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The Smoke Artist

On the final stop of California’s barbacoa trail, meet Gonzalo Ramirez, shepherd, butcher, and master barbacoyero in California’s central valley

Gonzalo Ramirez, a barbacoa master, in his farm in Pixley, California.
Gonzalo Ramirez, a barbacoa master, in his farm in Pixley, California

In the late summer and early fall of 2020, I spent nearly two months traveling up and down the state in search of California’s Barbacoa Trail, a concrete patchwork of undisclosed pits and distinct communities linked by heritage and fire. Through a collection of restaurants, street stands, food trucks, and residential backyards, I explored the state’s diverse regional styles of Mexico’s pit-roasted meat tradition known as barbacoa. Preparations vary by meat (usually goat or lamb), seasonings, and — just as importantly — a panoply of accompanying dishes. While most of these operations are open to the public, they are built to primarily feed their communities, and some remain politely closed to outsiders. If you long to follow the trail yourself, be respectful of these communities and their traditions. And come hungry.

It’s 10 p.m. and I’m pacing around the dark, deserted parking lot of what used to be a gas station in the nowhere Central Valley town of Pixley, California. It’s been at least 45 minutes too long, and I’m starting to worry that this whole last leg of my barbacoa trail quest — what was supposed to be the grand finale — is a wash. Erik, I think, is never going to show.

I’d first begun messaging with Erik Ramirez a few weeks prior, when I’d stumbled across photos of some impressive-looking barbacoa pits online, with layers of roasted maguey leaves and huge bone-in cuts of lamb being extracted from a brick-lined in-ground pit. Actually, impressive didn’t begin to cut it. The scene portrayed in photos evoked images of legendary pits on the outskirts of small towns in Mexico. It was as if I was staring into the very soul of Mexico through my iPhone. This, I thought to myself at the time, was it.

While Erik does make and sell carnitas on Saturdays, it turns out it’s his dad, Gonzalo Ramirez, who is the artist behind the meticulous pits. They are both members of a family that’s four generations deep in the Hidalguense barbacoa tradition. After some prodding, Erik persuaded his father to allow me to visit his home and barbacoa headquarters in Pixley, a one-horse town just south of Visalia. “Meet me at the gas station off the freeway on Saturday at 10 p.m.,” Erik said. But by Saturday afternoon, around the time my trip-mates and I arrived at our hotel in nearby Bakersfield (after a few barbacoa pit stops along the way), Erik’s line went dead.

Gonsalo Ramirez’s shed where he slaughters, butchers, and cooks his lamb barbacoa.
Gonsalo Ramirez’s shed where he slaughters, butchers, and cooks his lamb barbacoa
Lambs in the pen at Gonsalo Ramirez’s facility in Pixley, California.
Lambs in the pen at Gonsalo Ramirez’s facility in Pixley, California
Maguey leaves stacked at Gonsalo Ramirez’s barbacoa preparation area.
Maguey leaves stacked at Gonsalo Ramirez’s barbacoa preparation area

Finally, after what seems like an eternity of marching nervously around the parking lot of Pixley’s Park View Market (which is, by the way, not a gas station), a black Toyota Tundra pulls up and a window cracks open. I walk toward the pickup and get cut short. “Follow us,” says the driver. We do exactly that, chasing the taillights of the black truck down a dark, muddy driveway and stop at the front gate of a well-worn home, with scales of white paint barely clinging to the stucco. As we walk toward a back shed, Erik’s flashlight illuminates a pen of thirty-some black and snow-white lambs milling about in the dark, before ushering us inside to what can only be described as a cliché horror set. There are meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, windows blocked out by particleboard, rusted aluminum siding, and brick-lined pits, which in the dark, don’t look unlike Buffalo Bill’s holding cell in Silence of the Lambs.

