Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring as Taco Tuesdays, but that’s OK. For me, this is actually the perfect day for tacos. We have been eating Mexican food with friends on most Friday nights for nearly thirty years. Neighbors became friends, and the rest is history.
Today’s post could have also been a “Traveling Tuesday” post as I drove thirty three miles for a taco. Specifically thirty three miles for two incredible barbacoa tacos, charro beans, rice, a real soda, and great conversation with my friend, Drew. I’d say it was well worth the trip!
Credit Where Credit Is Due
My love affair with authentic, northern Mexico, family style cooking has its origins in my first marriage. Sometimes it feels odd talking about an ex-spouse, but the truth is that no matter what happens with a relationship, we are never the same person afterwards as we were before. I choose to remember the good and the things I learned rather than wallow in the bad. It is a choice.
So, back to tacos. My husband was born in Monterrey, Mexico and came to the United States as a young boy when his mother remarried. During the first year or so of our marriage we lived in Brownsville, Texas. Because of the current news cycle more people know about this region of Texas than ever before. Brownsville sits right on the border with Mexico, sharing the river with Matamoros.
We frequently crossed to eat in Matamoros and do a little grocery shopping as stores on this side of the border didn’t always have the things we needed for cooking the meals he liked. This is where I learned about family style Mexican cooking. I ate cabrito (goat) from a small restaurant that had the meat over an open pit in the window; bought fresh tortillas from a street vendor; and ate barbacoa tacos in a little cafe with outdoor seating where we could watch the life of the city doing what needed to be done.
I witnessed all aspects of life in Mexico. The riots in the streets of Matamoros that closed the border crossing for a while. Once it was deemed safe, the border opened and we returned. But the town was not the same. Buildings had been bombed and armed militia walked the streets. And this was in 1978, long before the drug cartels blatantly began running the border. The extreme poverty. Children begging and trying to con the Americans.
But most of what I remember are the normal day in and day out activities of daily living.
People gathering in the town square on a summer evening to escape the heat of their small, non-air conditioned homes. Children playing around a fountain. Men talking about who knows what in the barber shop. He loved getting his hair cut in Matamoros. He said it was because it was so inexpensive, but I think it was because it gave him a chance to reconnect with his heritage. Food is an integral part of all of our heritage. Passing down family recipes and keeping traditions alive is a way to pass our culture on to the next generation.
Just as you might expect, barbacoa is related to what we now know as barbecue. It is the cooking technique that originated in the Caribbean. Specifically the meat was traditionally cooked in a hole, dug deep and lined with leaves. The meat is then cooked very slowly for many hours. Depending on the region of Mexico, the meat source can be lamb, goat or beef. Northern Mexico, the region I’m familiar with, uses primarily beef.
In Texas barbacoa has come to mean the meat from the cheeks of the cows head cooked in this traditional manner. Restaurants today don’t go out back and dig a hole to cook the barbacoa, rather they utilize other methods to replicate the slow steaming of the meat to create the traditional flavor and texture.
I’m sure that when I ate barbacoa in Mexico and most likely from an authentic carniceria (butcher shop/meat market) the meat from the cheeks, etc. was chopped up with other things from the head. But, I couldn’t see anything specific and it tasted good. So I ate it. Unos P’nches, the restaurant where we ate this week, served the most authentic and delicious barbacoa tacos – and it was all pure meat.
I failed to ask what P’nches means and my search of the world wide web turned up nothing except links to the restaurant. I found out from a friend what it means. I’m glad I didn’t ask, I would have embarrassed everyone concerned. Seems it translates to the f-bomb. And guess what?! Their tacos are effing good.
Unos P’nches is located in a neighborhood that was first developed in 1901. This neighborhood is adjacent to the well known Houston Heights – so named because it is geographically the highest elevation in Houston. This area is undergoing a rapid gentrification which is truly double edged sword. Fortunately the way the area was developed and some rules in place, restoration is going to be more prevalent than tear down and rebuild. This area also has a long and proud Hispanic history.
The restaurant faces a side street and I drove right past it. My navigator (iPhone voice) was screaming “make a U-turn” until I reached the next intersection where I could safely return to the the route. Once I got on track and pulled up, I was met with a visual feast.
But this was just the beginning.
Bright orange walls with all manner of art and tables with cards on them. I had never seen these before, but Drew explained that it is a card game similar to Bingo that is commonly played in family gatherings. I adore them! I think I need to own a set.
We walked up to the counter to order and behind me was a cooler with a variety of beverages.
I love Jarritos drinks. This is one of the things from my days of going to Matamoros that I really miss. They are now easily available at most grocery stores in the Houston area, but because of the sugar and calories, I only drink them on special occasions. I didn’t know what to expect from the Tamarind flavor, but what I got was quite tasty, along the lines of a cream soda.
Drew and I shared the chips, salsa and engaging conversation while our food was being prepared. Everything here is homemade from family recipes. Home cooking takes time, but it so worth the wait.
This is El Angel…two barbacoa tacos served with sliced avocado and queso fresco. Queso fresco is “fresh cheese” a mild white cheese that is made from cow’s milk and not aged for a fresh flavor.
I chose corn tortillas and these things were big and delicious. You can see from the irregular edges that these are made in house. No factory, mass produced tortillas here. I really want to learn to make corn tortillas. It is a personal goal and I’ll be sure to share the journey.
One of the characteristics of barbacoa meat is that it has a high fat content similar to a really moist brisket. It is the fat and the slow cooking that give barbacoa its signature texture. All the connective tissue in the meat is broken down during cooking so what is left is mouth watering, melt in your mouth goodness. Traditionally I have had these tacos served with chopped onion and cilantro rather than the avocado and cheese. I think if I were to do this at home I would include the onion and cilantro with the other two items.
The charro beans were among the best I have ever had. My experience with charro beans in most Mexican restaurants is either pinto beans floating in bland broth, or an overly spiced mixture of beans, veggies, and whatever something thinks will set their beans apart from the crowd. These beans were like a comforting homemade bean soup. Just the right mix of beans, sausage and seasonings. Perfection!
This dining experience was absolute perfection. The food, service, environment, everything about Unos P’nches made me feel I was having lunch in someone’s home. Well done!
Between now and next Friday I plan on trying my hand at making barbacoa at home. I will share my efforts with you next week. Who knows, I might even try making corn tortillas as well.
I wish you all a weekend filled with all the things that make life worth living for you!
Until Monday…look up, embrace today, and go have some fun!