In the Smallest State in Mexico, A Search for the Perfect Taco

Two hours from Mexico City, Tlaxcala offers a chance to leave the tourist-taco trail to see what’s happening close to the source of the ingredients.

Aerial view of Tlaxcala

A bird’s-eye view of Tlaxcala, the smallest state in Mexico and home to one of the world’s best tacos.

Photo by Miguel Rodriguez Paredes/Shutterstock

Decades ago, a midmorning meal at a roadside restaurant in central Mexico inspired a lifelong quest. At the time, I lived with family friends in the state of Querétaro, and early one Sunday, they piled me into their car and drove into the hills outside of town. We eventually stopped at a roadside building, marked only by a billboard with a painting of a lamb, where two women on low stools outside the door patted out blue corn tortillas with warm, grandmotherly efficiency.

Wrapped in those tortillas was my first taste of Hidalgo-style barbacoa: lamb cooked overnight in a pit, wrapped in the leaves of the agave plant, steaming in its own juices over the slow heat of coals from a wood fire. The sweet corn smell of fresh masa on the comal wove into my brain; the sticky-richness of meat and the gentle crunch of chunks of salt embedded in it formed a core memory. In a place I had been struggling to learn the language, to find my place, one taste suddenly made me feel completely at home.

I have since eaten barbacoa all over Mexico, sometimes on trips taken with little more than a flimsy cover of an excuse to go eat more barbacoa.

Barbacoa comes from the precolonial culinary traditions of the Taíno, a people indigenous to the Caribbean. As the technique of slowly roasting meat made its way across Mexico, it adapted to the local flora and fauna. In the northern borderlands, the meat of choice is beef, often the head. Elsewhere, they cook chicken, goat, or rabbit. Sometimes avocado or banana leaves stand in for the agave leaves. But to me, true barbacoa is the lamb dish common in the state of Hidalgo and its neighbors.

Last summer, I finally set out from my home in Seattle for the hills of Hidalgo, ready to eat the region’s best, to better understand its origins, and, I hoped, to find the quintessential version. With a fellow food writer friend, Lydia, we planned a three-day, 300-mile, eight-barbacoa-stop road trip, starting with a sprawling barbacoa Disneyland called El Pica. Dozens of lambs cook in the 11 pit ovens called hoyos to feed the more than 1,500 people who descend each weekend on the connected stalls selling various drinks, side dishes, and desserts.

We drove into the Sierra de Pachuca, up the foothills and past old mining settlements, to the Pueblo Mágico of Huasca de Ocampo, a sweet mountain town. We followed leads and our noses, taking the recommendation of the front desk worker at our hotel, the Bella Vista, to visit a parking lot stand called Barbacoa Los Pirris, where the consomé helped wake us up. That led to Barbacoa Los Garcías simply because it looked cool; the deep flavor of the dark red salsa helped make up for the mild flavor of the meat. We paused to admire waterfalls cascading over basaltic prisms—a stunning and rare formation of 100-foot-tall, five- and six-sided rock columns lining a canyon. After exploring the 18th-century Hacienda de Santa María Regla, a colonial-era estate of a wealthy Spanish count and silver miner, we continued our search. We tasted so many versions of barbacoa, one after another—some gamey, some dry, most fine, but none matching my teenage memories. With only one day left, I felt like the landscape around us: dry and fried by heat.

Over mango pulque (a classic fermented agave drink often paired with barbacoa) and bone-shard-filled (but otherwise excellent) barbacoa tacos at El Carnerito (a place commended by the Mexican president) my comrade-in-carne suggested we give up hunting in Hidalgo and head to Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state, just under two hours away. We stopped twice more before leaving Hidalgo, a last-gasp hope that somewhere on the side of the highway, I would find my ideal barbacoa stand.

To paraphrase Buckwheat from Little Rascals, I had been looking for lamb in all the wrong places. Tlaxcala, whose name means “the place of the tortillas,” turned out to be the off-the-tourist-taco-trail home of my barbacoa dreams. It grows an outsize amount of the nation’s corn, with a particular focus on heirloom varieties, and agave—for both pulque and the leaves in which the lamb is cooked.

We wandered the central plaza, where the orange, pink, and green facades of the municipal buildings and museum looked out over the leafy square, anchored by a gazebo, then headed out to Cuatro Volacanes Distillery. Siblings Ernesto, Celeste, and Getzany Vargas Mendoza borrowed their mother’s garage to set up their still in 2018 and turn Tlaxcala’s heirloom corn—and other local products—into spirits. We entered next to the array of stills and fermentation tanks on the bottom floor, where the room retained the feel of a garage. But the dining room loft, filled with leather couches, houseplants, and clay statues of Xoloitzcuintle, the Mexican hairless dog, could have been a Brooklyn bar, save for the menu.

