On LA’s two-and-a-half-mile sweep of Slauson Avenue, amid the pollos al carbon stands, loncheros, and power tool hawkers, rests an A-frame sign along the abandoned railroad tracks of the Harbor Subdivision that reads, “hay barbacoa!” Follow the arrow painted on the sign north on McKinley, and a banner hung across an iron gate conceals the pit-roasted lamb and goat vendor, but lets through the sounds of jovial conversation, in Spanish; the rhythmic chopping of a cleaver; and a bouquet of strong-smelling oils, adobo (chile paste), and goat birria spices. Customers with face masks wait their turn for packets of lamb or goat barbacoa, pancita, and consomme served with corn tortillas and condiments, or goat birria, to go. The owner smiles and assures customers their order is coming right up. Guerreran regulars have followed this traditional cook’s journey from struggling street vendor to restaurant owner and back as a vendor in the same parking lot — the most recent step due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Julio and Micaela Jaimes, from Toluca, State of Mexico and Taxco Guerrero, made their way to Los Angeles in 1999, leaving everything behind for the chance of prosperity and a dream of someday opening their own restaurant. By 2008, Julio was working as a print machine operator in South Los Angeles, and within months, he approached the owner of the shop to allow him to rent the parking lot on weekends to sell birria and barbacoa.
For many Mexican and Central American immigrants to LA, selling food to their particular communities is an attractive side hustle with guaranteed customers longing for a precise taste of home. San Juan de los Lagos-style seafood vendors surround the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments; pollo y papas fritas (fried chicken and fries) tempt Guatemalan jornaleros at Sixth and Bonnie Brae; and Capulhuac-style barbacoa dots West Adams: Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool for immigrants from those parts of Latin America. The Jaimeses’ stand focused on goat barbacoa, served in the tradition of their childhoods.
“The Taxco style is marinated in chiles [an adobo], the same for our pancita [offal-stuffed stomach],” Julio Jaimes says. “There they use goat, but I do goat and lamb because other people from other parts of Guerrero don’t know the Taxco-style and prefer lamb.” Jaimes’s consomme comes with chickpeas and rice, and the subtle differences in the condiments (which use regional chiles), choice of protein, whether the meat is in adobo or not, and how the consomme is prepared can be formidable for patrons accustomed to the traditions of their regions. Twelve years after their stand first opened, the majority of Jaimes’s customers are guerrerenses. Every week, Jaimes pit-roasts a pair of goats, just for the people of Taxco, Guerrero, who also demand goat brains and a piece of goat shank for their consomme.
The Jaimeses’ current spot in the Slauson Avenue parking lot, though, is a more recent return to their roots. In June of 2019, Julio and Micaela opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 5427 S. Central Avenue, purchasing a taqueria where they would open Aqui es Taxco, and expand its menu to include popular combo plates, burritos, and even burgers. It would be a tough transition, even before the coronavirus hit.
“I quickly realized that without parking, and a larger space, our volume wasn’t enough to pay the bills,” Julio says. The expanded menu didn’t attract new customers, a problem shared by other weekend specialists who open full-service restaurants. Within months, Aqui es Taxco was in trouble, and as 2019 came to a close, Julio and Micaela decided to see if business at their fledgling restaurant would pick up in 2020. “I was really hoping the new year would be a fresh start, as we were beginning to get accustomed to running our restaurant,” Julio says.
As the restaurant limped along into early February, news of the first death from COVID-19 in California began to weigh on the minds of all, and what little momentum the couple gained dropped off. 2020 was shaping up to be a bad year for restaurants: Many reports suggested a saturated market, which also held true for taqueros. The number of young street vendors opening in Los Angeles over the past three years outpaced brick and mortars, and while barbacoa was hard to come by in LA 10 years ago, today it’s available in many Mexican enclaves in LA, and throughout the U.S.
The first two weeks of March marked an escalation of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and social-distancing guidelines across the country. Just hours after LA Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a closure for bars as well as other gathering spots, limiting restaurants to delivery and takeout only, the Jaimeses sold Aqui es Taxco to Gustavo Regino of Rejino’s Chicken, a Mexican grilled-chicken concept. Micaela and Julio headed back to their original lot, on McKinley just north of Slauson, ironically surrounded by a flock of grilled-chicken stands and trucks.
“Here we are again,” Julio says of their stand, called Barbacoa Estilo Taxco, Guerrero. “But, what can I say, I love doing this, and our customers are still with us.”
On Thursdays, Julio drives to Corona to purchase five whole lambs and two whole goats from Corona Cattle Inc, one of the many farms in the vicinity of Chino where birrieros (birria cooks), barbacoa masters, and traditional carnitas vendors shop for fresh products. This is the beginning of an exhausting two-day process each week, which sees Julio cooking his barbacoa from 6 in the evening until 3 in the morning. Micaela, who learned her family’s special-occasion barbacoa recipe from her mother, eventually tired of the process, but Julio has taken over the bulk of it. “Making barbacoa is hard work, but I have a lot of passion for this,” Julio says. “I love the process, and I love serving my barbacoa to our customers.”
Each Friday, Julio and Micaela rise early to toast chiles and other ingredients for their salsas and adobo. They then rub the animals’ spine, shoulder, head, legs, muscles, and ribs in the adobo, letting them absorb the flavors for three hours. Then a large stock pot is loaded with water, rice, salt, and garbanzos at the bottom of a pit, and carefully covered with large cuts of lamb and goat arranged to drip into the pot for the consomme, which is served with barbacoa. “In Taxco, people usually get their consomme with a piece of the foot, or leg bone with the nerve attached, and for our customers from other parts of Mexico, they might ask for some meat in their consomme,” Julio says.
Julio gets up at 3 a.m. to take out his barbacoa, and preps for the next two hours before heading to his stand. At 2 in the afternoon, he heads home and does it all over again.
Barbacoa is proving to be a good weekend business during quarantine, as masked customers line up to buy meat by the pound, consommes, and condiments to go — a familiar routine in the Mexican community — to enjoy with their families at home. Many add an order of birria to have during the week. Julio is happy to still have people who enjoy his food, and with all that has happened, being a street vendor is less financially risky than a restaurant owner during a pandemic. The Jaimeses were losing money at the brick and mortar and struggled with how to market their restaurant; now, the parking-lot version of Aqui es Taxco is doing about 70 percent of their normal volume, making just enough to cover their bills.
It was Julio’s dream to own a barbacoa restaurant, but he’s undaunted by the restaurant’s closure during the COVID-19 era, and has been thinking a lot about what he would change for the next time. “You have to take risks,” he says. “I made some mistakes, and I have a clearer view of what I need to change when I open again: something bigger, and with parking.” Julio hasn’t lost his drive, or spirit, as he happily serves up an order of lamb and goat barbacoa. He says he loves what he does, and now his focus is to get his stand busy again — which isn’t without its own risks right now. “Sure, we are afraid of getting coronavirus,” he says. “But we have no choice but to work.”
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.