The shed functions as part slaughterhouse, part loading dock, and part barbecue pit: Gonzalo Ramirez’s artist’s studio. Lamb brought him to Pixley two years ago — more specifically, to the space to raise and keep his own lambs, which he couldn’t find near his previous home in the vast sprawl east of LA known as the Inland Empire. “I need to know how the lambs eat, how they live, and make sure they are healthy,” Gonzalo tells me later. “It’s just something that matters to me a lot, and if I can’t do it that way, I don’t want to cook.”

Raising one’s own meat is rare for barbacoa practitioners, even in Mexico. Most cooks purchase lambs already butchered, which still leaves them with plenty of work to do but spares them the time, effort, and financial commitment of running a farm in addition to a barbacoa business. Yet for Gonzalo — and more importantly, for his grandfather who taught him the craft — there are no shortcuts. So for four generations and across two countries, the Ramirez family has raised their own lambs on alfalfa and cracked corn and butchered the animals themselves. “The moment you begin to butcher the animal, I can smell it from the first cut, I can tell if they are natural and fresh,” he says.

I first spy Gonzalo awkwardly teetering on the edge of one of two roaring hot, deep earthen ovens in the ground in a way that makes my teeth clench. I talk with Erik to divert my attention as Gonzalo uncovers his cook, carefully removing the top tarp covering and sweeping away the dirt so as not to soil the precious tangle of lamb pieces and the open stockpot for consomé inside. With labored motions that appear too clunky for a man who’s dedicated his life to the task, he pulls out the ribs, shoulders, and bursting pouches of offal-stuffed stomach by hand, without a misstep — so hot they will continue to stay warm in a wooden box until the end of service around noon tomorrow.

Gonzalo’s sister Maria de Lourdes Ramirez typically helps him with the prep, while the butchering and cleaning of the meat, the tending to the fire, and the painstaking process of loading the in-ground pit with a giant pot for consomé, portions of lamb, and traditional offal dishes like moronga (blood sausage), and pancita (offal-stuffed stomach) are his responsibility. No element is out of place, and the precise layering of maguey leaves and lamb cuts has remained the same for more than half a century. It’s as much a part of the recipe as the signature garlic rub Gonzalo applies to the lamb in addition to adobo. “I don’t know if garlic is typical back home, but it’s our secret ingredient,” he says.

When all of the lamb is finally removed from the pit, it’s time to retrieve the consomé, which Gonzalo scoops from the stockpot with a large plastic Hite beer bucket. The circular pit he designed funnels all of the oils from the adobo-slathered meat and lamb guts, plus garlic and smoke, into the consomé pot. The rich broth becomes barbacoa’s essential side dish, meant to be sipped slowly alongside your meal. It’s almost always good, but when it’s really good, consomé is a lyrical experience — an ancient poem about Mexico’s cocina de humo, or smoke kitchens.

Gonzalo’s consomé is absolutely that good, and he suffers for every drop. His breath is labored and his joints audibly crack as he bails the consomé from its giant pot at the bottom of the pit. When the plastic bucket becomes pliant from the heat, it starts to stretch out into a spout that seems to lean on its own toward a 10-gallon Igloo cooler, like a divining rod for one very bushed barbacoyero. I stand clear and try not to do anything that could possibly distract Gonzalo, like breathe. But in all of his strained and terrifying contortions, he doesn’t spill a drop.

Gonsalo Ramirez pushes dirt off his underground barbacoa pits in Pixley, California.
Gonsalo Ramirez pushes dirt off his underground barbacoa pits in Pixley, California
Underground pit covered by maguey leaves.
Underground pit covered by maguey leaves
Lamb butchered and slow-cooked by Gonsalo Ramirez in Pixley, California.
Lamb butchered and slow-cooked by Gonsalo Ramirez in Pixley, California
Gonsalo Ramirez holds up a lamb head
Holding up a lamb head fresh from the pit
A barbacoa cook scooping up lamb barbacoa from the pit.
Scooping up lamb barbacoa from the pit
Consomé at the bottom of the barbacoa pit with a rack just above it.
Consomé at the bottom of the barbacoa pit
Loading cooked barbacoa to transport to Arleta.
Loading cooked barbacoa to transport to Arleta

