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.
“Jesus,” I thought as the car descended the stretch of Interstate 5 known as the Grapevine into a glowing hellscape of smoke and falling ash. The whole state, it seemed, was on fire.
I’ve made the five-hour-plus drive up I-5 from Los Angeles to my Central Valley hometown of Stockton countless times since moving south in 1995. At one point I could calculate exactly how much time was left on my trip by the various exit signs I passed: Buttonwillow, Lost Hills, Kettleman City, Coalinga. My hand instinctively switches the vents to recycled air a mile or so before I pass the 198 to lessen the noxious methane smell emanating from the Harris Ranch cattle farm; passing Andersen’s Pea Soup means there’s just an hour to go. The monotony is helped by a handful of reliable pit stops: the roadside fruit stands along the Grapevine, some novelty blackberry wine at Casa de Fruta off the Pacheco Pass, or the obligatory lunch break at the Harris Ranch Express for Santa Maria-style tri-tip sandwiches.
This trip, though, would be different. The momentary relief gained by the late summer flattening of California’s COVID-19 curve was diminished by August’s unrelenting wildfires that choked the state, and the global pandemic meant any stops would be quick. Masks pulled double duty that weekend for me and my trip-mates, protecting us from the spread of the virus as well as air thickened with flecks of white ash. It rained down on the car in flurries as we drove and continued when we finally arrived at the hotel near the Oakland airport where we’d spend that Friday evening. My journey that August was part of an epic several-month statewide barbacoa crawl, and on this fiery leg — focused on Hidalguense-style pit-cooked meat in and around the Bay Area — it seemed like my colleagues and I were the ones getting smoked. Among the destinations on our list were a few backyards, some front lawns, and at least one laundry room, spread among the working-class Hayward neighborhood of Jackson Triangle, San Francisco, Richmond in the East Bay, and Napa County’s American Canyon.
We were specifically looking for ximbó — a rare form of chicken barbacoa — which, in the Indigenous Otomi language of Hñahñu Otomi, means “maguey stalks.” It’s a style of barbacoa that’s native to the municipality of Actopan in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, which is considered to be the cradle of barbacoa. What mole is to Oaxaca and birria is to Jalisco, barbacoa is to Hidalgo. The barbacoa festival held each year in Actopan draws an international audience, showcasing traditional cooks who are revered for their adherence to ancestral cooking techniques in a land punctured by wood-fired barbecue pits that spread throughout the state.
They cook various types of meat in Hidalgo, including goat and lamb, but ximbó (also called pollos en ximbó) is one of the more niche. It involves a whole spatchcocked chicken that’s generously slathered in adobo (a traditional marinade of dried chiles, citrus, and spices), strewn with pork skin and cactus strips, and neatly packaged in maguey leaves before being slow-cooked in a pit. But there’s no “always” in Mexican food, and so ximbó can also include cut portions of chicken along with ram, pork shank, pork feet, and pork ribs — all cooked in the same pit. Whatever the combination, once it’s cooked, use a tortilla to tug off a bit of meat, heavily scented with dried fruit from the chiles, and in one motion scoop up some of the salty salad of cactus and gelatinous pork rinds dripping with adobo. You’ll be three blissful bites in before you even remember to add the salsa.
Most visitors to Mexico have their first taste of barbacoa in Mexico City, where — as in the U.S. — the majority of the vendors represent Hidalgo-style barbacoa, cooking mostly lamb. But almost never ximbó. Even in Mexico, ximbó is the unicorn of the barbacoa world: rare, bordering on mythic, which only adds to its mystique. The Bay Area is the only place in the United States where you’ll find it — well, maybe there’s that one apartment in Pacoima — and as my colleagues and I quickly realized last August, even here it’s a difficult score. Two hours into our Saturday morning mission and we’ve already had one failure: A stand I’d read about called Hayward Barbacha turned up dry for ximbó, though the lamb was pretty great. But there was a glimmer of hope at our second stop, a residence in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood.
Crossing the San Mateo Bridge, the longest bridge in California, gave me some time to digest the meal of heady lamb and denied expectations.
