Family Beef: A barbacoa story

Michael Nagrant / 01.31.11

Just as sunrise pokes its fingers through the back windows, glints across a pallet of two liter bottles of RC Cola and sets a glitter-coated poster of San Andrés el Apóstol ashimmer, Rosa Garcia starts her Sunday as she has for the last thirty-six years: staring down 600 pounds of cachete, aka beef cheek.

She’s the last original standing. Her brother was a constant companion in the back kitchen at La Favorita #2 grocery store located on the corner of May and 19th Street in Pilsen. He’d help stir the weekend menudo and grind the pork for the chorizo, but a few weeks ago he broke his arm. So her oldest son, Froylan, his father’s namesake, joins her. Having bellied up to the kitchen’s butcher block since he was 5 years old, way before a large half moon had been worried away from its wooden top, he’s already a veteran anyway.

His brother Andy (not that Andy Garcia), who in his Bears jersey looks equipped to take over as a walk-on linebacker, joins them often too. He and his other brother Evy, who started as a cashier at the grocery at 12, are studying their mother’s trade in preparation for opening Del Toro taqueria a few blocks over at 2133 South Halsted in the spring.

Rosa usually seasons the chorizo, but she lets her boys take over occasionally. She prods them saying they need to “loosen up their wrists” lest the flesh not get enough salt while she works on the grocery’s signature barbacoa.

The word barbeque comes from this Spanish word, appropriated by explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo Y Valdés from the Taino dialect of the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean. The pre-Columbian Arawak roasted meat over an open green-wood-fueled fire. Over time, variations of the form sprung up in Central America. Often the whole head of a cow was wrapped in banana or agave leaves and left to smoke in pits dug from the earth. At some point big burly bearded dudes from the southern United States started rubbing pigs down, and cooking them in oil drums.

Though make no mistake, bbq and barbacoa are separate things. The prime difference is that barbacoa is generally steamed or braised and marinades or sauces aren’t introduced until after cooking.

There’s no pit at La Favorita. Rosa salts the cheeks, wraps them and stacks them in pots big enough to boil a whole calf. She fills the pots with water and throws in cloves of garlic and lets the whole thing simmer for hours.

Though Rosa is from the Mexican state of Jalisco, her recipe for barbacoa comes from her husband’s (Froylan Senior) father who hails from San Luis Potosi. Her father-in-law came to Chicago to work on the railroads and sent money back to support his family. After high school, his son Froylan Junior came to Pilsen and started working in a variety of factories near Chinatown before settling in at General Motors.

Before the Podmajersky family bought up half the neighborhood, Froylan Senior started acquiring his own portfolio of Pilsen real estate including La Favorita and the building that houses the F & R Liquor store at 2129 South Halsted, which Andy and Evy operate.

I didn’t ask why the glittery poster of San Andrés is on the wall of the kitchen, but as the first apostle chosen by Jesus, a fisherman who became a fisher of men, it does seem appropriate. For once Rosa’s silky beef cheeks, self-basted in their own fat and collagen, release their heady aromas along with a rich soul satisfying broth, she too reels everyone in.

By 8am, a steady procession of locals ford their way past the aisles stuffed with a rainbow assortment of Fabuloso multipurpose-cleaner bottles in search of barbacoa perfection. Some come before mass. Some after. Folks who used to buy the beef in the eighties and nineties who’ve relocated to Atlanta, Washington and California often return annually to get their fix. A fourth generation of customers is now gumming Rosa’s beefy nirvana these days. Many Sundays, the 600-pound allotment is gone by 9am.

If there’s anything left over, and often there isn’t, Evy brings it over to the liquor store, which has an incredible craft-brew selection, for a pre-work snack. Mario Santiago, the chef/owner of May St. Café, who lives nearby says, “I’ll go in the liquor store and ask them if they have any barbacoa left. They always try to hide it, but you can’t lie with that smell filling the whole place.”

The Garcias’ regular tug-of-war with Santiago might be good practice. Though mom’s happy to give up the recipes and ready to part with plenty of her excellent cumin-and-garlic-perfumed chorizo (which gives up a ton less orange grease than commercial varieties), there’s only so much cheek to go around (an average cow yields twelve-to-sixteen pounds of meat). La Favorita’s supplier only has a few long-term accounts allowed to order as much as they do, and the boys will likely have to fight for every cheek they serve at their new restaurant. Evy jokes, “I think we’re slated for about one pound. Clearly, barbacoa will be a weekend special only.”

La Favorita #2, 1925 South May, (312)666-8222; F & R Liquor, 2129 South Halsted, (312)421-3031.