In every Mexican family, there is a tio, abuela or tia that makes the best menudo, prepared in battlefield-sized stockpots, and leaking cough-inducing fumes of chiles, offal, and herbs. Mexicans can practically trace this distinctive bouquet with one part in twenty-five million of air. One family in East LA serves what might be the city’s best regional Mexican dish, all from the comfort on their backyard every Sunday morning. It’s a feast of pit-roasted lamb barbacoa, quesadillas, and a magically-flavored menudo that’s truly one of the special street foods finds in town.
Sadly, the kind of menudo found in most Mexican restaurants in LA is as far away from a Sunday morning at a tio’s backyard as a dorm’s dining hall is to a great street taco stand. These restaurant versions often use canned sauce and a few bits of hastily cleaned tripe not regulated by provincial norms. They’re region-less menudos.
The few exceptions in Los Angeles are the menudo blanco at El Sinaloense or the one at the back of a driveway in northeast Los Angeles, representing the outskirts of Nayarit. Chichen Itza has a serious mondongo a la andaluza which makes appearances on the menu as often as Haley’s comet crosses the earth’s path. Tamales Elena serves a smoky Guerreran-style menudo that brushes the throat with nutty, tingling layer of chile costeño. But East LA’s Barba Kush serves one of the rarest menudos in Mexico: Mole de panza enchilada made with lamb offal instead of beef.
Menudo has many regional names in Mexico: mondongo, menudo, pancita (in Mexico City), and mole de panza (Puebla). Each is made with an nearly infinite number combinations of bovine viscera and tendons. But in Tepeaca, Puebla, and in the Sierra Norte, lamb menudo is king. Petra Zavaleta, who has been preparing barbacoa and lamb menudo since she was 10 years old, started as a prep cook for her father, Julian Zavaleta, back in Tepeaca.
She has been catering events in the Mexican community since 2016, cooking lamb barbacoa prepared in an earthen pit, served with quesadillas, a garbanzo bean-packed consomé, and pit-roasted lamb skulls fastened together by cheeks, tongue, eye balls and head. But the star of the meal is a powerful bowl of lamb menudo whose hemic notes of liver with the intense flavors of stomach and chitterlings, coax the plummy, smoky tones of chile guajillo to a rich harmony worthy of the O’Jays.
The scene at this East LA house is familiar to the various Mexican groups seeking cures for la cruda (hangover) from their hometowns on Sunday mornings. For Mexicans from La Barca, Jalisco, there’s a place to gather for goat birria, with a bunch of picnic benches assembled inside a living room or at a backyard. Communal dining is required in Mexican culture, so pull up to the tables, ask if the seats are taken, and be sure and say “provecho” (which is short for bon appetit) as you leave.
In South Central, Sinaloans knock down mariscos towers with Modelos under the subterfuge of paper lunch bags. And for natives of Petra’s hometown, Barba Kush will take them on a natural lamb high to Tepeaca or the Sierra Norta of Puebla, the traditional barbacoa centers of Puebla. Petra’s husband, Jose Felix Rodriguez, mans the register, where the grab-and-go items are bunches of pipicha and papalo, a pair of funky herbs that stand up to the fatty scent and oils of pit-roasted lamb.
“Everything here is fresh, the best quality you can get,” says Rodriguez, who brings the lamb from Chino Hills to his kitchen on Saturday to prepare for Sunday’s service, which takes place in their backyard. There’s even a separate kitchen in the garage to accommodate the service. The pure pleasures of lamb come from quesadillas to the barbacoa, served with consomé. And it ends with the mole de panza enchilada, making the meal a bounty of specialized, provincial cookery perhaps unrivaled anywhere in Los Angeles.
Petra and Jose’s children came up with the name Barba Kush to attract a younger audience and “because kush is one of the best strains [ of cannabis],” says Defino Rodriguez, Jose and Petra’s son. An abuela’s menudo will still hold a place in one’s heart, but one taste of Barba Kush’s Tepeaca-style lamb menudo and any desire for that restaurant menudo will fade away.
Barba Kush will be closed this coming Sunday as they are in the process of obtaining a street-legal food truck. From there, they’ll plan to hit the streets in the next couple of weeks in order to reach more diners and stay in compliance with the law. Stay tuned for more updates on Barba Kush’s social media accounts and truck stops.