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Travel Story Behind A Dish: Lamb Barbacoa At Fayuca In Vancouver, BC

Discover how this Mexican dish made its way to the Pacific Northwest.

By Leiti Hsu

13 June 2019

“Fayuca” is a border term normally used in the northern part of Mexico to describe goods that are the product of petty contraband—things you sneak over the border like clothes, electronics and, of course, food. It’s a word that winks at you, perfect to describe the kind of not-totally-legal goodies a chef might layer between clothing in a carry-on.

But at Fayuca restaurant in Vancouver’s buzzy waterfront, warehouse district Yaletown, the word takes on a different meaning, expressing an exchange of ideas and flavors from one side of the border to the next. Dishes are rooted in the North Pacific region of Mexico, but expressed with ingredients found in the Pacific Northwest.

Like the lamb barbacoa feast, for example, which settled in multicultural Vancouver after accumulating history, miles and memories up and down the great North American west coast.

It’s the brainchild of Fayuca’s two well-traveled Mexican chefs: Ernesto Gomez and Jair Tellez.

Born in Britain with Basque heritage, the Northern-Mexican-Canadian chef-owner Ernesto Gomez has cooked in France, Japan and the USA. He brought onboard onboard Jair Tellez, one of Mexico’s best-known chefs who grew up in the American-Mexican border town of Tijuana (where barbacoa is a staple street food). Tellez’s restaurant Laja in Baja was recently ranked in the Latin America 50 Best Restaurants.


The story of barbacoa is one that is hard to pinpoint in time.

In ancient times in northern Mexico, smaller animals like armadillos, hares and other mountain rodents were used. Livestock arrived with the the Spaniards, so sheep, cows, horses and donkeys were quickly incorporated into the diet of the indigenous people.

Missionaries would tell (unconfirmed) stories of the “barbaric custom” of northern Mexican tribes who’d cook large chunks of meat on top of a dying fire that would end up in sin, gluttony and orgies. Sounds like a mere good time—a modern-day BBQ bash done right.

Centuries later, but still before the arrival of supermarkets, small communities would rely on one butcher shop which would sometimes keep a live animal outside. When it was the day of sacrifice they would raise a flag so everybody knew: this was the day. As Gomez tells us, the animal would be knocked to its legs or side, with one precise incision puncturing the heart for as painless a death as possible. The animal would then be hung from a strong tree, neck sliced, where it would bleed into a pot.

People would line up to offer help in exchange for some of the precious meat—with none of the animal wasted. Even the blood would be used for some dishes, and the “not-so-noble” parts given to dogs. The exterior stomach and belly would become menudo and the leaner parts dried meat (carne seca). The shanks would go to whoever was going to make the menudo, and the head—which is one of the most prized pieces with the cheeks and tongue combined with leaner meat to balance out the flavor and texture of the barbacoa—given to the person who sacrificed the animal.

Today, the traditional barbacoa style of cooking is used by ranches, small towns and indigenous communities in the north of Mexico where the desert land is arid and windy. The hole in the ground and the hot rocks create oven-style conditions that help cook the meat slowly and trap flavors and aromas. But elsewhere throughout Mexico, barbacoa has taken different turns and been adapted to the home oven—or cooked in a Dutch oven on top of a flame. Some cooks even smoke the meat before to ensure maximum flavor.


But the question remains… how did this decidedly Mexican food make its way to British Columbia at Fayuca?

We asked Gomez just that—and while the words “melting pot” have become taboo with the cool kids in global cuisine, his story proves to be one of honest fusion. It starts with an innocent crush that leads to a cartel killing—and ends just outside Vancouver, where Gomez got resourceful cooking a farm dinner amongst friends.

Fayuca’s lamb barbacoa, as told to Journy by Gomez:

