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Denver chef makes traditional barbacoa in Westwood neighborhood

Jose Avila grew up in Mexico and loved the lamb dish from his childhood.

DENVER, Colorado — Throughout Mexico, there are different types of barbacoa. The one Jose Avila grew up eating was barbacoa de borrego, or lamb barbacoa, originating from Hidalgo.

When he moved to Colorado and began working in kitchens, he couldn’t find any chefs or restaurants making traditional barbacoa the way it’s done in Hidalgo. Two years ago, he decided to become the first in the Denver metro area.

Avila started El Borrego Negro, a Sunday popup offering barbacoa by the pound. He cooks one full lamb each week.

“This is more about the passion and the love, and it’s super personal for me to re-create a piece of my childhood every weekend," Avila said. "I think that is super neat and super cool. I am super happy that I get to experience that on a daily basis."

Since its inception, Avila’s cooking has gained national recognition. He was recently named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards.

Credit: KUSA
Jose Avila has been named a finalist for the James Beard Award.

The process

The process is labor intensive, beginning with the sacrifice of the animal on Friday. In the beginning, Avila would purchase animals from auction. Now, he raises his own herd on a farm in Wellington.

“It might be weird or it might not, but I really keep every single skull of the sheep. I have all of them, I don’t sell them,” Avila said. “It’s a ritual, and I take pride in it. It’s super personal for me, I don’t think it’s right for me to give away or sell a skull and paint it and put it on a wall.”

No part of the animal goes to waste. The bones are used to make broths, and the charcoal in the pit becomes compost for the garden at Re:Vision, a nonprofit based in Westwood. The Re:Vision campus is where Avila prepares the lamb in the commercial kitchen and cooks it in a permanent barbacoa pit.

After the sacrifice, Avila and cook Axel Garcia Sandoval prepare the animal that receives most of its flavor from simple ingredients and the penca, also known as maguey leaves.

“It’s not like a lot of seasonings and that kind of thing,” Avila said. “It’s the penca, it’s what gives everything the flavor. With this, you just do salt and avocado leaves. That’s it.”

Avila and Garcia Sandoval, who is originally from Oaxaca, work to replicate the process as authentically as it would be done in Mexico.

“It’s a tough job,” Garcia Sandoval said  in his native language. “We do it there in a different way, but each state [in Mexico] has its own way of making its barbacoa. It depends on the customs that each region or state has.” 

Ultimately, the final product is different in Oaxaca, but it follows a similar process that Garcia Sandoval said “makes me feel relaxed.”

Once the lamb is prepared, it goes into a large pot where it will cook along with the consomé, which is a broth or thin soup created by the process of cooking the barbacoa.

It takes several hours for the pit to heat up before the barbacoa can be put into it. The pit is then covered with a top and layered with dirt. Avila and Garcia Sandoval add water to create mud, which stays in place until Sunday morning.

The finished product  

At 9 a.m. Sunday, Avila begins selling the barbacoa with salsa, tortillas, consomé and other sides like cilantro, onions and lime. He also offers aqua fresco.

“We get to be part of their lives," he said. "In a way, you know what I’m saying, and I think that is super powerful."

For some, this experience is new. For others, it’s a taste they grew up with and haven’t found in awhile. The most rewarding part is when people return, especially those who have memories of their own families or heritage that brings them back.

“Their families, they do barbacoa there," Avila said. "So, this is nothing new from them, and then again for them to come back and support you. You know, that doesn’t get any better than that."

Avila begins selling his barbacoa at 9 a.m. Sundays at the Re:Vision campus in Westwood. He can sell out in as little as 20 minutes, so if you want to try it, you will need to get there early or on time most weeks.

It’s $45 for 1 pound of barbacoa with all the toppings, tortillas, consomé and aqua fresca.

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