Texas and Mexico share so much beyond a border. Take the art of barbecue, as ancient as a pit in the desert or as modern as a Big Green Egg on a suburban patio.
For chef Hugo Ortega, who with his wife, Tracy Vaught, runs Hugo’s restaurant in Houston’s Montrose district, Mexican barbacoa is soul food. The kind of meat used in barbacoa varies with the countryside. In the hot, dry northeastern corner of Puebla, the region where Ortega grew up, goat was the preferred animal, cooked low and slow in a pit tricked out with woven straw mats and hot rocks. “As a little kid, I remember making these holes in the ground and putting in meat that had been seasoned with sea salt and avocado leaves and just leaving it there overnight,” Ortega says.
Of course, not too many of us have that kind of time, so Ortega, along with his brother and pastry chef, Ruben, has simplified the process. This recipe showcases lamb, which is more common in the cooler mountains in the northwest corner of Puebla, and instead of the whole animal, it employs a leg, which is wrapped in banana leaves or parchment paper to seal in moisture and then slow-roasted at home in the oven. The lamb is marinated with a rustic, lightly spicy adobo sauce, resulting in tender meat that replicates the flavors they remember and makes for a showstopper of a dish.
The Ortega brothers like to serve their barbacoa taco-style, shredding the meat and tucking it into hot corn tortillas alongside avocado slices and a full-bodied salsa. Their preferred blend is salsa borracha, which they make by soaking a half dozen dried pasilla peppers in orange juice and beer and blending them with garlic and salt into a glossy, thick sauce.
At Hugo’s, they go through about six lambs and six goats a week. But the brothers never get tired of grabbing a taste whenever barbacoa is cooking. “When I see it,” Hugo says, “I run to get a tortilla and a little salsa so that when I finally get to the meat, I am ready to go.