Espita Mezcaleria wanted to serve barbacoa but knew they wouldn’t curry any favors with the city or neighbors if they dug out a brick-lined oven in Blagden Alley. In Mexico, the mesquite-fired underground ovens are used to steam cook lamb or goat wrapped in banana leaves for up to half a day until the meat is tender. The process is so labor and time intensive, it’s usually carried out only once a week.
“It’s done Sunday mornings in Mexico if you have money, because it’s not cheap” Rogelio explains. He’s been the butcher at Espita for almost two years. Often barbacoa will be served communally next door to a church at what Rogelio explains as a makeshift mercado.
Rogelio, Executive Chef Rob Aikens, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Tenner put their heads together to develop a recipe that would yield a similar result as the traditional cooking method. “We do it a different way but it’s still good,” Rogelio says.
They start by coating Elysian Fields bone-in lamb shoulder in an achiote-rich adobo rub and marinating it. Then they smoke it in what Tenner calls “your generic D-I-Y kitchen smoker,” consisting of a hotel pan filled with wood chips with a pan on top. Smoking the shoulder helps lock in the achiote-rich marinade. Then Espita wraps the lamb shoulder in banana leaves with a few avocado leaves thrown in for added flavor. “The banana leaves when they’re cooking are very fragrant,” Tenner says, adding that it helps create an “herbal, grassy, earthy,” flavor.
Rogelio realized the trick to making barbacoa in a traditional oven is temperature control. He starts at 400 degrees Fahrenheit and then gradually brings the temperature down over the course of about six hours, mimicking what would happen as the fire in an underground pit reduces to a smolder.
Typically barbacoa is only seasoned in advance with lime and salt, but Espita opts for an aggressive marinade instead. “We tried to do with lime and salt, but it came out a bit bland,” Tenner says. “Normally it’s served with salsas and consomé. We take the saucing and seasoning out of the hands of the guest so it would be seasoned appropriately.”
Espita knows the barbacoa is adequately cooked when Rogelio can slide the bones right out. “Cooking it with the bone in is what gives it a good taste,” he says, adding that it also retains moisture.
The Shaw restaurant serves the barbacoa two ways. During lunch, diners can order a pair of barbacoa tacos that come with onion, cilantro, and two types of salsa for $9.50, or they can try barbacoa on a Oaxacan bar snack known as a tlayuda. A crispy blue corn tortilla forms the base, which cooks top with barbacoa, cheese, red beans, pickled red onion, cabbage, salsa verde, and an herb called pipicha.
Espita has been serving tlayudas for a while, but they never seemed complete without the pipicha, according to partner Josh Phillips who seeks out tlayudas on every trip to Oaxaca. He finally found a local source that could grow the herb that tastes most like a mutant of rosemary and cilantro. A little bit goes a long way.
This is one way you can talk your way into some barbacoa tacos at dinner time. Espita has a secret taco menu. Navigate to it by clicking on the “tacos” heading on the lunch menu.
Rogelio, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City 22 years ago, is proud of how the barbacoa dishes turned out. Butchery is in his blood. “My dad used to kill pigs and make tacos in Mexico—I have a lot of memories,” he says as he points to scars on his hands. “The day I found this job I was really happy because I have to cook octopus, I have to do marinades … Working here is so intense. I don’t like mistakes. I always like to have nice food. They give me a chance, and if I find a better way to do something, they’re happy.”
Espita Mezcaleria, 1250 9th St. NW; (202) 621-9695; espitadc.com