Beer-Braised Barbacoa Tacos

We are nearly a week and a day out from the showdown of showdowns. The stakes are higher than ever. I am putting my best taco against offerings from home cooks in Chicago to see if years of visits to taqueria’s were worth it. This will be my third attempt in a cooking competition, but this time I have a different strategy on how to win.

Here is the approach I’ll be going with next Sunday. Having eaten my way through most cities, these barbacoa tacos stand up to my favorite taqueria’s tacos. They have a nice amount of heat, moist and tender meat.

The secret to keeping the meat moist is all in the braise, especially for barbacoa. I used most of a 16 oz bottle of Sapporo Premium (a few ounces for myself). Cooking with alcohol is a pro tip to add flavor complexity to whatever you’re making, whether a sauce or a braise. The booze cooks out and imparts its own zip to a dish. Plus, you might as well sample some before putting it in the pot. I have their Reserve beer set aside to take this dish to the next level.

If I don’t win, I will forego eating tacos for an entire month.

If you’re in the Chicago area on April 19, come see if my barbacoa has what it takes to be the best. My stomach and pride depend on it.

Beer-Braised Barbacoa
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You got the time? I got the recipe for you for barbacoa that may top your favorite taqueria.
Servings Prep Time
6 people 30 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
3-4 hours 3-4 hours
Servings Prep Time
6 people 30 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
3-4 hours 3-4 hours
Beer-Braised Barbacoa
BigOven - Save recipe or add to grocery list
Print Recipe
You got the time? I got the recipe for you for barbacoa that may top your favorite taqueria.
Servings Prep Time
6 people 30 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
3-4 hours 3-4 hours
Servings Prep Time
6 people 30 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
3-4 hours 3-4 hours
Meat & Spice Rub
Braising goods
Servings: people
  1. Mix all the spices in a bowl for the spice rub with a fork. These are the approximate increments I used.
  2. Generously rub the pork shoulder with the spice rub. Ideally, do this overnight to let the flavors penetrate the meat. I didn't plan ahead and did this day of. The flavors were still sensational.
  3. Whether you let the spice rub sit over night in the fridge or for 15 minutes, let the pork get closer to room temp before searing.
  4. Heat dutch oven on medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add olive oil in dutch oven.
  5. Add 1/8 tsp chile de arbol peppers to the oil (15-20 seconds).
  6. Add onions to dutch oven. Cook for 3-4 minutes.
  7. Add chopped chipotle peppers and adobo sauce. Stir.
  8. Add spice-rubbed pork shoulder to dutch oven.
  9. Sear on all 4-6 sides.
  10. Pour in beer, scraping up fawn on the bottom of the pot. Add water.
  11. Bring to a simmer, cover and place into 325 degree oven for 3-4 hours. The meat will get to the desired temperature in this span of time, so you are really looking for the meat to be fall apart tender.
  12. Let the meat rest for 10-20 minutes. Then, with two forks, start pulling apart the meat. Pork shoulder is fatty. Most of the fat will have melted away. Discard the remaining fatty chunks.
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9 Bites at Big Star

big star, chicago, tacos, wicker park, pork belly, al pastor, fish taco


The adage “always leave them wanting more” is attributed to P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney. But neither of them had the chance to dine at the taco sensation known as Big Star in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

Big Star’s, well, big star, shines in the night summoning all the hipsters the small, standalone taqueria can hold. Here are things I can promise you you’ll see:

  • Pants so tight they make you uncomfortable
  • Funky glasses that probably don’t even have a prescription
  • Tattooed folk
  • Chuck Taylors
  • Vintage bicycles locked outside.
  • If you’re lucky, maybe a Vespa with a helmet on the seat.

After a meeting in the city, I met mi amigo de tacos at Big Star. At this point in my life, everyone knows how I feel about Mexican food. I think about eating mas Mexican food WHILE eating Mexican food.

“Know what would be good with this?” I ask myself or whoever mistakenly decided to listen to me. “More tacos.”


