herbs as we approached the home.
Enclosed in an outdated however sturdy dog-eared fence was a gravel-lined yard with a cellular flattop grill arrange on an expansive brick patio in mismatched patterns — an indication that it was in-built phases, because the enterprise grew and more room was wanted for picnic benches. That is the place we discovered Mejía along with his son Omar Jr. and daughter, Vivian. “I’ve been making ready all of the salsas for the tacos, and the adobo for the ximbó, to assist out my dad since I used to be seven,” stated Vivian. Her plan is to switch to UC Berkeley when she’s achieved at Napa Valley Faculty — that or “examine someplace in LA or London.”

The house of Omar Mejía and his household in American Canyon, California

Since her father started cooking within the Bay Space 12 years in the past, the neighborhood of Hidalguenses right here has solely grown, partly resulting from a requirement for development employees by Mexican recruiters, the well-connected contractors used to accumulate low cost labor from these small cities in Hidalgo. Like many Hidalguenses, Mejía has helped construct the trendy Bay Space we see at present by hand whereas erecting a life for himself on this nation. Barbacoa is what he does on the facet to assist make ends meet, nevertheless it’s not misplaced on him that he’s additionally carrying on the household custom. “Again once I began the enterprise right here, there weren’t many individuals from Hidalgo; extra [from] Jalisco, Michoacán,” stated Mejía. “They didn’t like our meals a lot, however then extra folks have been arriving from Hidalgo.”
We marveled on the hen’s flesh smeared with a caked-on layer of glistening pork rinds and cactus bâtonnets, blended with pink lumps of adobo
We milled in regards to the scenic yard for a bit, jittery from starvation and the anticipation of the long-awaited ximbó. “It’s prepared,” Mejía beckoned as we rushed over to snap photos of the pair of adobo-stained, rectangular parcels of spatchcocked complete hen, maguey leaves wrinkled from the warmth of the pit. Because the leaves have been peeled off, we marveled on the hen’s flesh smeared with a caked-on layer of glistening pork rinds and cactus bâtonnets, blended with pink lumps of adobo. The entire thing was held collectively by thick twine like a gift you unwrap, then rip aside. We spent the morning pinching off hunks of tender hen, chicharrones, and cactus with thick blue corn tortillas. Ximbó is a celebration dish, a favourite at quinceañeras just like the one Mejía ready pre-pandemic that concerned 65 chickens. These have been roasted only for us in Mejía’s personal yard pit, dug into the bottom, lower than quarter-hour from the chateau-esque tasting room at Domaine Carneros.
By midday on Sunday, Mejía packed up our leftover ximbó, tortillas, and the salsa verde stuffed with grubs, which, after three weekends straight of barbacoa sprees, I gave the impression to be the one member of my occasion enthusiastic about. Six hours later, after driving headfirst south by way of apocalyptic skylines with the approaching worry of the harrowing COVID winter on the horizon, I contemplated a late Monday breakfast of fastidiously reheated tacos de ximbó with salsa verde de chinicuiles and the way all of it — bingeing on rarefied hen barbacoa and simply usually world-class Mexican cooking within the San Francisco Bay Space — would appear like an unattainable dream.

However when it comes to barbacoa — particularly a hard-to-suss-out ximbó scene — let it’s recognized that San Francisco has made an El-Faro-Gigante-level improve, with further bitter cream. Each time one talks in regards to the San Francisco Bay Space’s Mexican meals, it not often goes past Mission-style burritos, fashionable taquerías, and the present birria craze. And but, in a patchwork of houses like this throughout the area, in addition to within the barbacoa stalls of La Pulga in Richmond, I’m studying that Bay Space Mexican delicacies — barbacoa, particularly — may be spoken of solely as distinctive. Removed from the prying eyes of English-language media, the Bay Space has quietly blossomed right into a veritable barbacoa paradise unmatched in its uncommon provincial choices, because of the inflow of Hidalguenses and others arriving annually, hungry for work and a chew of ximbó. Los Angeles could have loads of big-name barbacoa stars serving an enormous combined viewers, however what makes the Bay Space’s scene so particular is its low-key flex, its insular focus; the really good things — just like the ximbó — is reserved only for the insiders, the die-hards, the household. That’s accurately. And as for the remainder of us? Belief me once I say that the lamb at La Pulga will greater than do.
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Invoice Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning author and creator of LA Mexicano.