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We’d heard from a colleague that Renatos had the best barbacoa game in town, and we finally got the chance to confirm this claim for ourselves a couple of weeks ago.

This family joint in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco neighborhood has been in business for 55 years. Its owner, Renato Álvarez, gave us a little history lesson about his family and their barbacoa business. The barbacoa recipe prepared in Renatos is from the state of Hidalgo, famous for mutton slow-cooked in a pit dug into the ground.

Álvarez’s mother, Celia Rentería, was from Hidalgo’s capital, Pachuca, where her family used to make the traditional barbacoa of the region. After moving to Azcapotzalco with her husband, Celia started making barbacoa in San Martin Xochinahuac, one of many towns that have been swallowed by the sprawling city.

The Álvarez-Renterías are a large clan, with 15 siblings in total, and most of them have gone into the barbacoa business. “I have a brother who lives in Los Cabos and makes barbacoa for the gringo tourists,” Álvarez told us. “But all of our businesses are independent from one another. We are the only Renatos, and our barbacoa is the best.”

On our visit, we ordered a large platter with grilled panela and asadero cheeses and a quesacoa (a handmade tortilla filled with barbacoa and melted manchego cheese). We couldn’t pass up the traditional consome, the broth that is collected as the mutton cooks and is served with chickpeas, rice and, in Renatos case, chunks of carrot – a delicious dish for a chilly morning.

A few minutes later, a kilo of barbacoa found its way to our table, along with a Renatos platter (chicharrón, nopales, cheese and pápalo, a pungent wild herb that is usually served fresh and uncooked with some tacos in México). We were happy to see that the tortillas brought to the table were freshly handmade. The order of barbacoa was also accompanied by the traditional salsa borracha (roughly, “drunk salsa”) made with serrano peppers and pulque (a fermented drink made with the maguey sap) or beer.

When we were almost finished, a mixiote (mutton cooked in individual-sized foil-and-paper packets with a mixture of different chiles and a bit of maguey leaf for flavor) appeared on our table. We were full, but we couldn’t resist the delicious herbal aroma. We washed down this feast with orange juice, café de olla (coffee prepared with raw sugar and cinnamon) and oat-flavored pulque prepared by Renato himself. Our appetite was satisfied, but not our curiosity. So we asked Álvarez to show us where the delightful barbacoa we just had eaten was prepared.

He showed us the hoyo, an underground wood-burning oven that measured about 1 meter in circumference by 1.75 meters deep in the back of the restaurant. Here, the meat is cooked from 12 to 14 hours. “We can fit up to 15 muttons here,” Álvarez said. “We only get 100 percent Mexican meat, and the muttons we buy don’t weigh more than 25 kilograms each. If they are bigger, the meat is not as tender and the flavor changes.” He opened the lid of the pit to show us its precious contents: layers of meat wrapped in maguey and avocado leaves, the essential ingredients that give Renatos barbacoa its unique flavor.

Renatos is a restaurant with a homey atmosphere where the wood fire, high quality ingredients, and a traditional recipe all make for – indeed – the best barbacoa we’ve had in Mexico City.

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