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In a small town near Mexico City, a Sunday morning barbacoa stand is the place to be

Barbacoa, slowly cooked in a hoyo for 14 hours, is carried out to prepared
Barbacoa, slowly cooked in a hoyo for 14 hours, is carried out to prepared.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)
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Pedro Sánchez and wife Julia de Jesús have been serving barbacoa at a roadside stand every Sunday morning for almost 20 years. They set up their stall in Mavoro, a small town two hours west of Mexico City.

There’s no official name, no marketing or Instagram account to find it through, and though only 1,600 people live in Mavoro, there’s always a group of hungry people — locals, taxi drivers and construction workers — assembled for the couple’s superlative, smoky, spoon-tender barbacoa.

Jesús Salas Tornés of Expendio de Maíz in Mexico City has translated the spontaneity and ordered chaos of a country kitchen to the city.

“They serve one of the best barbacoas around,” Alberto Marmolejo, a local resident, told me recently as we watched Sánchez, 56, chop the long-cooked goat into small pieces and tuck them in hot, just-made tortillas that De Jesús, also 56, had just pulled off the comal.

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The recipe they follow was created by Sánchez’s grandfather almost 50 years ago and has never been modified; he is the third generation of his family to serve up Sunday morning barbacoa in Mavoro.

The process starts the day before, with the killing of the goat in the morning. It’s then butchered, wrapped in burned maguey pencas (agave leaves) and slowly cooked in a hoyo — a stone-lined, wood-fired pit — for 14 hours. On Sunday morning, the barbacoa comes out of the pit at 7:30 and is usually gone by 10:30.

In a special bonus episode of ‘Off Menu,’ Food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson goes to Mexico City to sample a variety of Mexican food.

Then they pack up the stand and go back to their regular life: On weekdays, De Jesús dedicates her time mostly to taking care of their animals (horses, goats and chickens) and Sánchez works at a government outpost inspecting animals and agricultural products. Until Saturday morning rolls around again, and it’s time to make the barbacoa.

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Pedro Sánchez is a third-generation barbacoa master based in Mavoro, Estado de México.
Pedro Sánchez butchers the goat
Pedro Sánchez butchers the goat.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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After butchering the freshly slaughtered goat, Pedro Sánchez wraps it in maguey pencas (agave leaves).
Goat meat is wrapped in charred maguey leaves before it is cooked into barbacoa
Goat meat is wrapped in charred maguey leaves before it is cooked into barbacoa.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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The agave leaves are burned first to remove the bitterness and infuse a more subtle flavor.
Charred maguey pencas, or leaves, are used to wrap protect the goat from the heat of the in-ground oven in roasts in
Charred maguey pencas, or leaves, are used to wrap the goat meat and protect it from burning in the heat of the in-ground oven.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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While the barbacoa is cooking, De Jesús makes nixtamal with local heirloom corn. She cooks it for approximately half an hour and lets it rest until till Sunday morning.
Nixtamalized corn, ready to be ground into masa
Nixtamalized corn, ready to be ground into masa.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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Julia de Jesús.
Julia de Jesús
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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During the cooking, which lasts about 14 hours, the fire is stoked with ocote wood — a resinous, indigenous local pine tree — to add flavor.
Ocote wood is a resinous, indigenous local pine tree used to cook and lend flavor to the barbacoa
Ocote wood is a resinous, indigenous local pine used to cook and lend flavor to the barbacoa.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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At 7:30 on Sunday morning, they carefully remove each penca and store it for the next week.
The hoyo, or in-ground pit, is covered during the 14 hours the goat slowly cooks
The hoyo, or in-ground pit, is covered during the 14 hours the goat slowly cooks.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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First off out of the hoyo is the panza, or belly meat, which has been cooked with a combination of chili powder and salt.
Pedro Sánchez unwrapping the long-cooked barbacoa
Pedro Sánchez unwrapping the long-cooked barbacoa.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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While Sánchez is preparing the stand, De Jesús goes to her local molino and grinds the nixtamalized corn, turning it into beautiful yellow masa for tortillas.
Julia De Jesús making tortillas
Julia De Jesús making tortillas.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)

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Maciza taco with green salsa, cilantro and onions. The barbacoa is gone by 10:30 a.m. most Sundays.
Barbacoa tacos
Fully dressed barbacoa tacos.
(Claudio Castro / For The Times)


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Claudio Castro