Earlier this year driving back on Adams Boulevard after dim sum, we started to notice the signs. They were placed on nearly every corner from Stanford Avenue to Grand Avenue, usually painted fireman's coat yellow. They all highlighted two dishes, barbacoa and consomé — braised meat and stock of lamb –and underneath those words, an arrow.
As mysterious as those arrows seemed, nothing quite prepared us for where they would lead. The taco truck was expected, but to find ourselves suddenly in a backyard staring down at a pot of consomé (not to be confused with the French consommé), bubbling like a dark oily potion, was a real test of our desire to try Mexico's answer to haggis, pancita. We also ended up a restaurant we've driven past hundreds of times and always ignored. Two yards away from an unmarked storefront, a young man scuttled up behind us carrying the sandwich board we were following and apologetically said, Ya se termino, “we are all out,” and closed the door. It was only 2 p.m.
Nearly all the locations we visited along this stretch of Adams Boulevard proudly touted that their barbacoa was in the style of Capulhuac (pronouced “Cap-ol-Hu-ah.”) Ricardo Garduño, the owner and cook of the taco truck, Lonchera Candy, is from this small town in the capital state of Mexico. “[In Capulhuac,] many families have dedicated themselves to making barbacoa,” Garduño said. And being only about 36 miles from Mexico City, most of the barbacoa prepared in Capulhuac ends up at stands and restaurants throughout the capital city which is where Capulhuac's reputation as the barbacoa de borrego capital of Mexico has spread.
The families of Capulhuac all have their recipes for making barbacoa, which are then passed down, Garduño told us. Which is exactly what we discovered when going to location to location. What we tasted were all different in terms of spicing and even the cuts of lamb used. On our most recent visit to the area, we decided to get barbacoa and consomé from the house on Adams Boulevard near San Pedro Street, Lonchera Candy and the restaurant Taqueria D.F. to go, and try them side by side to decide which indeed was the best.
First we tried the consomé, the essence of barbacoa. Traditionally barbacoa is prepared in an oven carved out of the earth. Charcoal is lit on the bottom and a big pot, called a cazo, full of water, aromatics and spices is placed on top of the coals. Then sections of lamb are placed above cazo and the whole oven is sealed using the huge leaves of the maguey plant. As the lamb cooks, the drippings are captured by the cazo and the liquid that remains serves as the base of the consomé. Once prepared, rice and garbanzo beans are added to the consomé and it is served along side the tacos de barbacoa. A squeeze of lime, a sprinkling of cilantro and a bit of crumbled chile piquin added to the bowl, it becomes very apparent why consomé and barbacoa are considered morning foods, combined they wake up more than just the taste buds.
Despite the dark pot, the consomé at the Adams house was remarkably milky and almost delicate in its consistency. However the flavor was of pure lamb, so much so that it needed to be tamed by condiments more than the others. At Lonchera Candy, Garduño omits the rice and garbanzos as if he expects you to start sipping from the cup as you walk away with your order. Nevertheless, it is substantial and the taste complex, almost vegetal and bright on its own. Our favorite however was from Taqueria D.F.. It was the most balanced with whispers of roasted garlic and oregano. It tasted the most like a complete soup and we ate it without even thinking about the tacos.
Among the three locations, only Taqueria D.F. makes its own tortillas, so we bought just the meat and made fresh tacos at home. Taqueria D.F.'s barbacoa is a mixture of cuts, served in a minced taquero style. At the restaurant, with their fresh made tortilla, it made for one of the most tender tacos we've ever tasted. But for all that tenderness, we missed meaty texture and flavor of lamb. At the Adams house, the barbacoa is glossy trendrils of shredded loin. It was lean, yet deeply flavorful. Neverthless, it needed a good the dousing of salsa to bridge the flavors of toasty tortilla and grassy meat. Far and away, our favorite barbacoa was from Lonchera Candy because it was made up of mostly meat from from the head. Lamb cabeza is like meaty gossamer. It almost melts with the first chew, but retains the rich flavor of lamb.
By the end of our tasting, we were ready to run out and buy some more, however, it was already past 3 p.m. and all locations would have been closed by then. Even Taqueria D.F. are weekend-only operations. We had to wait another seven days to look for more arrows.
Lonchera Candy: Located on Main inbetween 23rd Street and Adams Boulevard open Saturday thru Sunday 7 a.m to 3 p.m.