A few months ago we visited a restaurant that serves what we immediately rated as the best barbacoa in town: Barbacoa Renatos. This family joint in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco neighborhood has been in business for 55 years. Its owner, Renato Álvarez, gave us a little history lesson about his family and their barbacoa business. The barbacoa recipe prepared in Renatos is from the state of Hidalgo, famous for mutton slow-cooked in a pit dug into the ground.
Álvarez’s mother, Celia Rentería, was from Hidalgo’s capital, Pachuca, where her family used to make the traditional barbacoa of the region. After moving to Azcapotzalco with her husband, Celia started making barbacoa in San Martin Xochinahuac, one of many towns that have been swallowed by the sprawling city.
The Álvarez-Renterías are a large clan, with 15 siblings in total. Most of them have gone into the barbacoa business. “I have a brother who lives in Los Cabos and makes barbacoa for the gringo tourists,” Álvarez told us. “But all of our businesses are independent from one another. We are the only Renatos, and our barbacoa is the best.”
Barbacoa Renatos: A feast to the senses
On our first visit, we were served a large platter with grilled panela and asadero cheeses and a quesacoa (a handmade tortilla filled with barbacoa and melted manchego cheese). We couldn’t pass up the traditional consome, the broth that is collected as the mutton cooks and is served with chickpeas, rice and, in Renatos case, chunks of carrots.
A few minutes later, a kilo of barbacoa found its way to our table, along with a Renatos platter (chicharrón, nopales, cheese and pápalo, a pungent wild herb that is usually served fresh and uncooked with some tacos in México). We were happy to see that the tortillas brought to the table were freshly handmade. The order of barbacoa was also accompanied by the traditional salsa borracha (roughly translated as “drunk salsa”) made with serrano peppers and pulque (a fermented drink made with the maguey sap) or beer.
When we were almost finished, a mixiote (mutton cooked in individual-sized foil-and-paper packets with a mixture of different chiles and a bit of maguey leaf for flavor) appeared on our table. We were full, but we couldn’t resist the delicious herbal aroma. We washed down this feast with orange juice, café de olla (coffee prepared with raw sugar and cinnamon) and oat-flavored pulque prepared by Renato himself.
We have gone back to Barbacoa Renatos several times since that first barbacoa “love feast”. Our last visit was a couple of weeks ago accompanied by our loyal Mexico City guide, Paco de Santiago, our beloved friend Ruth Alegria and celebrity chef Rick Bayless. Renato and his son Bruno are always proud to show us where and how their delightful barbacoa is prepared.
The hoyo is an underground wood-burning oven that measures about 1 meter in circumference by 1.75 meters deep in the back of the restaurant. Here the meat is cooked from 12 to 14 hours. “We can fit up to 15 muttons here,” Álvarez said. “We only get 100 percent Mexican meat, and the muttons we buy don’t weigh more than 25 kilograms each. If they are bigger, the meat is not as tender and the flavor changes.” He opened the lid of the pit to show us its precious contents: layers of meat wrapped in maguey and avocado leaves, the essential ingredients that give Renatos barbacoa its unique flavor.
Barbacoa Renatos is a restaurant with a homey atmosphere where the wood fire, high quality ingredients, and a traditional recipe all make for – indeed – the best barbacoa we’ve had in Mexico City. Rick Bayless seemed to enjoyed immensely as well. Look for an upcoming podcast where he talks about barbacoa and this Mexico City’s hidden gem.
Address: Jacarandas 443, Colonia Pasteros, Azcapotzalco
Telephone: +52 55 5319 8967
Hours: Sat.-Sun. 8:30am-4pm