Everyone loves tacos al pastor. Beef steak, chorizo, and shrimp tacos are also hugely popular choices in both Mexico and the United States. But some regional specialties remain tragically overlooked. Jalisco-style tacos de barbacoa, for example, are perhaps the most underrated members of the taco family.
The central Mexican state of Hidalgo is rightly famed for its barbacoa: a succulent, pit-roasted mutton served over soft corn tortillas and often washed down with a mug of pulque. But there are other ways of doing barbacoa and few are better than the slow braised beef packed into crunchy corn tortillas found in the western state of Jalisco.
Here in Guadalajara, the Jalisco state capital, the quality of barbacoa can vary considerably from one establishment to another, but when it's done right it's better than practically any other taco filling. Although generally considered a breakfast food, tacos de barbacoa also make a fine lunch and I'd probably eat them for dinner as well if they were still on sale anywhere in the evening. (I've looked; they're not.)
Once stewed in a tomato- and chile-based broth, each helping of shredded beef is typically stuffed into two tortillas and then fried on the comal until the outside turns satisfyingly crispy. Meanwhile the inner layer remains soft and soaks up the flavor from the meaty juices. Add one spoonful of diced raw onion, another of fried onion, a pinch of cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice and a dollop of salsa, and you're in taco heaven.
Naturally, there's great debate in Guadalajara over who does the tastiest tacos de barbacoa. Tacos Juan, El Guero, and Va Taco Vallarta are all up there with the best and although comparing them can be like choosing your favorite child there are few places that do barbacoa better than Tacos Charlie.
To find out what's behind the magic, I spoke to Juan Carlos Sierra Pérez, a bald, mustachioed 51-year-old with glasses and a seemingly permanent smile. Better known as Charlie, he founded Tacos Charlie on December 14, 1987. His face appears in cartoon form on the restaurant's logo and he's since opened two other branches and a food truck, all located within the Guadalajara metropolitan area.
As is the case at many of Mexico's best restaurants and food stands, Sierra tells me Tacos Charlie relies on an old family recipe.
"My mom Susana has always had great seasonings. When I was eight or nine years old I would often ask her to make things that I could sell," he recalls. "When I was old enough, in my early twenties, I told her I really wanted to open a food business. She had this recipe for tacos de barbacoa so we started selling them and people loved them. I've now been selling them with the same flavor and the same quality for 29 years."
Sierra says the primary differences between Jalisco-style barbacoa and Hidalgo's more celebrated version are that "we use shredded beef cooked in a broth with chile and tomatoes, whereas the barbacoa in Hidalgo is made using whole chunks of mutton in a clear consommé."
Jalisco's barbacoa takes some inspiration from birria, another local specialty made with slow cooked goat or mutton, Sierra says, but while birria always comes with soft tortillas, beef-based barbacoa is more popular in crunchy tacos.
Over the last three decades Tacos Charlie has built up a loyal and diverse clientele. "On Saturday mornings young people come here to cure their hangovers. On Sundays we get a lot of families, and during the week we get a lot people coming from work," Sierra says. "On the average weekday we sell about 1,500 tacos. On weekends we sell over 2,000 tacos a day."
With so many people depending on him for their barbacoa fix, Sierra has adopted a relentlessly consistent schedule. "We've been open 365 days a year for the last 16 years," he says with pride. "We haven't closed for a single day in all that time."
While the barbacoa at some establishments can be disappointingly short of flavor, Sierra attributes his success to using "very high-quality meat with no fat or trimmings," and the secret recipe for his consommé, whose ingredients "don't just give the barbacoa great flavor but also provide nutrients that other products don't have."
Although understandably reluctant to reveal his precious recipe, Sierra says the basic process involves "cook[ing] the meat for three hours so that it's nice and soft. Then we chop it up and season it with a salsa made with tomato and mirasol or guajillo chilis. We then cook it in the broth for 30 minutes."
Another thing that differentiates Sierra's restaurant from other barbacoa joints is its fame for serving tacos doused in the same hearty consommé that the meat is cooked in. Many places offer a cup of hot broth on the side, but at Tacos Charlie most people order their tacos "bañados"—literally bathed in sauce.
"This is something that happened over time," Sierra recalls. "When I started selling tacos some people asked me, 'Hey, Charlie, why don't you pour some consommé over my tacos?' So I started doing it and then all my customers started asking for it because they thought it looked good. It became a tradition to have your tacos 'bañados' here."
In good news for foreign visitors with sensitive stomachs, Sierra also insists that his tacos will not leave consumers with Montezuma's Revenge, the bane of Mexican street food aficionados. "We use seven different condiments in our barbacoa," he explains. "We use some of them precisely to counteract any irritation caused by the other condiments."
So now there's no excuse. Get down to Guadalajara and enjoy one of Mexico's greatest taco experiences.