Netflix’s Taco Chronicles docuseries has been described as a love letter to the taco. And let me tell you, tacos deserve all this love and more. They are the quintessential Mexican food and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner (or even better as a late-night snack). The taco has suffered a mischaracterization in the minds of many Americans (no, a taco does not have a crunchy shell filled with ground beef, taco seasoning and sour cream) and the Taco Chronicles works to educate people about the history and diversity of tacos, but in a mouth-watering, entertaining way. Each episode focuses on one type of taco, starting with al pastor all the way through to barbacoa and guisado.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you put it on your list for your next Netflix session. It’s very well made and includes the perspectives of chefs, food experts and also just regular people enjoying tacos.
Episode Five of Netflix’s Taco Chronicles highlights the breakfast taco of Mexico: barbacoa. It may be a breakfast taco but there’s definitely no scrambled eggs or black beans here. Barbacoa is traditionally made from sheep’s meat and is prepared the pre-Hispanic way, cooked overnight in pits dug into the ground.
So how exactly is it cooked? Well in the late morning/early afternoon, huge fires are started in the brick pits to heat them up and create charcoal for cooking. Once the wood has broken down, the pits are lined with maguey (agave) leaves (the same plant used to make mezcal) and a huge pot of stock is lowered into the bottom. Then the legs, ribs, head, belly, etc. of the sheep is piled up on top of a grill and the maguey leaves are folded over the top. With the pit full of the meat from at least a few sheep, the top is placed on the pit and mud and then dirt covers the cracks to ensure that no smoke or vapor escapes. The pits are left overnight for the meat to steam until it just falls apart in your hand. Around 7am, the pits are uncovered and meat is taken out, ready to be sold to hungry Mexicans as tacos and consome (the stock with rice and chickpeas and now full of all the meat fat that cooked off all night).
P.S. This whole process is shown in the show and is a cool behind-the-scenes look that shows how much of a religious experience this is – check it out.
Barbacoa is easy to find all over Mexico City. Stands pop up on the weekends on street corners and small restaurants lining the highways that exit the city fill up with families stopping for breakfast on the way to their weekend adventure. But, if you want to experience a true barbacoa pilgrimage to a place that prepares barbacoa the traditional way and is a weekend adventure in and of itself, then you need to go to one of the places featured on the show, El Pica, and taste just how amazing the barbacoa from Netflix really is.
Texcoco’s Barbacoa Mecca
El Pica is located in Texcoco, a town in the state of Estado de Mexico, about an hour outside of Mexico City. El Pica is the nickname of its founder, who used to be a picapleitos (troublemaker) when he was a kid. He started the restaurant fifty years ago when he had just come back from working for a time in the U.S. Since then it has exploded and there are currently three El Pica locations in Texcoco.
El Pica I, the original, is called the Disney World of barbacoa in the show because of how magical the experience is. Once you get to Texcoco, you’ll start winding up narrow roads, getting higher and higher in elevation. You’ll pull into the parking lot surrounded by woods and follow the signs to enter. Wispy hanging vines will brush your head and shoulders as you walk through a long passage through the woods. You’ll pass rustic open stands selling drinks or goodies until you arrive at the end – the barbacoa stand! Everything is open air here, with rustic structures providing vine-covered roofs under which you can buy food or eat at a picnic table.
How to Order at El Pica
First up: barbacoa! Figure out how much meat you want and if you want it with or without the bone. It’s sold by the kilo (though you can get half and quarter kilos) and the consome is sold by the liter. One kilo of bone-in barbacoa costs $428 pesos and boneless is $438 pesos. A liter of consome is $50 pesos. Once you’ve decided, you pay in the corner (cash or card) and then get in line with your ticket, where you can watch them pull the meat out of the pits and onto the scale for your tacos. Once you hand over your ticket, they’ll pull out your meat and wrap it in plastic and paper and give you a few limes in the bag. They should give you a mixture of cuts but if you like a specific cut more you can specify that they put more of that in (we asked for more panza, mmmm).
To get your consome, walk closer to the pits and hand over your consome ticket. They’ll ladle out the rice and chickpea soup from the steaming pot and fill up of liter container for you (bonus points if you have your own container because they give you a styrofoam one). You can also sort of oogle from here and try to peer down into the open pits. Once you’re set with your barbacoa, then you need to get the rest of your meal. Everything else needs to be bought from other stands or brought with you from home. The great thing is that there’s so much variety here, even if you bring along a vegetarian or someone doesn’t end up loving barbacoa, there are lots of other options (carnitas, tlacoyos, etc.).
You’ll need to grab some tortillas at the tortilla stand to make tacos, or ask for some quesadillas at the quesadilla stand to make barbacoa quesadillas (my personal fave). Don’t forget chopped onions and salsa, also sold at the various nearby stands. There is also a variety of drinks, in bottles or from jarras (jugs) and even some pulque or beer if you feel like you need some hair of the dog or really want to level up the relaxation day. If you didn’t bring your own plates or napkins, you’ll need to buy those too but all the stands are close by. Once you’ve gotten all the necessary components for your meal, grab an available picnic table and set up shop.
Next step, enjoy! Barbacoa has a unique taste and absolutely falls apart in your hand when you’re constructing your taco. The juiciness of the meat makes it so delicious but also sort of messy, don’t try to skip on the napkins I mentioned earlier. Bring your friends or family and enjoy your día de campo in this lovely setting. There are even mariachi bands wandering around if you fancy a song and a children’s play area. Overall, it’s a great way to spend a weekend day and an awesome escape from Mexico City.
- Go on a Saturday or very early Sunday morning. Most families go on Sundays so if that’s the only time you can go then make sure you get there when it opens at 8am or be prepared to wait a long time or potentially (gasp) run out of barbacoa! Even if you go on a Saturday, try not to arrive too late, there’s a limited amount of freshly cooked meat.
- Go by car. It might technically be possible to get there on a myriad of public transportation options but it would be difficult, especially the last bit. You could potentially get an Uber ride there but going back might be a challenge and it’ll be really expensive. Your best bet if you don’t have your own car is to convince your closest friend who has a car that this would be an amazing experience (which it is), and pitch in for gas money.
- Bring a jacket or sweatshirt. You’ll be in the woods high up in elevation so it’s significantly cooler than in Mexico City.
- Pack some picnic necessities. When we went we felt like newbies next to the expert-level families who rolled up with stocked coolers and dishware. I also felt bad creating styrofoam and plastic waste in such a beautiful area (to be fair I feel bad about that even when not in a beautiful area but it makes it extra extra bad).
- Bring an appetite. We were tempted to eat some snacks on our early-morning ride out to El Pica but remember, you are going there to eat! Build up your appetite on the ride and the barbacoa will taste even more delicious.
- Clear your schedule. Actually eating the delicious food probably won’t take too long but this is a wonderful natural area where you feel like you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city and the stressors of normal life. So if possible, clear our your day so that you don’t have to rush back to the city and try to relax a bit.
So now that you know how to find the barbacoa from Netflix, text your friends and family and plan your barbacoa pilgrimage weekend. Let me know how you enjoy it 🙂
Not ready to head there quite yet? Then pin this image to remember for later.