My preference is burritos instead of tacos, but the gran estrella only serves tacos. I opted for an array of three tacos to get a taste of their different flavors: al pastor, de panza (pork belly) and de pescado (fish).

I started with al pastor, which is my preferred meat at taquerias. Their tacos are served on small, white corn tortillas and garnished with more authentic-leaning toppings than cheddar, sour cream and shredded lettuce. The al pastor was good, but I had better at several other spots.

Next was the pork belly. A favorite of mi amigo de tacos. This was better than the al pastor and may cause you to scream “Get in my belly!”big star, chicago, tacos, wicker park, pork belly, al pastor, fish taco

I closed with the breaded fish taco with chipotle mayo. The fish was a good size for the tortillas and it was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Everything you look for in a fish taco.

The final two were the best of my trio, but here’s the thing. Each taco was $3. Each taco was also 3 bites. That equates to a dollar a bite. Thinking back, I keep envisioning myself eating a crumpled dollar. I’m frugal when it comes to food. The bang for the dólares is usually very high with Mexican cuisine. But for single-tortilla’d tacos at a buck a bite, it’s hard to justify the expense.

My gold standard (or aluminum foil) is Chipotle. You get a massive amount of food for a reasonable sum. The food IS good. The people watching is unrivaled. If you’re new to Chicago, or visiting, Wicker Park is a great area to wander around and get drinks. I saw one man eating out of a dog bowl at the corner of Damen and Milwaukee. I found it best not to ask.

Big Star is also cash only, so depending on your wad of cash, Big Star may leave you too wanting more.

Scenes from a Mexican Restaurant II

church, chicago, dating, night, date, burrito, taco, dinner

“One lengua taco,” he said enthusiastically. “And I’m torn between steak and chorizo. What should I get?”

The cashier shrugged his shoulders. Then the man continued, “Which is better? Which would you get?”

“The steak,” the cashier said assuredly, but in a way that conveyed that it was an obvious decision.

“OK. One steak taco.”

Mr. Indecision was on a date. I wondered if his matchmaker was Tinder, OK Cupid, eHarmony or a site I’ve yet to be told about. Judging by the lack of mentions of Jesus, I’m ruling out eHarm. He was about 5’9″, had a reddish-brown beard and wore glasses. His date had curled, dark brown hair and looked like she’d dressed up for the 9 PM fourth meal.

Their conversation hit all the usual notes of a first date: music, comedians, smartphones. Despite his earlier indecision, the timbre of his voice when talking about potentially getting Spotify to listen to comedians was assured and confident.

The taco date lasted about 20 minutes. He kept trying to find commonalities with his date. Her answers were abrupt and I felt sorry for the guy, who was trying far more than his date.

As they went to leave, the guy had gone first out of the booth and his date trailed behind before opening the door for him.

They headed out into the blustery spring night, each going a different direction, in search of their next taco date.

Scenes from a Mexican Restaurant


She slowly slid down the booth at the taqueria. Her toes reached for the lip of the bench on the opposing side, but her legs were just a few inches too short for the restful comfort of the other side.

She had placed her order for a burrito to go. Wearing flats, black tights, a polka dot skirt and a light coat, the woman in her mid-late 20s stood for a while staring at nothing in particular before deciding to sit.

With her back to the counter in the taqueria with five booths, she stared onto the glistening street. It had drizzled earlier in the evening. It was the sporadic rain that makes you question if someone spat off a roof and hit you, or if it is, in fact, raining. After enough spittle from heaven, the traffic and street lights reflected in the street speckled with pot holes.

She ran her fingers through her wavy, shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair before sliding another inch down the booth bench. She flipped her hair from the right to the left, then back.

“Burrito dinner, to go.” the cashier announced, looking in her direction.

But she was lost in her thoughts, her toes getting ever closer to relaxation after a long Monday.

The cashier moved closer to her from behind the counter and repeated, “Miss, burrito to go.”

