Barbacoa cooked in this manner can be made with pretty much any meat, but in South Texas, it’s all about the cow heads. They remain one of the cheapest cuts of meat on the market, yet after spending about 12 hours in a warm, earthen pit, they’re transformed into the best taco stuffing you can ask for. It’s still pretty good out of the oven or the steamer, which is usually how it’s made these days.
You can find meat cooked this way in plenty of Texas backyards. A pit is dug and lined with stones, bricks, or even a section of concrete pipe, and a large mesquite fire is started in the bottom. Once the wood burns down to a thick bed of coals, agave leaves are placed on top of the coals to form a protective layer. The meat and/or heads are laid on top of that, the leaves are folded over, then the lid goes over the pit. Dirt usually covers the lid of the pit for insulation purposes. When the lid is taken off the next morning, the meat is so tender that it falls off the skull. Cheek meat, or cachete, is the most popular portion of the head. Everything is used, including the tongue and the eyes. The shredded meat is generally served up by the pound along with salsas, cilantro, onions, and tortillas. Be sure to salt the meat in the tacos, because it was probably cooked without seasoning.