As we suggested in the La Gloria post that started this San Antonio series back in June, chef Johnny Hernandez has been helping San Antonio reclaim the Mexican side of its culinary heritage. Easy-going venues like La Gloria and The Frutería focus on the simplest of Mexican food — street food, really — but at his special events venue Casa Hernán, Johnny gets into some of the more complex traditions.
Hernandez does a grand Sunday brunch about once a month at Casa Hernán, sometimes featuring barbacoa in the South Texas/northern Mexican tradition. In some parts of interior Mexico, cooks will roast an entire animal in a pit, usually a lamb. In northern Mexico, barbacoa usually signifies a pit-roasted cow’s head (and nothing more). Hernandez had an outdoor kitchen built to order in his back yard. Not only does the tiled work area include a large grill with the machinery for splaying lambs and kids over the heat, it also includes round holes into which Hernandez can use a chain and pulley system to lower chain baskets into the coals of an underground fire pit. The holes are sized to accommodate baskets large enough to contain an entire cow’s head.
To prepare the head for cooking, Hernandez sets it on banana leaves, seasons it liberally with salt, pepper, epazote, onion, thyme, oregano, and avocado leaves, then wraps the whole concoction in the banana leaves. He then lowers it in a chain-link basket into the fire. It takes about 12 hours to cook a cow’s head before he hoists it up with a chain and pulley and pulls the meat off the bones. Now that’s barbacoa!
The beef cheeks provide the juiciest, tastiest meat and form the centerpiece of the brunch buffet, displayed next to the cooked head. For the rest of the brunch, Hernandez will likely grill a few entire lambs, cook up huge piles of sausages directly over hardwood coals, and make a big selection of vegetable dishes and (of course) fresh tortillas. Dessert always depends on the fresh fruit of the season.
Given the necessary gear to make this dish correctly, it’s one we won’t be trying at home.