Bending her knees and sliding back in the seat, she sat up and rose from the bench to pickup the plastic bag with the Styrofoam container. The cashier smiled as he handed over the dinner special.

She headed out into the windy night looking for a place to rest her feet.

Llévame a los Tacos!

fish taco

mexico, travel, tijuanaThere comes a time in every man’s life when he’s standing at a border. On one side, safety and predictability; on the other, risk and new experiences. If any of you had read my online dating profile, you may recall that I wrongfully claimed I “loved variety” and “new experiences.”

In my case, my border was the legitimate border between the US and Mexico. Conservatively, I have been warned no less than 17 times about going to Tijuana.

“There are men with guns!” my aunt had cautioned.

“It’s filthy,” someone else said.

“Watch your wallet…Don’t take anything you wouldn’t be comfortable leaving in Mexico.”

I looked at my new iPhone for a good minute. Then tucked it in my pocket.

After visiting vineyards in Sonoma and almond orchards in Bakersfield, we were one grow house away from completing the agricultural trifecta.

While planning the trip, we looked at a map and the proximity of Mexico. We can skip over my undying love for Mexican food. The prospect of getting my first passport stamp was also alluring. Plus, we had a half day free to explore. All those tortilla chips started to tip the scale.

The day started meeting Toussaint, a med student in the area, for breakfast. I’d already eaten, since my threshold for sustenance is six minutes after waking up. I ordered a bagel and everyone else got oatmeal. We shared our plan to cross the border and asked about safety. Our breakfast companion, originally from the Dominican Republic, said it’s fine during the daytime, but warned that coming back across the border could take hours via car.

While eating Michelle’s unguarded bowl of oatmeal, I said it might be my last meal and I didn’t know how long they’d hold me in a Mexican prison. Toussaint possesses a laugh that fills a room. It’s more than a laugh. Almost a guffaw. I’d credit the acoustics of the colorful café in Chula Vista, but I’m rather certain his sincere, bellowing crescendo of a laugh would fill even the most boisterous environment.

It has been confirmed by nearly all my friends that I wouldn’t fare well in prison. Let alone an international prison where the only words I know are for la comida. My best shot of survival would be ingratiating myself with a cell mate involved in food service.

We finished potentially our last meal and went to pay the check. The waiter had a perfectly manicured beard and a baseball hat on backwards. Displaying our uncertainty about the adventure, we also asked him about crossing the border. He advised to park the car on the US side, facing North and to cross the border on foot.

Perhaps my brain has been influenced by nightly new footage, but I envisioned the border being a large fence with barbed wire. Instead the border was a large cement wall. Perhaps there was barbed wire at the top. But the only barrier to leaving the US was a metal revolving gate, like one you’d see at your high school track. Yes. Yes, it is that easy to leave the US.

My first sight once in Mexico? Two men with riffles. I’m guessing they are riffles. They were big and I’m nearly certain they weren’t water guns. A very small part of me hoped there would be a welcoming committee with tortas and tacos. Didn’t someone tell them me and mi estomago were coming?

¡Bienvenidos Tijuana! My first impression was that Mexico was like a more rundown version of a fringe neighborhood in Chicago. I felt like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny when he arrives in the south. I know I stuck out. Sadly, I never learned how to say “Oh shit” en español. There was an armada of cabs just past the border. Fortunately for me, Michelle is fluent in Spanish. I’m normally verbose but the surefire way to make me go mute is to take me to a land where I don’t speak the language. The cab drivers had matching uniforms and reminded me of ticket scalpers. Meech negotiated the rate and we hopped in the cab.

Now I know where cars from the ’80s go to die.

Everyone who had a shop or a cab tried to get us to spend our money with them. For $5, the driver took us to downtown Tijuana. It was a strange experience. I didn’t totally feel like I was in another country and it certainly wasn’t Canada. Maybe it was the fact that I was able to walk right in.

