Every weekend, Barbacoa Mejia is one of several vendors who serve barbacoa at the Richmond Flea Market. Here, two different flavors and styles are pictured—white and red. (Photo by Beth LaBerge; design by Rebecca Kao)
KQED's BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area's multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1.
f you cruise to the ends of North Richmond—past the auto body garages, tire junkyards and glass repair shops—you’ll pass a threshold where the residential neighborhood suddenly shifts. In its place, a post-apocalyptic sprawl of industrial patches cram themselves between criss-crossing train tracks and the San Pablo Bay. RV encampments huddle beneath overpasses and the horizon is punctuated by a Chevron refinery spewing smoke into the atmosphere.
To most outsiders, it isn’t a destination point; as a local resident, I’ll admit there isn’t much reason to visit unless you’ve had your window bipped and need a cheap fix. However, this outermost section of Contra Costa County is home to one of the largest immigrant Latinx populations in the Bay Area, where an amalgamation of mechanics, construction laborers, business owners, food vendors, students and community workers represent generations of scrappy hustle and grit.
On weekends, it’s where the Richmond Flea Market, or La Pulga, buzzes with merchants and wildly assorted products—second-hand power saws, bootleg Warriors merch, parakeets, knock-off Nikes and vintage cassette players—all sold at bargain prices. At this open-air hub for community gatherings and under-the-table transactions, you can snag a bicycle or stereo system, or both, in the parking lot, before you even enter the official grounds.
Yet there’s more hidden behind all that concrete, steel and backdoor miscellany than meets the eye. This makeshift pueblo’s most enticing draw, which attracts customers from all over Northern California, is not what you’d expect.
This flea market’s secret sauce? Barbacoa.
In its simplest form, barbacoa is a style of indigenous barbecue derived from pre-Hispanic methods of slow-roasting lamb, goat, cow head, chicken and other proteins inside an earthy pit. Modern methods still retain the essence of the past: An oven is prepared by digging a hole, lining it with bricks and burning wood to heat the “horno” (furnace). The meat is then wrapped in leaves of maguey—a sturdy Mexican cactus—or banana leaves, and steamed with water. The entire setup is designed to funnel run-off juices from the meat that are later served as a delicious consomé.
Once the oven is covered with steel and dirt, the cooking occurs beneath the soil, slow-burning through the night until a pitmaster skillfully removes it all to be served fresh with tortillas. Regional interpretations vary across states like Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Oaxaca and Queretaro, and depending on who and where you get your barbacoa from, the accompanying sides might include adobo, garlic, stomach, tripe, onion, chile, salsa and nopales. The commonality is the slow-cook method, and the end result of a juicy, tender, pull-apart meat.
“[Barbacoa is] an ongoing thing. In a way, no one really understands the diversity of it,” says Bill Esparza, a Mexican American food writer who has dedicated his massive appetite to the pursuit of barbacoa.
“Sometimes in the transnational exchange, people haven’t gone back or even been [to the original regions],” Esparza tells me. “Some people have some interpretations but have never been back themselves. There’s a whole process of how they prepare it, too, that gets changed because of legal codes and the challenges our communities have. We still don’t really understand regional barbacoa.”
In other words, barbacoa is whatever it needs to be for the people and context that produce it.
As a Mexican American, I’ve never been able to fully grasp barbacoa, even when I’ve eaten it at roadside stands in pueblos around San Luis Potosí. It’s as multitudinous as the people who prepare it. But the more I studied up on the dish, the clearer it became that actually cooking the meat underground is an essential part of the traditional process.
In the United States, however, the amount of labor, patience, equipment and expertise required to prepare barbacoa in this way can be difficult to come by—especially here in the Bay Area, a region more known for internet algorithms and self-driving cars than working-class, backyard throwdowns. Finding the right person with the ability and willingness to do it requires a certain dedication and insider knowledge.
After days on the hunt, I finally came close.
Euphoria doesn’t have a flavor. But if it did, it would taste like slow-cooked barbacoa de borrego, stuffed into the earth’s hot belly and wrapped in maguey stalks to be steamed overnight and devoured at sunrise with an accompaniment of handmade tortillas, pancita and consomé—served by the hands of a pitmaster who oversees each laborious step of the process. It would tingle with smoke and succulence and a slickened age-old philosophy of indigenous utilitarianism repurposed into the 21st century.
I wouldn’t know about that, though. Not exactly.
In the span of two weeks, I went from restaurant to restaurant, corner to corner, along Richmond’s “El Viente Tres”—23rd Avenue—in search of this specialized, pit-birthed barbacoa. But more often than not, the meal I ate was prepared in a conventional oven or kitchen steamer. It’s easier, quicker and more cost-efficient to ditch the traditional rigors for these modernized methods.
Along this journey, I met Pablo “El Chaparro” Perez, owner of Restaurant El Chaparro on 23rd, which serves “barbacoa estilo Hidalgo” each day of the week. Saturdays and Sundays, he also posts up at two of the most frequented food stands inside La Pulga. In the words of a patron at one of his flea market locations, “Chaparro’s barbacoa is my favorite.”
Although El Chaparro’s Hidalgo-style tacos de barbacoa are flavor-soaked—literally dripping with fatty oils and generous squeezes of lime—they aren’t cooked in the earth, as I’d hoped. As delicious as his kitchen-prepared barbacoa was, it was also yet another reminder of how much of a dying art true backyard barbacoa is.
After searching, I found at least one person at the flea market who’s practicing the old style of barbacoa—a construction worker from Hidalgo named Omar Mejia.
“To make [barbacoa] in a pot is very different,” says Mejia, who runs a barbacoa joint in the same aisle as El Chaparro.
