Anatomy of a Classic

Mexican-Style Lamb Barbacoa

8 to 10

Barbecue from way down South

photo: Johnny Autry


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.


Ingredients

    • 1 5-lb. leg of lamb

    • Salt

    • 1¾ cups adobo marinade (recipe below)

    • 3 bay leaves

    • 1½ star anise pods

    • Banana leaves or parchment paper

    • Corn tortillas

    • Avocado slices

    • Salsa

  • Adobo Marinade

    • 3 whole ancho peppers

    • 2 whole garlic cloves

    • 5 whole allspice berries

    • 2 bay leaves

    • ½ star anise pod

    • ¼ tsp. cumin

    • ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • 3 cloves

    • ½ cinnamon stick

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt


Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place a roasting rack and 3 cups of water in the bottom of a roasting pan. Make sure the rack is higher than the water level, so the meat does not directly touch the water. (If necessary, you can place small ramekins on top of the rack to lift the meat higher.) Make 3 slits (about 2 inches long) in the top of the lamb and sprinkle the meat evenly with salt. Next, rub the lamb leg with adobo marinade and place bay leaves and star anise on top. Center lamb atop banana leaves or parchment laid flat on a cutting board. Wrap each banana leaf over meat, tucking ends and sides beneath, or tightly fold or crimp the ends of the parchment.

  2. Transfer lamb to roasting rack and cover pan tightly with aluminum foil. Roast until fork tender, about 4 to 4½ hours. Remove roasting pan from oven, and debone and shred meat. Serve with tortillas, avocado slices, and salsa.

  3. For the Adobo Marinade:

    Soak peppers in enough hot water to cover for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Drain peppers and place them in a blender with 1½ cups water and remaining marinade ingredients; puree until smooth.

Meet the Chefs: Hugo Ortega & Ruben Ortega

Restaurants: Hugo’sBackstreet Café, and Caracol, Houston, Texas
Hometown: Progreso, Puebla, Mexico
Hugo on their maternal grandmother: “She was the strongest person on the face of the earth. We got the greatest education, but she meant business. If you messed up, she would hit you with a rope.”
Ruben’s go-to kitchen tool: A molcajete (mortar and pestle) hauled back from Mexico. “It’s the heart of the kitchen. As soon as we start grinding and the smell comes out, it’s magical.”


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