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Preparing the underground barbacoa pit.
Preparing the underground barbacoa pit
Erwin Recinos

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Orange County Now Has its Own King of Ximbó, the Legendary Chicken Barbacoa of Hidalgo

Los Reyes del Ximbó steams ahead with a new generation of barbacoa in Santa Ana

On a Saturday afternoon, Said Camargo and his wife Claudia Morales are about to take out over a dozen whole roasted, spatchcocked chickens called ximbó out of an underground pit lined with lava rocks in the backyard of their Orange County home. Their operation, called Los Reyes del Ximbó (The Kings of Ximbó), begins when they unearth steaming bundles of maguey leaves, each packed with a whole chicken marinated in adobo. Strewn inside each bundle are loose strips of cactus and flecks of pork skin.

The backyard is half soil, half dry patches of grass, where customers normally sit, bordered by a wooden fence lined with maguey plants. While Los Reyes del Ximbó, which started in mid-2021, typically operates on Sunday mornings, this weekend it was closed to the public because Camargo and Morales were roasting chickens for a family celebration. Camargo instructs us to reach into the steaming barbacoa pit to grab a chicken foot, or another slippery piece of juicy, adobo-slathered meat. After our fingers blister from the red-hot chicken, Camargo suggests we just come to the party they’re about to cater and eat the ximbó how it was meant to be enjoyed. How could we say no to hospitality so honest and earnest?

For Mexican families, regional dishes are essential parts of baptisms, weddings, patron saint days, birthdays, and wedding anniversaries. For Oaxacans from the Valles Centrales, it might be mole negro, while in northern Mexico, carne asada is obligatory. Tonight, however, Camargo’s uncle Hermán Lopez and his wife Norma Acosta — both of whom come from Actopán, Hidalgo — are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in the backyard of their Santa Ana home with ximbó.

We arrive at the front of Lopez and Acosta’s home trailing Lopez’s cousin, Eduardo Jiménez, who loaded his pickup with a cooler full of ximbó. A large stockpot strapped into the truck’s bed lets out occasional splashes of consomé as the truck drives in. The front yard is covered in tables, chairs, a bounce house, and a balloon archway that leads to the backyard of the home.

A large stockpot filled with consomé is carried from a truck into a yard.
A stockpot filled with consomé.

“Welcome to my home, which is yours, too,” says Acosta, leading us past a taco stand, a comal, and a buffet of chafing dishes to our table, which sits next to a bar serving palomas, beers, micheladas, and tequila shots. Lopez, a gardener, and Acosta, a housekeeper, have clearly fostered a rich sense of community here in Santa Ana. Speakers blare a playlist from the late ’70s and early ’80s: Christopher Cross’s Arthur’s Theme, Stephen Bishop’s On and On, and Lou Rawls’s You’ll Never Find a Love Like Mine. “This is my husband’s music; he loves this era,” says Acosta.

Acosta, along with several other relatives, wears an embroidered Otomí (an Indigenous group) blouse. She chats with guests while deftly slapping masa into small boats for chicken sopes, an appetizer paired with icy palomas. At Mexican parties, guests are the stars, and party crashers (like us) become VIPs. Hermán personally serves us his nephew’s ximbó, beginning the procession of dishes we eyed on the way in. Chicken consomé brims with garbanzos, sliced carrots, and cabbage. Corn tortillas stuffed with the roast chicken are topped with a charred red salsa of dried chile serrano and ground chinicuiles — red maguey worms that add an earthy, nutty aftertaste. The consomé comes scented with plenty of hierbabuena and garlic, delivering a little smoke from the pit in each spoonful. While the chicken has a good level of spice from chile guajillo and chile mora, a whole smoked chile jalapeño adds another layer of heat. “The salsa is just for flavor,” says Camargo, who began his journey as a barbacoyero just six months ago.

Corn tortillas with a red salsa of dried chiles.
Corn tortillas with a charred red salsa of dried chile serrano.

“This recipe comes from my grandfathers, Elogio Lopez and Jose Antonio Ángeles, back in Actopán, but my uncles and my dad [Tomás Camargo], brought it here [to Santa Ana], and I learned just by studying them, also helping them to make ximbó and lamb barbacoa for parties,” says Camargo, who does construction work during the week. On Sundays, he and Morales sell barbacoa to make up for lost income during the pandemic. Each Sunday, barbacoa lovers from Hidalgo, Estado de México, Puebla, and CDMX surround their spherical, shallow pit lined with volcanic rocks. The pit is layered with a whole butchered lamb, 15-some ximbó, pancita adobada (lamb stomach filled with offal rubbed in adobo), and lamb skulls.

Ximbó is an Indigenous dish that means maguey leaves in Hñahñu (Otomí). Actopán, Hidalgo, in the Valle del Mezquital, is considered to be the cradle of barbacoa, and in particular ximbó. City officials have sought to register ximbó from Actopán as a denomination of origin to protect its status as a regional specialty. “It’s important for us to respect the traditions of our hometown,” says Camargo. “On Sundays, we serve lamb consomé, but it’s the same ingredients as this one [chicken consomé] you’re having today.” Before Los Reyes in Santa Ana, ximbó was a rare barbacoa tradition outside of Hidalgo, aside from a specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Six months in, Camargo’s young team, consisting of himself, Morales, his cousin Jiménez, and his brother Efraín Camargo, already does a fine cook. Often barbacoa operations boast years or even decades of experience, but Los Reyes is confident enough in its food that their uncle and aunt would have them cater their 35th anniversary.

It is just good fortune to have the honor to try Los Reyes del Ximbó at the generous, welcoming home of Lopez and Acosta. On other weekends, Los Reyes del Ximbó is worth the drive to Orange County. After a half-dozen overstuffed tacos, we try to slink away from our table. “Leaving so soon, why?” asks Lopez. We can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt experiencing such hospitality from a family proud to share a piece of Actopán with complete strangers.

1210 S. Shelton St., Santa Ana, (714) 248-4560, Sundays (8 a.m. until sold out)

Barbacoa chicken and soup.
An open yard that’s being prepared for a barbacoa pit.
Preparing the yard for a barbacoa pit
Two men prepare an underground barbacue pit.
Layers of ximbó chicken before it’s lowered into the barbacoa pit.
Ximbó before it’s taken out of the barbacoa pit.
Meat in an underground barbecue pit.
Bundles of roasted spatchcocked chicken called ximbó.

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