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Barbacoa Sundays

My dad worked the way most immigrants who come to the U.S. do: as if his heart would cease pumping blood once sweat stopped flowing from his brow. His was a robotic pursuit of money that had nothing to do recognition or legacy. It was mostly about survival for him, his family and the restaurant he put so much of his effort into.

Rex Café was his life, and by the time I was 5-years old it was known as a go-to breakfast and lunch spot for many of the Hidalgo County employees who worked at the courthouse less than a block away on University Drive. Some of my earliest memories were of my father working the flat-top during lunch rushes as men in suits and ties filed into the booths out front. His face was etched with determination as he filled order after order of Hamburgesas Americanas and enchilada plates. He was a giant in my little world, and the hardest working man I’d ever meet.

The plates, accompanied by the sharp ding of the service bell, flew out of his kitchen as fast as the tickets came in. He’d been a cook most of his life, first working in his family’s business in Mexico and then in restaurants across Texas after crossing the border in the 70s. He developed a flow in the kitchen that would make an Olympic skater dizzy. Before too long he grew tired of working for others and hatched a plan with his new bride to open his first restaurant. By the time I was born in 1983 he was ready to start his American dream.

He found the perfect location in the middle of Edinburg and acquired most of his kitchen equipment cheap from a failed business in the middle of a fire sale. There wasn’t much capital left over for the house he promised my mother after I was born, but the building had a large office behind the business. We’d live there until things picked up, he told my mother.

About a year later, with another baby on the way, the dry-storage area behind the office was converted into a bedroom. Later on in life I’d find out there were worse things than living behind a bustling restaurant. These would be the good times.

My mother worked the register, managed the wait staff and kept the books in order. She didn’t seem to mind living behind Rex Café. It was convenient for her children to be just on the other side of the kitchen wall. I remember her running in to check on me and my sister between rushes, smiling even though I knew she was tired.

Like any child I wanted my father’s attention more than anything, but entering his whirlwind of controlled chaos wasn’t an option unless I was contributing somehow. I learned early, the best way to spend time with the old man was to join him in the trenches. I was too young to sling plates off the line, but I could still help somehow. My mother, after struggling to keep me out of the kitchen, finally agreed to let me help my father’s second cousin wash dishes. He was fresh from his first trip across the Rio Bravo and was helping out until he could find a way to Houston. After teaching me how to clean cups and silverware he left me to keep up with the steady stream of dirty dishes.

Ta cansado, mijo?” my dad would ask when my tiny frame slowed down mid-way through the dinner rush.

No, papi,” I’d say, picking up the pace on the dishes – my foot keeping time with a corrido playing on the kitchen’s cassette player.

Work brought us together because work kept us alive. The grind was everything, and sharing that with me was part of his brand of parenting. Being smart was good, he’d say, but if I worked hard too  . . . there was no telling how far I’d go.

So if work equaled a good life for his son, you can only imagine what a day off on Sunday meant. Monday would begin another whirlwind tour of duty of sweat and aching feet, but for one glorious day the flat-top and fryer stayed cool, the cash register stopped ringing out and we had time to be a family. Work, after all, wasn’t everything, and even my dad understood there needed to be some kind of balance.

Sunday’s were generally reserved for lounging around the small space behind our restaurant. We made it another six days, and it was time to finally enjoy the fruits of our labor. We’d sleep in ‘til 8 a.m., drive to La Paloma Bakery on Cano St. and order two pounds of barbacoa and a kilo of fresh corn tortillas (it’s the Rio Grande Valley – we can mix our standard and metric units of measurement if we want), go back home and devour neat, little tacos while watching the Johnny Canales Show on T.V.

I can’t remember ever being yelled at on a Sunday while my father was alive. I could mess up in any number of ways between Monday and Saturday, but not Sunday. There were no dishes to break or drinks to spill. Stepping into his station during a rush wasn’t an issue. Sundays were special . . . and so our barbacoa breakfasts became a happy part of my childhood. It was for me what pancake Saturdays are to most other Americans. It was a time to really look at my dad, give him big, long hugs and tell him how much I loved him. And he could do the same.

Funny, how tacos filled with slow-cooked beef cheek and tongue can mean so much . . .

I feel like I lost some of you with that last bit. It was all warm and fuzzy until I brought up what barbacoa really is. Let me explain.

For those of you who think you’ve been eating barbacoa in your Chipotle rice bowls, I’m sorry to say . . .  you haven’t been. You, my friends, are just eating carne deshebrada, or shredded beef. Proper barbacoa (at least where my family is from) has as much to do with the cut of meat as it does with the way you cook it. So even if it’s slow-cooked and tender – if it isn’t cow head . . .  it isn’t barbacoa.

Cooking tough, unwanted cuts of meat over night isn’t special, per se. Many cultures do it, first out of necessity and then, when people realize how good it is, out of nostalgia. The cheek and tongue, along with the tail, are some of the most used parts of the cow and are as tough as a braided rug, but it’s also the best tasting if you cook it right.

To break up the muscle and connective tissue, you need to cook it low and slow. For my family in Northern Mexico, this means digging a hole in the ground, adding some coals to the bottom, placing an entire cow head or goat into said hole, covering the opening with a piece of aluminum siding, and adding more coals to the top. The head stews in its own juices over night and in the morning . . . the meat and bones simply fall apart. With the tissue and fat completely broken down, the result is better than any roast beef you can think off – couple that with home-made tortillas and an ice cold Coca-Cola and you have an amazing culinary experience. Trust me.

Barbacoa Sundays don’t happen as often as I’d like them to anymore. Work still drives me, and Sundays are still the best time to set aside for me and my young family, but I live in the D.C. area now – the biggest Mexican cuisine desert I’ve ever lived in – and there aren’t ANY places that sell the dish the way I remember having it as a boy. So what is a Valley kid to do when he wants to impart one of the best memories of growing up to his son? I make the barbacoa at home.

BARBACOA RECIPE

Depending on where you live, you might not be able to find beef cheek at your favorite super market. Make the time to go to a local butcher shop and order it.

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My son, Reynaldo Leal III, adds meat to the crock pot. The meat cooks overnight at medium heat.

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs of beef cheek
  • 2 quarts water
  • 4 tablespoons salt
  • 4 garlic cloves chopped
  • 1 onion chopped

Directions:

  • Add water, salt, garlic and onion to large crock pot. Stir until salt is dissolved. I taste the water at this point and add salt if it’s too bland.
  • Add the beef cheek to the water. The water should mostly cover the meat.
  • Cover the crock pot and cook on high for 3 hours and then on medium for 5 hours. If you want to eat the barbacoa for breakfast, start the process the night before.
  • The barbacoa is done when you can pull the meat apart easily.

Eating:

Fill corn tortilla with pulled meat and sprinkle with a little salt. I like to add fresh cilantro, onions and salsa verde. Coca-Cola is optional, but highly recommended. The sweet, fizzy drink does a lot to break up the richness of the meat. It’s OK. It’s not every day you have real barbacoa.

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