Barbacoa Mejia is a weekend-exclusive eatery at the Richmond Flea Market—with limited pop-up services privately available. Mejia proudly operates on nearly 70 years of family tradition that can be traced back to his grandfather, father, brothers and cousins in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, where they continue to serve locals their original recipes. In Mejia tradition, barbacoa is an art form, and the paintbrush is a slow-scorching flame.
After talking to Mejia, I finally understood why many people consider barbacoa to be the true root of barbecue as we know it in the United States today. In fact, the word “barbecue” itself originates from native Taínos (now Puerto Rico) word, though “barbacoa” initially did not refer to roasting meats over a fire. Instead, the barbacoa itself was a contraption developed to suspend meat above ground, out of reach from other carnivores. Eventually, with the arrival of the Spanish and the colonization of more groups, the vocabulary was applied to cooking methods used by other indigenous people, such as the Aztecs, and evolved into its contemporary state.
Since then, barbacoa has transformed across time and locations as a lifeblood for many. Over centuries, it has slow-wandered over boundaries on the backs of immigrants who’ve traversed la frontera to pursue higher-paying careers in an ever-expanding global economy—while still yearning for the nostalgia of their past.
The way Mejia practices it, you can see the direct lineage of barbecue’s everlasting tradition of “pitmasters”: Long before there were elaborate smokers to prepare smackin’ ribs, there was barbacoa simmering inside literal pits.
“[Eating barbacoa steamed in a pot] is like eating a steak from a pan rather than an outdoor grill with coals. You lose that smokiness,” he says about substitute versions.
In a sleepy American Canyon suburb, Mejia has converted a sliver of his backyard into a living memory of—and tribute to—his faraway home in Tulancingo.
There, he serves his family’s pancita blanca (cleaned-out tripe with onion, garlic and chile piquin) plus consomé (a bone-in lamb broth with rice, garbanzo and spices) to go with the showstopping pit-roasted lamb (and on occasion or by request an even rarer version of barbacoa known as ximbó, which uses whole chickens).
Mejia prepares everything himself, or with the extra hands of his family—a college-aged son and daughter—just as he was taught as a young adult by his elders. It’s a lineage he hopes to carry forward, despite being 2,243 miles from Hidalgo.
He starts by preparing the pit one night in advance, stoking the flames for up to six hours before layering meat, maguey and a clusterof seasoned ingredients that are carefully positioned to drip into a flavorful consomé. It’s a labor of love—and one that can sometimes yield poor results if mishandled.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can undercook the meat,” he tells me. “It doesn’t matter if you leave it there for three or more consecutive days and nights. If you aren’t heating it properly, it will remain raw in the middle.”
With over 15 years of experience preparing pit-style barbacoa in the United States (and a lifetime of exposure as a family apprentice in Mexico), Mejia doesn’t worry about undercooking his lamb anymore. But it’s still a demanding, days-long task, especially for a man who works at construction sites in the morning.
On a typical day, he gets up before 7 am to check on his cooking. Once it looks and smells finished to his liking, he pulls it out to be served or packaged for immediate delivery. Every order starts from scratch, requiring at least a week’s advance notice to gather everything needed. Though slow to prepare, the finished product moves fast from hand to mouth to gut.
“There’s a freshness you can taste in the flavor,” says Mejia. “Nothing is frozen. It’s all handled by us, directly from our ranch. We do everything ourselves. It’s a family labor.”
This is where I’ll admit my biggest failure, dear reader: I was never able to see or experience the full process with Mejia. Our schedules never synced, and by the time he was ready to host me, I was boarding a plane to Mexico to visit my own family below the border.
Missing out on this Mejia family tradition makes me want to dig my own pit and crawl inside of it. And when I emerge, I hope I’ll appreciate what barbacoa is truly all about.
Thankfully, the flea market was my saving grace, a sanctuary where I could get blessed by the holy taste of barbacoa. As Esparza wrote in his account of his epic quest across California, “Richmond’s La Pulga is a barbacoa lover’s dream.” Though none of it is prepared by pit-roast, in part due to coding regulations, there are comparable variations.
As part of his weekend menu, Mejia prepares the meats in a custom-made brick and clay oven that mimics the earth-buried flavor without the time-consuming labor of digging an actual hole in the earth. It’s a method that saves him time during his busiest days, while still allowing him to produce the quantity (and quality) of dishes needed for his high-demand business.
I ate a few barbacoa tacos at his DIY bistro. It’s a worthwhile experience in itself: You’ll see señoras making blue corn tortillas by hand a few feet from where you dine while families celebrate over all varieties of plates. Other patrons simply line up to order pounds of barbacoa for the road. And you certainly can’t miss the deliciously aromatic consomé.
Besides Mejia and El Chaparro, there are more barbacoa stands like Tacos Y Tortas Carlos. The popularity of each vendor is a testament to this veritable barbacoa belt that has taken root at the Richmond-based market.
“I got the legit meat sweats after that barbacoa trip,” Esparza, the Los Angeles-based food journalist, says of his own visit to the flea market. “I was shivering, sweating. That was from all the meat we ate.”
If a barbacoa expert who uses his literal gut to survey the many profiles of barbacoa is calling the Richmond Flea Market one of the most formidable barbacoa epicenters in all of America, I believe him. More importantly, his words are reflected by the many locals who return each week, in many cases buying pounds of barbacoa to take home with them. For these folks, it’s the closest connection they have to the culinary traditions, flavors and memories of a faraway home.
If that’s not the highest form of barbecue’s sustenance, what is?
Alan Chazaro is a food reporter at KQED. He’s the author of three poetry collections and currently adjuncts at the University of San Francisco. He’s a fan of bichons frises, the Golden State Warriors and BB-8 in Star Wars.
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