Tex-Mex

South Texas barbacoa

South Texas barbacoa | Homesick Texan

On weekend mornings in South Texas, people stop by their local taqueria or market to pick up a container of beef barbacoa and a stack of warm tortillas. They’ll then scoop a few tablespoons of the slick shredded beef into the tortilla and top it off with salsa and a squirt of lime. Each tender bite is usually followed by a quick pull on a bottle of Big Red, a cream soda flavored with berries that is native to these parts

Barbacoa was traditionally made with a whole cow’s head wrapped in burlap or maguey leaves that had been buried in the ground and slowly cooked over coals for a day or so.

Only one Texas restaurant, Vera’s in Brownsville, is still allowed to sell traditional barbacoa cooked in this fashion. Instead, these days most places just steam their meat. Likewise, using a whole cow’s head is now forbidden to prevent the spread of disease, so beef cheeks are now the meat of choice.

South Texas barbacoa | Homesick Texan

While some people at home still make their barbacoa in the same fashion as their ancestors, most use either an oven or a slow cooker. I’ve had delicious results using both myself.


For my South Texas barbacoa, I season beef cheeks with lots of salt, pepper, and garlic. To approximate cooking the meat over fire, I also add smoked paprika. Then I nestle the meat in banana leaves as another echo back to the dish’s underground, coal-fire beginnings. In the absence of banana leaves, however, a tight wrap in foil works just as well, too.

Beef cheeks are extremely fatty and as such, you’ll need to spend a few minutes after the meat has cooked removing the fat. Be sure and leave some, however, as it’s part of what makes barbacoa such a decadent treat.

South Texas barbacoa | Homesick Texan

If you can’t find beef cheeks, chuck roast or the point part of the brisket will be a fine substitution. And be sure to serve with a stack of flour tortillas and salsa verde. Some also like to top it with chopped cilantro and onions, though my preference is pico de gallo, as it adds a spicy brightness that cuts through the meat’s richness.

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South Texas barbacoa | Homesick Texan
4.8 from 5 votes
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South Texas barbacoa

Servings 4
Author Lisa Fain

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. If using an oven, preheat to 350°F.
  2. Stir together the salt, black pepper, smoked paprika, garlic, and cayenne. Generously season the meat and then if using an oven, wrap tightly in banana leaves or foil. Place the wrapped meat on a sheet pan and bake for 5 hours.
  3. If using a slow cooker, don’t wrap the meat and instead just place it dry, with no liquid, in the slow cooker and cook on high for 6 hours or low for 8 hours.

  4. After the meat has cooked, allow it to rest and cool for 30 minutes before either unwrapping or removing from the slow cooker. Once it’s cooled, strain and remove some of the fat to your preference.
  5. Squirt the meat with lime juice then taste and adjust seasonings. I usually add a generous sprinkle of more smoked paprika, for instance.

  6. Shred the meat and then serve with warm tortillas, pico de gallo, and salsa verde.

Recipe Notes

You can find beef cheeks at most Mexican markets and in Texas, also at HEB. Banana leaves can often be found at these stores, too, though sometimes they may be in the freezer section. 

  1. Gordon

    How does recipe change when using a Dutch oven ?

    • Lisa Fain

      I’d still wrap it in foil unless you have a super-tight seal on the Dutch oven. You want the meat to steam, basically.

  2. Pun Dit

    Cook in slow cooker for 6 hours on high AND 8 hours on low for a total of 14 hours?

  3. Michael

    thanks Lisa – great flavors! we used brisket. Next time we’ll cut the salt in half.

    • Lisa Fain

      Michael–Thank you for the feedback on the salt, which may be helpful for others. And glad you enjoyed it!

  4. So so good! Any tips for the leftovers?

    • Lisa Fain

      Sarah–I’m glad you enjoyed it! You can add the leftovers to eggs, make enchiladas, or throw into queso. It also freezes well.

  5. Excellent Delicious Easy Recipe! Making it for a third time in the slow cooker. This disappears in our house. Will try doubling at some point.

    • Lisa Fain

      Danya–So glad it’s a hit! And it doubles quite well.

  6. David Zeren

    5 stars
    Thank you! Finally a recipe for the barbacoa that doesn’t include chipotle peppers, adobo or other powerful flavorings. The barbacoa I fell in love with didn’t need all that, just greasy, beefy goodness. Like pot roast turned up to 1000. I’ve held off on buying cheek meat because I hadn’t found a recipe I liked.

  7. JOSEPH HARMON

    So, the butcher gave me a 5lb block of cheek meat (I’m making tacos for 10). Should I cut it in half (long-ways) and cook for six hours, or should I roast in oven longer than the 5 hours you listed?

    • Lisa Fain

      Joseph–It should be fine if you keep it intact and roast it for 5-6 hours. Check on it after 5 hours and see if it’s tender, and if not just continue to roast it another hour or so.

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