The road led us up the 101 freeway to San Francisco’s southernmost limits, eventually dropping us at the laundry room taquería of an Italianate row house in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood, which feels like entering a time warp, before the dot-com boom erased the city’s edge. It was rumored that one could buy Hildaguese-style ximbó here, and the sight of two women in the narrow walkway chopping vegetables and warming corn tortillas had me feeling optimistic. A third woman told us to wait a few minutes, then explained that the place is run by a woman from Puebla, Norma Morales, whose husband is from Hidalgo. “So most of our customers are from Puebla,” she explained, “and they only want lamb.”
That’s why, it turned out, ximbó is only sometimes on the menu — and today was not one of those times. Such are the challenges of catering to Mexico’s discerning provincial palates. We decided we’d try the lamb anyway, another glistening consolation prize wrapped in a corn tortilla. The consomé, in particular, was rich and soulful, and we happily slurped it while sitting at the bottom of Morales’s concrete staircase, relishing a plate of barbacoa as good as you’ll find anywhere in the U.S. — let alone in the Bay Area, a place where it’s largely believed that the Mexican food scene begins and ends at burritos.
Like most Mexican food in this part of California, the barbacoa scene here is nebulous and scattered, with Hidalguense origins emerging as the only whiff of a constant. Neat, brick-lined pits are dug in backyards, aimlessly spread out, fragmented by the Bay Area’s long history of segregation, discriminatory housing practices, and tech-fueled gentrification that, starting in the early 2000s, dismantled the Mission District as a Mexican and Central-American stronghold.
Having grown up about an hour’s drive away in Stockton, I spent many weekends going to Giants and A’s games, taking trips to Sausalito and Pier 39. I saw my first concert, Van Halen, at the Oakland Coliseum in 1981. From ’90 to ’95, I was a touring musician living in Oakland and had more than my fair share of Mission burritos before sets at the Elbo Room, Biscuits and Blues, or Harry Denton’s in San Francisco. Recently, after a book signing at Omnivore Books, I was taken for a short walk down nostalgia lane, to La Taquería, where James Beard-honored burrito dreams are unwrapped in foil.
These days it’s relatively easy to find a great taco around Oakland’s Fruitvale barrio and parts of Richmond, especially since the quesabirria boom of 2019. The early aughts saw an increase in Mayan immigration from the Yucatán — the Bay Area now has more Yucatán-style restaurants than LA — and arrivals from Guanajuato, among other states, have also contributed to the bump in the area’s food scene. But the major Mexican population here still comes from Hidalgo; the state’s strained economy has drawn a steady stream of immigrants for years, and Hidalguenses born in the Bay Area continue to lure others north with promises of family and work, mainly in construction. Together, the influx of cultures has brought new dishes and flavors to the aforementioned, underappreciated Mexican table here, especially over the last decade.
Nevertheless, despite its fame as one of a few U.S. cities that boasts an iconic Mexican-American burrito, Mexican food in the Bay Area is still largely regarded as not great by the self-anointed guardians of authenticity. The cost of living in San Francisco forced much of the Mexican population into more affordable neighboring cities like Hayward and Richmond, both of which are more than an hour’s drive from San Francisco with traffic, and the city’s rich barrio communities are now fragmented, separated by high rents and long bridges. Within these enclaves, though, experienced construction workers from Hidalgo have begun outfitting their own backyards with a particularly useful DIY project, one that could be another big boon to the region’s culinary reputation: a barbacoa pit.
In Richmond’s North & East neighborhood, a slow gentrification is taking place as the former WWII shipping hub turned toxic seaport (the Chevron refinery is a major polluter) has found itself an affordable option for middle-class whites, who’ve been priced out of everywhere else. While gentrification is creeping quickly, for now, Richmond remains a thriving Latino enclave, where Mexicans and Central Americans make up 40 percent of the population.
By late morning that Saturday, the pulse of cumbia beats overdubbed with the rhythmic thumps of a meat cleaver directed us to our third stop, a barbacoa operation run out of the garage of a charming pink single-family home. We were still chasing ximbó, and once again this was not the place for it — the smells alone told us that this was goat barbacoa, Guanajuato-style it turned out — and our stomachs sank, but the find seemed too serendipitous to pass up. Besides, we were hungry again.
