El Borrego de Oro is a café hard by the doughnut shop in an Eastside mini-mall, a cramped storefront dominated by a giant juicing machine, and a dining room, if you can call it that, jammed into a narrow, L-shaped space. On weekends, the café is almost too crowded to bear, the narrow tables full of guys who empty one bottle of Mexican Coke after another and shout at the soccer game on the big television set at one end of the room. Carrots leap through the juicer with a grinding whine, to the thudding beat of massive cleavers ripping through bone, huaraches being patted into shape, meat sizzling on the grill.
This place may be barely functional as a restaurant — there are something like three copies of the menu in existence, and it wasn’t until halfway through my third visit that I realized that you weren’t supposed to order at the counter — but when the place is full, a Tuzos game is on the tube and you have just ingested a snootful of the dark, toasted-chile sauce, there is nowhere in Boyle Heights you would rather be.
In a neighborhood thronged with businesses selling carnitas, fried seafood, grilled beef, El Borrego de Oro — the Golden Sheep — stands out as a specialist in mutton, specifically mutton pit-roasted with maguey leaves in the style of the central Mexican state Hidalgo, a savory mess known by the rather generic term “barbacoa.” Mutton barbacoa is something of a grail in the eastern and southern parts of Los Angeles, where it is relatively rare. Until recently, I favored a stand down on King Boulevard, not far from USC.
But El Borrego’s barbacoa is a better version of the breed, slivers and shards and nubs hacked from a steaming carcass, some of it attached to the bone and some of it not: some crunchy, some soft, some greasy, luscious and dark. This is not tame lamb, you understand, not your pallid New Zealand rack flambéed in Chardonnay at some fancy Beverly Hills fusion boutique, but rather pungent, powerful stuff, sweetly reeking of the gamy underbrush, like lamb that bites you back. My favorite recipe for barbacoa suggests marinating the meat in two bottles of tequila should the maguey leaves be unavailable. Mary might very well have had a little lamb, sure, but this mutton would have had her, for lunch, instead.
With the barbacoa comes a bowl of lamb broth, consommé, that you can use to moisten the lamb, to eat instead of the lamb, to make your quart-size tub of carrot-beet juice more interesting, whatever. It’s wonderful soup, actually, no less lamby than the meat itself, with a few inches of stewed chickpeas hidden down at the bottom and a musky chile kick.
The basic problem at El Borrego (inasmuch as there is a problem) is that the barbacoa is available only on Saturdays and Sundays, while the restaurant is open seven days. There is the Hidalgo-style mixtiotes on Mondays, a sort of maguey-seasoned, mixed-meat roast, and as far as I know, the hand-patted sopes stuffed with beef have not been the source of many complaints. You can get a grilled mutton-chop platter if you want, a plate of thin, well-salted, well-done chops that will have you gnawing at the splintery bones that remain like a hungry junkyard dog. The quesadillas, folded fresh tortillas, are filled not with cheese but with things like huitlacoche, the inky-black corn fungus sometimes called Mexico’s answer to truffles, or with green chiles and sautéed squash blossoms. Very well and good, these foods, but they are not barbacoa.
But come weekends, no problem. Tear off a hunk of mutton, wrap it in a hot, handmade tortilla, add some onions and a spoonful of stingingly hot salsa, and you’ve got a taco you can tell your grandchildren about.
El Borrego de Oro, 2403 E. Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights, (323) 780-4213. Open daily 6 a.m.–9 p.m. AE, V. Beer and wine. Takeout. Catering. Dinner for two, food only, $16–$24.