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Alma from La Paloma No. 2 prepares a pound of barbacoa for customers.
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Barbacoa with red and green sauce and corn tortillas.
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Patricia Gil of La Paloma No. 2 takes an order.
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Daniel and Anna Ruiz at La Paloma No. 2.
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Gil Hernandez, owner of La Paloma No. 2.
Weekends bring rest and relaxation. In the Rio Grande Valley, they also bring the greatest guilty pleasure of all — barbacoa. For those not familiar with it, suffice it to say that if ambrosia is the nectar of the gods, they indeed used that to wash down a corn tortilla filled with barbacoa. Some may say the Valley tradition is an acquired taste, but once a person has learned to love this beef delicacy, there is no turning back. Similar to British Sunday Roast, barbacoa traditionally is eaten on the weekends, before or after church. Generally, it is sold by the pound and served with corn tortillas. To complete the picture, a hot sauce is served on the side.
In technical culinary terms, this dish is created by steaming the whole head of a cow. Gil Hernandez owner of La Paloma and La Paloma No. 2, both Edinburg institutions, stated that when all the process is done, each head yields around 8 pounds. Maria Guadalupe De Leon, owner of the 60-year San Juan establishment, Santillan Tortilleria, also purchases the heads of cow for her place.
Hernandez and De Leon have similar methods of cooking the barbacoa. Each start with the head of the cow, wash, steam and then set to remove the meat from the cow.
But there are a few differences that have more to say about the tradition than about which procedure is best. De Leon inherited her establishment from the children of the original owners, after working for them for well over 17 years. The original owners of the Santillan Tortilleria set it up about 60 years ago a few blocks from the Basilica of La Virgen de San Juan. This has led to generations of visiting pilgrims looking for her food who join in to devoted locals.
De Leon is so in tune with her customers that some don’t even need to order; without saying a word to one another, De Leon served one young man with his regular weekly order. What is unique about De Leon and most of the other places in the region is the fact that she is only open on the weekends. She starts serving barbacoa, tamales and salsas from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday only. She does state that she spends most of the week preparing for the weekend rush. And, while she has noticed that she doesn’t have as many customers as she did before, as more establishments offer the dish on their menus, her business is still in a great place.
Hernandez came into the restaurant business after 20 years of selling auto parts. An avid investor, Hernandez recognized the importance of owning the iconic restaurant. When he heard it was for sale (the original place had been out of business for 8 months), Hernandez was able to reclaim all of the former employees who came in with a knowledge they were willing to share.
Hernandez has long standing customers who, after eating in many places, have deemed La Paloma #2 the best in the area. Anna and Daniel Ruiz claim they frequent the location each Sunday before church. La Paloma restaurants serve barbacoa each day. It can be purchased by the pound or tacos made with either corn or flour tortillas which are both made fresh at the establishments.
The Santillan Tortilleria is found at the corner of 3rd and Standard in San Juan. La Paloma #2 is found on the corner of Sugar and Monte Cristo in Edinburg.
By Mary Ann Escamilla