On the back patio were a couple of picnic benches and a pricey all-cedar playset. Inside, a large white-tiled kitchen island is where Ramon Coss’s mother-in-law, Araceli Arreguin, was pressing handmade corn tortillas that would eventually cradle crispy goat montalayo — the regional name for pancita in Guanajuato, an offal-stuffed goat stomach that’s cooked in the pit along with everything else — served alongside a rich consomé swirling with trails of red-orange fat. The goat barbacoa at Coss’s place was impeccable, as good as anything I’d had in LA — or in Mexico, for that matter. It wasn’t ximbó, but its striking excellence was further oil-slicked testimony about this part of California and its so-called sucky Mexican food. It did not go unnoticed that this was my third meal of devastatingly great Bay Area barbacoa in a row, and I was barely even trying.
A short drive away from Coss’s home is the Richmond Flea Market, known to locals as La Pulga. Here we found Barbacoa Mejía, where Omar Mejía serves lamb barbacoa, pollos en ximbó, and antojitos that his family has been cooking for more than 80 years at their barbacoa stand in Tulancingo, Hidalgo. Situated at the end of a blighted road, in an unscenic parking lot behind an auto-wrecking yard, Richmond’s La Pulga is a barbacoa lover’s dream with half a dozen lamb barbacoa vendors from different towns in Hidalgo spaced out between disheveled wooden tables covered in dishware, used appliances, cheap cellphone accessories, and a pupusa stand.
The stand Mejía runs on Saturdays is tucked at the very end of one of the rows of red repurposed shipping container stalls, shaded by canopies of aluminum, a stand that’s earned the approval of NorCal Hidalguenses. “I like the flavor here, it makes me remember my land,” said Sagrario Bravo, who’d driven an hour and a half from Lockeford that Saturday to bring barbacoa back to her family. That day, Bravo was one of a handful of patrons at the stand, but before the pandemic, Mejía had 13 waitresses, 25 full tables, a waiting list, and a busy line of to-go customers.
We saw heapfuls of juicy lamb barbacoa but were crushed to once again find no ximbó in sight. While I was more than encouraged — inspired even — by all the other excellent examples of Hidalguense barbacoa, at that moment I’d have literally killed for a chicken.
But we were here, and Mejía was beyond friendly, and the wafts of lamb were enough to inspire our appetites, and so we not so begrudgingly sat down to our fourth lamb barbacoa feast of the day. After all, this guy’s family name is legend back home for more than ximbó. “The majority of my family does barbacoa,” said Mejía. “My father continues to sell there [in Tulancingo], my brothers, my cousins [also sell barbacoa].” Like many Hidalguenses, Mejía came to the Bay Area to work in construction. While he continues to take jobs, the barbacoa business has become his main focus. In addition to operating the stand, he cooks and delivers barbacoa that’s served at Victoria’s, a restaurant in Santa Rosa, but he never brings his ximbó — that stays in the family.
If Mejía only cooked lamb, consomé, pancita (offal-stuffed stomach) — specifically, his delicately flavored pancita blanca (white pancita without adobo) — his brand would be without peer. Pancita blanca has to be cleaned with extra care, since there’s no adodo to mask the gruddy perils that lie hidden in the cracks and crevices of the spongy delicacies that are packed into a lamb’s stomach and cooked in the barbacoa pit. Here, in a corn tortilla, dressed with a green salsa of tomatillos, xoconostles (savory prickly pear), and chinicuiles (grubs), it’s a nuanced offal dish. His lamb, too, was superb and soothed our heavy, tired eyes with smoky satisfaction — almost enough to smother the ximbó disappointment.
As we prepared to slink back to our hotel beds where we’d sleep off our unfulfilled dreams of chicken barbacoa, Mejía walked over. In a reassuring voice he said gently, “Come to my home in American Canyon tomorrow morning. I do ximbó on Sundays.”
Ash was still falling from the sky from yet another fire as we drove through the calm residential neighborhood in American Canyon the next morning.