Distracted by Gonzalo’s tightrope act, I barely notice the small figures darting in and out of the shed, setting out a stack of warm corn tortillas, some salsas, and a few plates on a wooden bench surrounded by tools and tattered work gloves. I catch one of them under the dim glow of the shop light, and it’s Gonzalo’s granddaughter, who smiles, laughs shyly, and runs off. We’re offered samples of Gonzalo’s grassy, buttery lamb direct from the pit on corn tortillas, as well as sips of the rich consomé writhing with depth and smoke.

We want more, but it is time to go — Erik and Gonzalo need to get on the road so they can squeeze in an hour of sleep before service starts at 7 a.m. But Erik tells us where to find them the next morning, and so we head back to our hotel in Bakersfield for cigars and a nightcap of the finest pint-size rum available at the local liquor store. Tomorrow morning we’ll trek nearly 100 miles south to the north San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Arleta, California — home to Juicy Couture and what I’ve recently come to realize is quite possibly the purest expression of ancestral barbacoa in the United States, born in the Mexican town of Atotonilco El Grande.

Gonsalo Ramirez covers the cooked barbacoa while his son Erik prepares to load the meat into his SUV.
Gonsalo Ramirez covers the cooked barbacoa while his son Erik prepares to load the meat into his SUV

Gonzalo Ramirez’s hometown, Atotonilco El Grande, is a small agricultural and farming municipality of 28,000 residents, located between El Chico National Park and the state of Veracruz, a 45-minute drive north from Pachuca, the capital of the state of Hidalgo.

The city center’s charming cobblestone streets surrounding the Jardín Principal, or central garden, are absent of tourists — it’s locals only — and the weekend barbacoa stands stretch all the way from the garden to the outskirts of the city, with colorful buildings lining the route.

Pixley, California, by contrast, looks like so many sleepy small agricultural towns along the 99, with old-timey feed stores, trading posts, and the Pixley General Store — but with “panaderia y abarrotes” (convenience store) painted on the wall facing the street. The fields surrounding it that aren’t full of grazing dairy cows grow cotton, beans, grain, and the types of grapes that produce fine Central Valley supermarket wine sold in jugs and large boxes. Window signs speak to the old and the new in Pixley: “Ice Cold Beer” shines in worn-out neon, while down the street you’ll spy freshly painted advertisements for cerveza, tamales, hielo (ice), and cafe.

Unlike many of his neighbors, Gonzalo doesn’t work in agriculture in a traditional sense. He makes a living doing odd jobs, but he moved all the way out to Pixley from his family’s last home, in the Inland Empire, purely for the sake of his Sundays-only barbacoa. Efficiency and expansion are American ideals counter to barbacoa tradition, but even in Mexico, barbacoyeros buy lambs pre-cut, scale their operations, and find other ways to streamline the cooking of barbacoa. The result is that in the U.S., barbacoa cooks often forego the pit altogether for conventional and modified ovens, and they add non-barbacoa dishes to the menu to drum up more weekday business to survive.

None of this interests or motivates Gonzalo. Uprooting your life, finding a home more than 100 miles from where you work so you can spend time and money raising animals others just purchase — these are not things one does out of convenience. Mexican pit-roasting tradition in its original form — what Gonzalo Ramirez does in Pixley, faraway from his stand — is Gonzalo’s treatise; his simple signage, “Atotonilco El Grande,” his family crest.