Journy's Leiti Hsu with Ernesto Gomez

Fayuca's barbacoa all started in Mexico with a crush... and a cartel killing

My grandfather Tadeo Casso, a Mexican customs commander, had a dear friend named Aurelio Gonzalez, who was a well-respected customs sergeant. Every Saturday morning, he would bring to our family barbacoa that he made on his ranch. I was still a child, but I remember waking up to the smell of slow-cooked beef and maguey, the agave plant leaves they wrapped the meat in.
Barbacoa was always eaten with cilantro, onions, fresh limes, a red salsa (with chile de arbol or chile de monte) and a green salsa (made with tomatillos and serrano peppers). We never knew why Aurelio was so kind to us. We suspected he was in love with my grandmother because he kept on coming every Saturday long after my grandfather passed away of emphysema. (My grandfather was an incorrigible smoker and drinker; they used to call him Commander Schlitz for his fondness of Schlitz beer.)
Aurelio eventually retired from Mexican customs and went on to open one of the most successful restaurants in Matamoros, where he was from. His specialty was, of course, barbacoa, and his became the most famous rendition of the dish in the northeast of Mexico. Unfortunately his story did not end well as he became so successful that he was kidnapped by some cartel people and held for ransom for money alongside four other businessmen of the region. Two of them were released and two of them were killed. Our dear friend Aurelio was not one of the lucky ones. He left us with the memory of his barbacoa.

Heading to Vancouver? Leave the planning to Journy. We source recommendations from our expert network of locals like Ernesto Gomez to custom-build itineraries with all the best things to see, eat and do.


How that barbacoa memory made its way to Fayuca

A few years ago, my friends Zach and Molly who own Bullock Lake Farm on Salt Spring Island invited us to cook at their farm. They mentioned to me they had a couple of lambs, so immediately I thought: barbacoa. We brought with us on the boat just a handful of dried chiles, avocado leaves and some spices.
We met Zach at his farmstand at the market and immediately got to work gathering provisions. We charred onions, garlic, tomatoes, ancho chiles and guajillo chiles to make a marinade for the lamb.  We left the lamb marinating for a few hours while we got the wood oven-hot.
One of the challenges was to find leaves large enough to wrap up the barbacoa packages, which were to be shared family-style. I also looked for something to suffocate the oven with as I wanted to mimic a barbacoa pit. One of the farmers happened to also be a wood maker, so he fashioned a large piece of wood into a makeshift door for the oven and even put a handle on it!
By midnight, we’d finished prepping everything and the oven was ready, but we still did not have the leaves we would use. Several beers in, we wandered around the farm, our search drenched in moonlight, to find something we could use. Finally, we found some squash leaves—a bit risky, since they had little thorns, but it was the best we could do.
We assembled the individual packages and put in the marinated meat, avocado leaves, cumin, turnips, garlic scapes and lots of fennel from the farm. We placed the packages in the oven, suffocated the oven with the door, sealed it with wet paper and soil and left it to cook for at least five hours.
Our guests at this island feast included cider makers, winemakers, cheese makers, farmers and artists at a table set for 60.
The way back was choppy, as the Georgia Strait can be brutal when the weather turns. But we returned with a new rendition, our North Pacific barbacoa in the Pacific Northwest.

Fayuca's lamb barbacoa recipe

Traditional barbacoa is made by digging a hole in the Earth, creating fire from available wood and layering rocks on top that get red-hot. Typically round river rocks (piedras azules) are best to maintain heat. Once the fire dies down, the meat (marinated or not) is lowered down on a pot lined with leaves or cacti. Depending on the region, the green covering could be maguey, banana or avocado leaves. Larger leaves like palm (or a less poetic, but practical, corrugated metal) are then layered on top, followed by earth to seal. The meat is left for several hours until succulent and ready.

At Fayuca, Gomez and Tellez opt for a more modern approach to their border-hopping barbacoa, one that eschews in-the-ground cooking in favor of the oven—without sacrificing flavor or fall-off-the-bone texture.  

Ingredients:

Charred marinade:

Cumin
Tomatoes
Guajillo chiles
Ancho chiles
Onion
Garlic
Avocado leaves

Vegetables:

Fennel
Tomatoes
Turnip with leaves
Garlic scapes

Garnish:

Avocado
Onion
Cilantro
Lime
Your favorite red chile salsa and green chile salsa

Serve with:

Your choice of flour or corn tortillas

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 400℉.

2. To prepare the marinade, first toast the cumin. Char the tomatoes, guajillo chiles, ancho chiles, onion, garlic and avocado leaves very well. Season to taste with salt.

3. Marinate lamb with charred mix.

4. In tinfoil, wrap lamb belly on a bed of mixed vegetables.

5. Cook three hours and serve with tortillas, avocado, onion, cilantro, lime your favorite red chile salsa and green chile salsa.


For more Pacific Northwest travel inspiration, read up on six nature-y things to do in Vancouver.