The gateway to Napa, full of two-story homes with large fenced yards that clock in around half a million each, this is not typically the kind of place where you find hyper-regional barbacoa. The semitrailer-size taco truck we passed on the way was the only sign we might, in fact, be in the right place. The scent of scorched earth from the nearby LNU Lightning Complex fire mingled with the smell of roasting chiles and herbs as we approached the house.
Enclosed in an old but sturdy dog-eared fence was a gravel-lined backyard with a mobile flattop grill set up on an expansive brick patio in mismatched patterns — a sign that it was built in phases, as the business grew and more space was needed for picnic benches. This is where we found Mejía with his son Omar Jr. and daughter, Vivian. “I’ve been preparing all the salsas for the tacos, and the adobo for the ximbó, to help out my dad since I was seven,” said Vivian. Her plan is to transfer to UC Berkeley when she’s done at Napa Valley College — that or “study somewhere in LA or London.”
Since her father began cooking in the Bay Area 12 years ago, the community of Hidalguenses here has only grown, partly due to a demand for construction workers by Mexican recruiters, the well-connected contractors used to acquire cheap labor from these small towns in Hidalgo. Like many Hidalguenses, Mejía has helped build the modern Bay Area we see today by hand while erecting a life for himself in this country. Barbacoa is what he does on the side to help make ends meet, but it’s not lost on him that he’s also carrying on the family tradition. “Back when I started the business here, there weren’t many people from Hidalgo; more [from] Jalisco, Michoacán,” said Mejía. “They didn’t like our food so much, but then more people were arriving from Hidalgo.”
We milled about the scenic backyard for a bit, jittery from hunger and the anticipation of the long-awaited ximbó. “It’s ready,” Mejía beckoned as we rushed over to snap pictures of the pair of adobo-stained, rectangular parcels of spatchcocked whole chicken, maguey leaves wrinkled from the heat of the pit. As the leaves were peeled off, we marveled at the chicken’s flesh smeared with a caked-on layer of glistening pork rinds and cactus bâtonnets, blended with red lumps of adobo. The whole thing was held together by thick twine like a present you unwrap, then rip apart. We spent the morning pinching off hunks of tender chicken, chicharrones, and cactus with thick blue corn tortillas. Ximbó is a celebration dish, a favorite at quinceañeras like the one Mejía prepared pre-pandemic that involved 65 chickens. These were roasted just for us in Mejía’s own backyard pit, dug into the ground, less than 15 minutes from the chateau-esque tasting room at Domaine Carneros.
By noon on Sunday, Mejía packed up our leftover ximbó, tortillas, and the salsa verde full of grubs, which, after three weekends straight of barbacoa sprees, I seemed to be the only member of my party excited about. Six hours later, after driving headfirst south through apocalyptic skylines with the impending fear of the harrowing COVID winter on the horizon, I pondered a late Monday breakfast of carefully reheated tacos de ximbó with salsa verde de chinicuiles and how all of it — bingeing on rarefied chicken barbacoa and just generally world-class Mexican cooking in the San Francisco Bay Area — would seem like an impossible dream.
But in terms of barbacoa — especially a hard-to-suss-out ximbó scene — let it be known that San Francisco has made an El-Faro-Gigante-level upgrade, with extra sour cream. Whenever one talks about the San Francisco Bay Area’s Mexican food, it rarely goes beyond Mission-style burritos, trendy taquerías, and the current birria craze. And yet, in a patchwork of homes like this across the region, as well as in the barbacoa stalls of La Pulga in Richmond, I’m learning that Bay Area Mexican cuisine — barbacoa, in particular — can be spoken of only as exceptional. Far from the prying eyes of English-language media, the Bay Area has quietly blossomed into a veritable barbacoa paradise unrivaled in its rare provincial offerings, thanks to the influx of Hidalguenses and others arriving each year, hungry for work and a bite of ximbó. Los Angeles may have plenty of big-name barbacoa stars serving a huge mixed audience, but what makes the Bay Area’s scene so special is its low-key flex, its insular focus; the truly good stuff — like the ximbó — is reserved just for the insiders, the die-hards, the family. That’s as it should be. And as for the rest of us? Trust me when I say that the lamb at La Pulga will more than do.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.