In Los Angeles, the only northern dishes that have gained some popularity have been a few tacos from Baja California and Sonora: Birria de res, carne asada, and tacos de pescado, dishes that hardly define the rich gastronomies of those states. Chihuahua cuisine has hardly made a peep in LA, but it’s perhaps one of the most substantial northern states in terms of the food that it offers. Just ask taquero and Chihuahua native Ian Leyva, who will go on and on about Rarámuri dishes in Creel, the famous burritos montados and quesadillas in Villa Ahumada, and northern Mexican barbacoa de res, especially in the states of Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon.
Leyva began as a taquero at Barbacoa La Carpa in Chihuahua City, but moved to LA three years ago. Because of a lack of opportunities, he began selling barbacoa de res using his grandfather Humberto Contreras’ recipe, outside the Pacoima Target a couple of years ago. That’s where he built a following for his slow-cooked, moist barbacoa de res, the only place of its kind in Los Angeles. Initially, Leyva began to attract Mexicans from other states, as well as chihuahuenses (people from Chihuahua), but last year he had to move the operation to his sunny Arleta home due to increased police enforcement and a slower-than-expected turnout from the pandemic.
Northern beef barbacoa in Chihuahua consists of beef head, usually cheeks, tongue, and lips, which are then cooked in a pit. But like most modern norteños, Leyva cooks his selected beef head cuts in a large pot where they are slowly cooked over ten hours in water with salt, bay leaves, oregano, and his grandfather’s secret ingredients. The beef head is cooked until the fibers break down into a water-logged pile of flavorful shredded meat. Then the liquid is separated for the consome as the beef turns to a fibrous meat putty. “You’ll have to come by when we do barbacoa estilo Delicias [Chihuahua]. It’s the same barbacoa but with a special red salsa,” said Norma Contreras, Leyva’s mother proudly as she goes on about the different food traditions of her home state.
As in his hometown of Chihuahua City, Leyva’s serves barbacoa de res three ways: In tacos, burritos made with flour tortillas, and lonches, the regional name for tortas in Chihuahua. And you’re definitely going to want to try all three of these dressed in shredded cabbage, onions, cilantro, and both salsas of chile de árbol and creamy jalapeño salsa verde. I’m torn between the chewy tortilla of the burrito filled with juicy barbacoa, and the beef-soaked telera roll. But it’s the consome that will blow your mind.
The murky, goldenrod stock tastes like buttery beef juice, as if it were baptized in ghee, with dense, stringy beef resting on the bottom of the cup. Just add a few drops of lime, a pinch of onions, some cilantro, and a little shredded cabbage. Don’t overwhelm the broth because it’s full of every molecule of flavor the meat could possibly yield.
For now, Leyva sells to a small group of loyal customers in his backyard, though he plans to return to the street once the pandemic subsides. Until then, it’s best to call in the order and get to know one of Mexico’s lesser-known barbacoa traditions, and an unfettered taste of Chihuahua here in Los Angeles.
Update January 2023: Barbacoa Estilo Chihuahua has relocated to Santa Clarita at 25912 Carillo Drive. For more information, go to Instagram, or call (818) 437-7395. Open on Sundays only.