5. Tacos Chiwas
Taquería: Tacos Chiwas, 1923 East McDowell Road
Open Since: 2016
Signature Taco(s): Cheek-meat barbacoa cooked in a smoker
In northern Mexican states such as Chihuahua and Sonora, some of which is now southern Texas and Arizona, cattle and ranching for centuries were an dominant economic driver for the region, giving birth to barbacoa, Spanish for barbecue, the smoky, low-and-slow way of cooking meat that traveled up from Mexico and was more prevalent in our borderlands before there was a border. Selling their more commercial cuts to the market, ranchers were left with an overabundance of cattle heads. So they’d dig out a pit in the ground, wrap the heads, bury them atop hot coals made from mesquite wood (the region’s dominant cooking fuel), and let them cook for hours.
You’ll find barbacoa on menus around town — and often, cabeza (cow head) is cooked in a barbacoa style — but, due to modern food safety laws, it can’t be cooked the way it used to be, under the ground. Today, there is a sole restaurant in Texas, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que — open since 1955 — that is allowed to prepare their cow heads the old-fashioned way, underground and over mesquite coals, having been grandfathered in.
In most restaurants, the dish is prepared in a conventional oven, and the result is absent of smoke flavor, with a consistency of either pulled beef or meat that’s been cooked down so long in its own fat that it resembles a velvety stew. Either can be good, but neither qualify as barbecue.
I knew that to get a sense for the textures and flavors that characterize real-deal, traditional barbacoa, I’d either have to go to take a trip to Brownsville, Texas, to see Pitmaster Mando Vera, or get invited to a backyard barbecue around the holidays when some families with Sonora and Chihuahua roots will dig up a pit and make enough for the family and the neighbors.
Then, I ordered the barbacoa at Tacos Chiwas.
It was a new special, written on a small countertop chalkboard by the register. I'd had my fill of their famous rajas gorditas, so I decided to take a chance on the barbacoa.
Chiwas had taken over a building that was previously a barbecue restaurant, and rumor was that they had future plans to cook with the dormant smokers. Despite this, I still expected a smooth, stew-like barbacoa cooked in the oven.
What arrived instead were tacos loaded up with chunks of glistening beef. Big, meaty chunks. I took a bite, and two thoughts crossed my mind, in this order: One, I’ve never had anything like this before. Two, actually, never mind, I totally have. Just not at a Mexican restaurant.
The sizable chunks of cow cheek that fall apart in my mouth, with charred edges and a smokey flavor, were a lot like bites of brisket. These tacos reminded me of Central Texas barbecue. If you’ve been to Franklin’s in Austin, Texas, or Little Miss BBQ, which owner Scott Holmes told me is modeled directly after Franklin’s, here in Phoenix, you’ll know exactly the brand of fall-apart, smoke-ringed brisket that I’m describing.
Naturally, I wanted to speak with the owners of Tacos Chiwas, Armando Hernandez and Chef Nadia Holguin, to understand how they achieved such a barbecue-like barbacoa.
Sure enough, they use the barbecue smoker left over from the previous tenant.
“The idea behind it is that, ideally, what you’re serving in every taco is this,” he says, using a pair of metal tongs to grab a chunk of cacheta — face cheek meat — from a pool of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and rendered cheek fat, which were all roasted together in the smoker for around 16 hours.
16 hours … that’s central Texas brisket territory.
“It almost looks traditional to people,” Hernandez says. “It will fall apart. It has a buttery texture to it. It’s nice to have that texture.”
He and Holguin are a couple, both originally from the state of Chihuahua, though they met at an ASU party here in the Valley.
They tell me that in Chihuahua, barbacoa is traditionally made only with cheek meet, and served with fewer ingredients than in Sinaloa, where the dish can be found served with stewed potatoes and olives. Holguin cooks her version with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, but only for flavoring the meat while it’s in the smoker. She discards them before mixing the smoked cheek meat together.
When picked up with tongs and placed into tortillas, Hernandez says that each bite should have mix of large and small chunks of beef, as well as charred edges, which will lend the smokiest flavor.
“We didn’t want to make it in an actual barbecue-style,” Hernandez says, noting that they use pecan wood in the back of the smoker, but cook primarily with gas, careful not to blast the dish with too much smoke.
“When you cook it in there, there is that reference to smoke and wood.”
They decided to start cooking the dish after they were asked to make it for a wedding party. Hernandez says that in Chihuahua, barbacoa is a special occasion dish, usually consumed on such occasions and at quinceañeras.
“My grandpa used to do the barbacoa for the town,” Hernandez says of his late relative in Chihuahua. “You never make a small amount. The whole town is invited. You’re not going to go through the trouble of digging the hole for just a little bit of meat.”
Chef Holguin’s challenge was to take a food memory of a dish cooked over coals underground and get a similar result through a barbecue smoker. She said it took just a few tries to get the texture and flavor right — a blend of traditional technique with more modern appliances.
Dishes like this have given Tacos Chiwas a reputation as a premiere destination for tacos in Phoenix, but also a place that, to clientele with northern Mexican and Chihuahuan roots, represents something more than a hip taquería.
“The other day someone sent us a portrait of my town,” Hernandez says. “And on the back, they wrote, ‘Thank you for bringing a small part of Quinta to the U.S.’ As small of a token as that is, it’s the most insane feeling.”
“There are little things like this,” Hernandez says, “something that to us is traditional, but to other people is new and exciting, that are pretty cool.”
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With this kind of thinking, it's easy to see why Holguin, Hernandez, and Chris Bianco, of Pizzeria Bianco fame, have hit it off, announcing their joint venture in the historic Roland's Market building east of downtown Phoenix last week, where their traditional and inventive culinary skills are sure to continue to impress.
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