All photos by Lydia Carey
It’s mid-morning in Monterrey, Mexico, when Humberto Villareal—“Beto”—picks me up, but it’s already blazing hot. The air-conditioning running, his car is laced with the smell of cigarettes, and his gravelly northern accent takes me a minute to get accustomed to. Beto is a friend of a friend and a local chef in Monterrey. Today, in the early spring heat, he’s going to teach me how to make cabrito, Monterrey’s most iconic dish of baby goat.
Cabrito has a long history in the cuisine of Nuevo León, the state of which Monterrey is the capital. The region’s earliest European inhabitants were farmers and herders, and, more important, Jewish. In a country obsessed with pork, here was an entire community that didn’t eat it. Lamb, but mostly goat—a hearty animal that could survive in the harshest of climates—was a staple dish for them. In modern times it has become a Monterrey weekend tradition.
Our first stop on our cabrito journey is downtown at the Mercado Hidalgo. In oh-so-modern Monterrey, you won’t find much in the way of traditional markets or ancient architecture, but the Mercado Hidalgo bucks that trend by being the city’s only surviving working-class market. Here you can find just about anything you need for local recipes. Piles of oregano fill the air with an earthy tang; electric-green and red piquín peppers await their destiny as salsa; and the market's meat section is a testament to a singular local obsession: cabrito.
The kid goats in front of us are stretched out on spits crosswise and placed over a slow-burning pile of coals. They have been cooking slowly for five to seven hours, turned about every 20 minutes by the grillmaster. Alongside them are bundles of roasting machitos, goat small intestines that have been cleaned and wrapped into oval-shaped bundles. They too get roasted, sliced, and eaten along with the finished cabrito. We picked up some of those, but really we were here for the raw carcasses, also on display everywhere, heads on or off. A small baby goat goes for about US$40-$60.
Machitos at the market
It’s important to choose an animal between 18 and 40 days old, Beto tells me, as this ensures the flavor will be mild and the meat tender. He shows me how the kidneys should look—white and coated with a layer of fat, a sign that the meat is of good quality. We choose a good example from the pile and head out to purchase our other supplies: lettuce, tomato, red wine, and, of course, flour tortillas. (Tortillas made with flour, not corn, are the norm in northern Mexico—a custom that dates back to those same Jewish settlers who didn’t consider cornmeal to be kosher.)
Beto’s method of cooking cabrito uses what in Mexico is called a caja china. The caja china is a stainless-steel roasting box heated by a wood fire built on its surface. Meat is placed on a grill inside the box and cooked using the indirect heat of the fire above it. After soaking the baby goat for 45 minutes to three hours in very salty water—for flavor and liquid retention—Beto places it in the caja china, and we settle in to wait.
The caja china
The process looks relatively simple. But there is an unseen precision necessary if you want to be a master of cabrito. The temperature inside the box needs to hover right around 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that the fire’s level must be constantly monitored to retain that temperature; spike it too high and the meat cooks too fast. The carcass must be flipped over at just the right level of brown on one side (about 70% of the cook time sees the carcass with its skin facing down and body cavity facing up), and you can’t keep opening up the box every 20 minutes to check it out—you’ll lose the heat you've been building. The carcass is tiny and thin, so it doesn’t take much to overcook it and kill its juiciness.
“How do you know it’s going all right without being able to look at it?” I ask after a few hours of sitting next to our caja china without so much as a peek inside.
“Because I’ve burned lots of them,” says Beto with a smile.
The beauty of this method is there’s greater retention of the animal’s own juices and fat, making it tenderer when it hits the table. The other way of cooking cabrito—the roast-on-a-spit method we saw on display in the market—is called al pastor or the herder’s method, Beto tells me; it was common among the shepherds of the surrounding mountains, who were traditionally out tending to their sheep or goat herds and roasting the occasional animal for dinner on the open frontier. That method also takes the precision of a good firemaster who can build just the right amount of indirect heat for roasting the goat without burning it.
Cabrito at the market
The meat for cabrito is sometimes rubbed with a northeastern spice combination that could compete with cilantro and citrus in other parts of the country—dried oregano, cumin, garlic, thyme. Beto seasoned our cabrito with only salt since he wants me to taste the full flavor of the meat.
“We’re the only crazy people who grill out in 90-degree weather,” Beto says as we sit with our wine and wait out the cabrito.
It’s true that the heat in this part of the country can get blinding, especially during what locals call the canícula, or heat wave, that comes to Monterrey every August. But grilling for Regios, or Monterrey locals, is integral to their very essence: Nuevo León residents eat an average of 66 pounds of meat a year, almost double the national average—and most of that is cooked over an open flame, in somebody’s backyard, beer in hand.
Cabrito from the caja china
Beto is part of the Sociedad Mexicana de Parrilleros (the Mexican Association of Firemasters), which offers workshops and participates in grill-offs all over Mexico and the Southern United States. Everyone I meet over my few days in Monterrey tells me I made an excellent choice in asking him to show me the cabrito ropes; it turns out he’s the local expert. In fact, that is exactly what several friends of his say as they filter in, lured by the promise of cabrito on this warm April night.
Around 10pm, as the warm darkness has settled around us and our empty glasses, the caramel-colored baby goat comes out, crispy on the outside but buttery-soft within its skin. Beto slices up the carcass and assembles tacos, with a sliver of crispy roasted machitos placed on top. The meat is fattier than I had expected, and doesn’t have the strong flavor of goat or lamb that I have grown accustomed to, eating barbacoa in Mexico City. The delicate mildness and slippery softness makes the cabrito a wonderful contrast to the warm, dry flour tortillas, freshly chopped lettuce, tomato and onion, and spicy vinegar-based salsa.
The dish has taken us almost 10 hours to put together. More than a recipe, it’s a ritual. One that requires patience, company, a bottle of wine, and a good firemaster.
Not all visitors have the time or access to a local chef. To skip the work and get right to the eating, here are a few good places for cabrito in Monterrey:
El Gran Pastor: One of Monterrey’s most famous local restaurants specializing in cabrito. Dr. José Eleuterio González (Gonzalitos) 702, San Jerónimo, Monterrey
San Carlos: A traditional, family-style restaurant that also serves a full menu of regional cuisine: carne seca, carne asada, mollejas, etc. Two locations, one in Monterrey and one in San Pedro
La Cocina de Beto (Humberto Villarreal's Catering): Beto offers full catering, including roasting as many cabritos as you might need for an event. On Twitter: @lacocinadebeto
About the author: Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator in her adoptive hometown, Mexico City. You can find her online at her blog, MexicoCityStreets.com.