The morning after the cook, we drive the 95 miles from Bakersfield to Arleta and arrive at 10 a.m. — late, by barbacoa standards. The line in front of Atotonilco El Grande Hidalgo Barbacoa has been steady since 7. Other than a banner that reads “Rica Barbacoa,” the corner of Canterbury and Hoyt doesn’t stand out from the handful of other stands and food trucks gathered in front of a plant nursery, beneath a row of transmission towers, across the street from the Arleta DMV. Under a canopy is a long folding table and a stand with a wooden box of warm barbacoa next to a butcher’s block. I recognize the Igloo cooler of consomé, which is set near a large circular flattop grill, or comal, covered with corn tortillas, and a pan of strongly herbed moronga, here made into a thick, fragrant stew of explosive minerality, best scooped up and eaten with a tortilla.

Gonzalo is talking up his customers as they wait for their orders — you’d never guess he hadn’t slept in 24 hours. His customers are mostly working-class Mexican families from Hidalgo, Estado de México, and CDMX, and they seem to know something special is going on here, evidenced by how many of them stick around to chat with the master once Gonzalo finally takes a break from his barbacoa marathon.

In the line that’s curved around the corner, a man yells at Gonzalo to save him some ribs and then gestures at me to hold his place so he can talk with Gonzalo and preorder his favorite cut. Groups of men arrive first — it’s Sunday, but they still have a full day’s work ahead, in landscaping, moving furniture, and construction. Gonzalo is at the front of the service line, calling out the orders, pulling meat out of the box to chop up for tacos and for orders by the pound. “Two barbacoa, one pancita, one blood sausage, on the same plate, and a consomé for the young man,” repeats Gonzalo.

Gonzalo’s wife, Leticia Ramirez, quickly stirs the blood sausage, then spoons it onto a tortilla, passing the plate to Erik, who helps his father finish my order. When it’s handed to me, I quickly add onions, cilantro, and a mix of red and green salsas while the tacos are still hot and at the apex of their powers. As I walk away from the table of condiments, a potpourri of fresh epazote, dried fruit aromas from the chiles, and the iron-rich scents of pancita and blood sausages dominate the air between my nose and the plate. I pull one of the plastic chairs over to use as a table for my spread, though most customers are eating off of their dashboards or the hoods of parked cars; others just eat where they stand.

The Ramirez family at their barbacoa stand in Arleta, California
The Ramirez family at their barbacoa stand in Arleta, California
Gonsalo Ramirez takes out pancita to serve at his barbacoa stand.
Gonsalo Ramirez takes out pancita to serve at his barbacoa stand
Leticia Ramirez and other family members cook tortillas on a comal.
Leticia Ramirez and other family members cook fresh tortillas on a comal

Traditional barbacoa recipes don’t call for a lot of salt, hence the shaker on the table alongside all the condiments. I sprinkle some salt over my barbacoa tacos, but not before I reach in to find a few chunks of meat untouched by any salsas or other garnishes and take a bite of the pure, unfiltered Ramirez lamb. My eyes close instinctually so as not to distract from the sensory kaleidoscope. Everything I’ve seen, smelled, and tasted, from the lamb pen to the pit to the taquería — it’s all here, and it’s profound. The consomé, too, is an otherworldly expression of Gonzalo’s labor. Its deep smoky, fatty flavors born in the pit are a primeval treatise on Mexico’s ancestral foodways handed down from grandfather to grandson; each warming slurp is a river of roasted meat juices, brushed by the adobo and plumes of smoke.

“This food is the legacy of my grandfather, who was more my father than my actual father,” says Gonzalo, who explains that his father struggled with alcoholism, leaving Gonzalo’s primary care to his grandparents. Hence, every Friday through Sunday Gonzalo was helping with the prep at his grandfather’s taquería, learning the craft and eventually cooking himself under the master’s supervision. “We spent many hours together, talking and working together, and now I want to pass that down to my own children.”

