Scraping gray strips of flesh off a kid’s skull on a recent trip to Torreón in northern Mexico, I was a little apprehensive about my first bite. Next to the head sat a ball of organs tied together with guts that glistened with fat.
But I've long since learned that in Mexico, it's worth trying everything. Besides, cabrito al pastor, a spit-roasted baby goat dish not to be confused with pork tacos al pastor, is the source of great pride here in the state of Coahuila and neighboring Nuevo León.
Like tacos al pastor—a much loved Mexican take on shawarma, which Lebanese immigrants introduced to the central city of Puebla in the 20th century—cabrito al pastor is the product of Mexico’s Mestizo identity and the glorious fusion of indigenous flavors with European and Middle Eastern ingredients and influences.
My first taste came in La Majada, a local institution known for serving the best cabrito in the arid, industrial city of Torreón. Tucking into a generous plate of tender shoulder meat and crispy skin, I was immediately struck by how much gamier the flavor was than the goat birria I’ve grown to love down in Guadalajara.
It came with guacamole, handmade flour and corn tortillas, and a warming bowl of frijoles charros—beans with chorizo, bacon, onion, salt, pepper and paprika. Then there was a perfectly balanced salsa made with serrano, ancho, jalapeño and chilaca chiles roasted over charcoal before being crushed in a molcajete mortar.
The next morning I went back to meet Federico Chávez, the head chef who has worked at La Majada for 34 years. He tells me they sell 35 to 40 goats per week, with each one serving seven people.
“The goat is cooked whole over charcoal for two and a half hours. It’s completely natural, you don’t need to season it with salt or pepper or anything,” Chávez says. “Most people ask for riñonada, the area around the kidneys, which is the best part. The fat in the kidneys is what makes it taste so special.”
While that may be the prime cut, nothing goes to waste here. Just as taquerías all over the country serve tortillas loaded with brains, tripe and tongue, the cabrito joints in the north offer kid’s head, heart, liver, guts and blood as popular side dishes.
“If you order the entire goat we’ll throw in the machito and the head for free,” says Chávez as he brings out a plateful for me to try.
“The machito is made up of the entrails: heart, the liver, the gizzard, and the fat, all rolled up in tripe,” he explains. “The head is washed, cleaned, and steam cooked, although some people like it to be finished on the grill so it absorbs the taste of the charcoal.”
The meat from the head is succulent but not as smoky as the shoulder cut I had tried the previous night, while the machito is soft and distinctive but not unpleasant.
Goat meat even has surprising health benefits, Chávez claims. “Doctors recommend cabrito to people who are sick because it doesn’t have cholesterol. It’s good for the elderly.”
To find out how this iconic dish came about, I sought out Juan Ramón Cárdenas, the owner of Don Artemio, an upscale restaurant in the nearby city of Saltillo that serves several cabrito variations alongside modern takes on other traditional local fare.
“I was born in a family dedicated to cabrito. My mom and dad opened a cabrito restaurant in 1959 and I grew up in that environment,” Cárdenas tells me. “My grandfather kept goats at his ranch and both my grandparents used to make cabrito. My parents served cabrito at their wedding and I served it at my wedding.”
Cárdenas has put his knowledge to good use, winning Best Meat Book at this year’s Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for La Senda del Cabrito (The Path of the Kid), a guide to Mexico’s wonderful goat meat dishes.
Consumption of goat in Mexico dates back to around the 16th century, Cárdenas explains, when Spanish and Portuguese settlers first introduced the animal to these shores. Adept at surviving in challenging conditions, goats thrived in the rugged mountains and scorching deserts of northern Mexico.
Back then, Cárdenas says, “the Spanish Crown didn’t allow anyone to practice any other religion than Catholicism. Some Jewish people were allowed to come to colonize northern Mexico as long as they converted to Catholicism, but if you didn’t convert and you continued practicing Judaism you would face the death penalty.”
To avoid detection, the Sephardi Jewish shepherds who settled in the north stopped eating their traditional Paschal lamb and substituted it with goat kid.
“The shepherds, who would stay with their flocks for months at a time in those days, used to put the kids on a spit and roast them. That style became known as al pastor (in the way of the shepherd),” Cárdenas says.
“The key to a good cabrito al pastor is that the kid must be between 30 and 40 days old and it must have been fed only with the milk of its mother. At this age the meat is still very tender and the kid still hasn’t started grazing. Once it starts eating grass the taste of its meat changes.”
Although Jewish in origin, it didn’t take long for cabrito to be Mexicanized.
“It’s a style that was imported to Mexico, but the way we eat cabrito today is totally Mexican, with tortillas and spicy salsas,” Cárdenas says with pride. “There’s also a side dish with more Mexican influence called fritada de cabrito, where the kid’s entrails are cooked in its blood. This is certainly not an entirely Jewish dish because, as far as I understand, Jews don’t eat blood.”
It may not sound like the most appetizing of dishes, but after discovering the joy of cabrito I’ll be searching it out next time I’m in the area.