I ordered the Cacaxtla, a whiskey drink with passionfruit, aquafaba (the starchy water from cooking beans), and cinnamon, and we sampled two flavored spirits; one tasted exactly like café de olla, the traditional Mexican spiced coffee, and another tasted like lemon pie. Ernesto joined us and, hearing about our abandoned barbacoa quest, suggested one last stop before heading back to Mexico City the next day: Rancho Finas Hierbas. Get there by 8:30 a.m., he said. Lydia, who at this point had all but sworn she never wanted to see barbacoa again (or wake up before 10 a.m.), tensed, but she’s a good friend and committed to my quest.

Mexican street vendor cooking fry tacos with meat and sauce

Street vendors prep tacos in Tlaxcala.

Photo by Cris_mh/Shutterstock

I had arrived in Tlaxcala a defeated woman. Yet if memory serves, the clouds parted as a rainbow appeared and angels sang when we arrived at Rancho Finas Hierbas the next morning. (In reality, I cursed at Google Maps as it sent me through a grassy field to a dead-end. I U-turned near some lonely cows before making my way back toward a bullfighting arena, which I then realized housed the barbacoa restaurant.)

We walked through an arched wooden door beneath the stands and into the restaurant. They wouldn’t open the pit until nine, the server said, but we were welcome to sit and have coffee. We ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice served in Mason jars with striped straws, a pastry, and a tlacoyo to tide us over, then followed the crowd out the back door at exactly nine.

Guillermo Veloz, a toreador turned barbacoyero, cooks the meat here. His wife and children make the sauces and sides. Then, once a week on Sunday mornings, for just a few hours, they open the doors.

Ruggedly handsome and dressed in a denim shirt and leather apron, Veloz shoveled dirt from the top of one of the two hoyos; it held a half-dozen lambs that roasted overnight. Families pressed up against the round brick pit, diners angling for photos as the metal top came off and the agave leaf–wrapped meat came into view.

He pulled back the leaves and reached in, dropping a chunk of meat onto the cutting board. He sliced off generous chunks and placed them in tortillas, freshly made and stacked next to him, and passed them around the gathered audience, a snack to tide the hungry hordes.

We sipped bowls of consomé, cooked under the lamb to catch all the drippings in a deeply flavored broth. Overhearing a woman asking for salsa de chinicuil, we, too, requested the sauce made with worms that live in the maguey plant—the same one from which come the leaves wrapping our barbacoa and which ferments into the pulque in our mugs. It came on a tortilla, tiny red squiggles in a spicy green sauce, and tasted of mezcal as it cut through the richness of the fatty, juicy lamb ribs and tender shoulder tacos we ordered.

Stuffed and curious, we wandered back out. Veloz paused his work to slice us pieces of pancita—stomach stuffed with a variety of organ meats. Then he handed off the knife and offered to show us around. While he learned the art of both bullfighting and barbacoa from his father, he only opened this restaurant four years ago. During the week, he is the caretaker of a different bullring in Apizaco, the town he lives in, 20 minutes away. On weekends, he shares a hobby with me: seeking the best Hidalgo-style barbacoa. But while I look to eat it, he looks to make it.

Barbacoa begins with the lamb, and Veloz specially crossbreeds and raises Charollais and Dorper sheep for the ideal combination of less fat and more flavor. In the barn, he pointed out the double floor, with a slotted top surface that allows manure to fall through and prevents bacterial contamination. He avoids giving them certain medicines because they wind up contaminating the land and killing the mushrooms that grow here. “I’m trying to think of the future,” he said. He uses only male six-month-old lambs, because they have less variation in yield and meat texture.

This was the barbacoa I had been looking for, the ethereal Sunday morning flavor wrapped in a blanket of tortilla patted out moments before, still sweet with the scent of fresh corn. But also, something more. “What we sell here is the experience of opening the oven. You can smell the fusion of the mud, the firewood, and the agave leaves. It’s not anywhere else,” Veloz said. I agreed: It didn’t taste of Hidalgo, the place I set out to devour. It tasted of Tlaxcala.

Know before you go

Tlaxcala is a small town but just a 90-minute drive from Mexico City’s main Benito Juárez International Airport. Buses connect both Mexico City and the closer city of Puebla to Tlaxcala, although it is helpful to have a car to get to the two restaurants recommended in the story: Barbacoa Veloz at Rancho Finas Hierbas and the Cuatros Volcanes Distillery Gastrobar. The stunning and central Hotel San Francisco Tlaxcala retains the historic touches of the century-old building, like a stained-glass roof in the entryway, while a recent remodel gave it modern amenities, including an enormous indoor pool in the courtyard.

Naomi Tomky’s award-winning food and travel writing has been published by the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Book.
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