It was there, at his grandfather’s barbacoa pit and stand, where the details were embedded into his muscle memory, and every step repeated until it became instinct. “He told me that you have to be perfect in your cleaning, everything must be clean,” says Gonzalo, explaining that the washing is not just to avoid the fetid flavors of dirty innards, but because the chaos of pit cooking — meats, skulls, and maguey leaves piled about — must be precise. You’re either committed to feeding, raising, and cleaning them so that nothing taints the product you’re cooking or you shouldn’t bother. Barbacoa of this quality is an art preserved by idealists.

For purists like Gonzalo and his grandfather, the recipe begins and ends with the care of the product, and only the most impractical, quixotic practitioners destroy themselves for the love of an ancestral ritual like barbacoa. “I do this for my customers that come here and support us every week, and to see them enjoying my barbacoa, allowing me to feed my family— they are why I’m here,” says Gonzalo. “That’s my niece, she works with us, my grandkids — I started when I was their age — how old are you, son? Seven? Yes, I was already working with my grandfather at that age,” says Gonzalo.

A few weeks later I drive up to Arleta from Los Angeles for another taste, but it’s 11 a.m., and they’re already sold out.

I ask for Gonzalo anyway, and his family points to a truck parked nearby. “He’s sleeping in his truck.” The snores reverberating through the windows of his pickup are a sign of what’s required to harness the wild energy of the pit into a refined, orderly cook. Barbacoa is both art and science, and years of study have taught Gonzalo to understand both, to align structure and finesse to a cooking process that’s concealed from the cook.

The following Sunday, having learned my lesson, I come earlier and catch Gonzalo talking with customers, smiling, his body relaxed and leaning against the chain-link fence behind his stand. “This pandemic has been hard, but thanks to God, my customers are here,” Gonzalo says. He’s moved again, he tells me, this time to a piece of property just 50 miles from his stand in Arleta. “My new setup is great,” he says, “even better than the one you saw in Pixley.” Better yet, I recently got another text from Erik. He has finally decided to start learning the family business, carrying on the tradition of cooking his great-grandfather’s recipe alongside his own father, Gonzalo Ramirez, the uncompromising guardian of Mexico’s greatest culinary tradition along California’s barbacoa trail.

Moronga, or blood sausage, at Atotonilco El Grande in a large pot.
Moronga, or blood sausage, at Atotonilco El Grande
Splitting a lamb head with a butcher’s knife.
Splitting a lamb head
Barbacoa, pancita, and moronga at Antontonilco El Grade stand in Arleta.
Barbacoa, pancita, and moronga at Antontonilco El Grade stand in Arleta
Moronga and barbacoa tacos on a paper plate.
Moronga and barbacoa tacos on a paper plate
Consomé with garbanzo beans and chunks of barbacoa.
Consomé with garbanzo beans and chunks of barbacoa
Customers wait at Antontonilco El Grande in Arleta, California.
Customers wait at Antontonilco El Grande in Arleta, California

The nearly two months I drove up and down the state in search of barbacoa was a surreal trek, one that crossed paths with a pandemic, a fiery natural disaster, a turbulent election season, and a global reckoning after the murder of George Floyd.

But California’s barbacoa trail is a bit like that — a bumpy, winding, weaving, often backtracking road that ultimately leads to heaped plates of hometown pride, heritage, and smoked meat. Mexico’s pre-Hispanic culinary traditions are alive and thriving in the Golden State because of talented cooks like Gonzalo Ramirez, Candelaria Bautista, Omar Mejía, Maria Ramos, Petra Zavaleta, and countless others working quietly in their pits. When looked at collectively, these barbacoyeros and barbacoyeras reveal a deeper, multilayered story of regional Mexican cooking — how it changes from town to town, across borders, and can even take a sharp turn in one cook’s suburban backyard.

Many months later, I’m still craving soulful slurps of Atotonilco El Grande in a cup or to have my lips stained red from tacos de ximbo, as in Tulancingo — or perhaps I could wander a little farther up the 5 or the 101 or the 99 and see where else the trail continues to lead. It’s bound to be delicious.

Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.

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