Once in downtown TJ, we walked around and I took in the sights and smells. The shops were a rotation of bar, tourist/t-shirt shop, discounted drugs, and taqueria. For some reason the smells also cycled between food and feces/garbage.

We made our way to la iglesia. Prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for safety were in order. For the middle of a Thursday afternoon, there were a fair amount of people inside the open-air church. It had a lot more statues of saints and a ton more candles. There was one corner that housed a statue behind glass. Surrounding the statue were black and white pictures of women. The flyers were for people that are missing.

We returned to the streets and went into a photography museum. The exhibit highlighted scenes from Mexico’s battle for independence, with military generals posing. One man had a face that screamed, “Don’t even think of putting this on Instagram!”

After all that tourist activity, I was in need of some fuel. What would a trip to Mexico be without food? Earlier in the day we had asked what the exchange rate was so we had an idea what things cost. The taqueria offered three tacos for the equivalent of $1. ME GUSTA! TODOS TACOS! We had a sampling of pollo, carne asada y pescado. Now I can say I’ve had tacos tradicional.

Our final stop in TJ was a little coffee shop. I’d gotten my fix on tacos, now it was Michelle’s turn. Since she knew the language, she started conversing with the barista. Show off! Another man was seated behind us in the small, but cozy café. Meech had mentioned that it was my first trip to Mexico and they started discussing Tijuana.

We joined Tony Barragan at his table. He had his laptop, a cup of coffee and his Blackberry resting atop a book. He asked me if I spoke Spanish and I told him I understand it but don’t speak it that well. Kindly, he started speaking in English. He urged us to go to Rosarito to get a better impression of Mexico than Tijuana. Tony gave us specific instructions on where to go and how much it should cost. He was our Mexican Jeremy! Instead of the wiggle, Tony advised us on cabs to Rosarito Beach.

But before we left, we talked with Tony for nearly an hour. We learned about his life and how he became a model scout. He started ditching school and would design window displays. One of the standout moments of the entire trip was when he told us about a model he discovered while walking the streets of TJ. Tony spotted a man washing cars. “And he was gorg-eous.” Tony went up to him and informed him that he was a model scout and he wanted him to come to his office to take some shots. The car washer was aggressive toward Tony and ignored his offer. But the he ended up showing up to Tony’s office when he was told. Tony took some shots and an agency in New York was interested in seeing the newly discovered model. Tony told them he wasn’t ready, but they insisted. Reluctantly, Tony sent him. Once setup in New York, the model was to go to meetings at the agency. While walking around New York, he saw a sign at a construction site looking for workers. In exchange for a day’s work, he would receive $100. He ended up working at the site and not going to his meetings.

The agency reached out to Tony sharing their displeasure. Once the model was back in Mexico he met with Tony and said how the accommodations weren’t good enough for him. At this point, Tony mimed taking off earrings and tucking them in his shirt before executing a perfect Z snap.

After some training and polishing, that car washer is now traveling the globe and will be walking in a show in Milan.

Sadly, neither of us stood out to be global models. But Tony gave us his phone number in case we got into any trouble. We stepped outside  and Michelle asked me what we should do. I mentally went through how much cash we had. We weighed our options, checked the time, then got in a yellow van for Rosarito.

Ain’t No Party Like an Al Pastor Party

20130713-193943.jpgHow do you kickstart a conversation?

Person #1: Hi. I’m Mr. So-and-So.

Me:  Hi, I’m Andrew.

Person #1: Where’d you go to school? What do you do?

After everyone in the small group answers, an awkward silence results. We have all been in one of these dead end conversations. It’s painful. You look down at your glass, wishing the libation were stronger or that there were more of it. I tried unsuccessfully to spark the conversation asking about upcoming summer travel, passions, and any recent good reads.

You can read all the books and blogs about networking or developing your inner extrovert, but I discovered a secret yet to be enumerated. And it goes against all conventional wisdom. Continue reading Ain’t No Party Like an Al Pastor Party