Chef Hugo Sanchez serendipitously happened upon a Craigslist ad for a restaurant in Boyle Heights three years ago when he was thinking of opening his own restaurant. The ad was written by the owner of Antojitos Carmen, a media darling that rose in the ranks from the infamous Breed Street food carts into a bona fide brick-and-mortar. Sanchez bought the restaurant and reopened it as La Barbacha in late 2012. Locals were crushed by the news of Carmen’s departure, and rightfully so, but that may have led some to overlook the impeccable Mexican food being served by Sanchez and his wife.
At first glance, this 30-seat restaurant appears to offer a single basic item: roasted lamb barbacoa served with fresh-pressed tortillas. Sanchez admits that he prefers the lamb tacos with a side of consommé (lamb broth); he eats them every weekend. The recipe for the lamb is his father’s, who hails from Hidalgo. The menu also interestingly mimics that of an older, competing barbacoa restaurant that started in the same neighborhood.
Perhaps to snag some its leftover clientele, La Barbacha serves many of the antojitos previously found at Antojitos Carmen, now available with lamb. There are lamb huaraches, gorditas, tortas and sopes. There’s also a cute hand-painted cartoon sheep logo hanging next to the tables. This may be a bit offputting if you contribute to PETA, or happen to be vegan.
There are a few key differences that put La Barbacha among Los Angeles' top barbacoa specialists. First are the excellent mixiotes de borrego ($9), a spicy stew of roasted lamb ribs, which arrives fork-tender, wrapped inside a foil canoe (corn husks are traditionally used). The dish, a specialty of central Mexico (where Sanchez was born) packs a wonderfully fragrant punch. Fold the meat inside the fresh, supple tortillas to create a taco that’s perfect for Instagram. To calm the firestorm of chili, these mixiotes comes with a side of soothing sopa de fido, or tomato noodle soup.
Equally potent is the stellar chile de arbol salsa, which when ladled inside the restaurant's torta de borrego becomes a rival to the spiciest of torta ahogada in town. Finally, there’s always pulque at La Barbacha, the pre-Hispanic fermented agave beverage that resembles a boozy, milky sibling of kombucha and is a popular intoxicant in parts of rural Mexico. Washing down a plate of mixiote de borrego with gulps of pulque was a previously impossible feat in East L.A., at least by legal means. If you're not into pulque, you can also nurse your hangover by sipping cups of funky consommé and simultaneously pounding mugs of the extraordinarily spicy micheladas. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
While fans of Carmen may have moved on, fans of reasonably priced lamb in a shifting neighborhood — Guisados is only a few blocks away — should not miss this rustic mom-and-pop effort from a first-time restaurant owner.
La Barbacha, 2510 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights; (323) 264-1451, facebook.com/LaBarbachaLA.