Denver, get ready for chef Jose Avila's barbacoa and pozole

The slaughter takes place Saturday mornings, when the chef drives north to Wellington, where he has a small parcel of land and keeps his flock.

He calls this time on the road, the animal killing and its preparation all part of a weekly ritual. Once back in Denver, he builds a fire underground and piles maple and oak wood, rocks, maguey leaves, a grill, tarp and mud on top. Before sunrise on Sunday, and nearing 24 hours after their start, the chef and his team are unwrapping meat and stirring its stock.

They portion it by the pound and stack handmade tortillas to wrap. They chop onions, cilantro and limes, and serve red and green salsa, the latter very hot.

For Jose Vilchez Avila, a whole-animal roast is just the start.

In addition to the Sunday barbacoa — which goes by the name El Borrego Negro (or “the black sheep”) —  Avila runs a year-old food truck, X’Tabai Yucateco, serving pre-Hispanic Mayan preparations of meats such as cochinita and pollo pibil. He offers the proteins in traditional Yucatecan forms, like panuchos made with fried and stuffed tortillas.

If you go

La Diabla is scheduled to open at 2233 Larimer St. in April. Before that, check out X’Tabai and El Borrego Negro. For the food truck’s schedule, head to xtabaiyucateco.com, and for El Borrego Negro barbacoa, you can place pre-orders over Instagram or try your luck showing up at RISE Westwood, 3800 Morrison Road, Sundays after 8 a.m. For $35, you’ll get a pound of meat, a quart each of consommé and horchata, fresh tortillas and all the fixings.

Next month, he’s opening a restaurant downtown, La Diabla, dedicated to pozole and mezcal.

When Avila first came to Denver, he said he would see fellow Mexican immigrants eating pho along Federal Boulevard, and he had a thought. “We’re there for the broth,” he said. “You can squeeze the lime juice, spice it up, add the meat … I’m not sure, but in a way, that’s pozole.”

Twenty years after moving from his native Mexico, Avila is on a personal mission of sorts.

He wants to translate the traditions of Mexico City and Hidalgo, just north, to Denver’s growing food scene. And it all starts with foods like pozole and barbacoa.

“I’ve been working on this for awhile; it’s been on my mind forever,” Avila said of the new restaurant. “The whole point, to me, is that my mom’s pozole is my favorite food. It’s like my death-row meal.”

After working his way up in Denver kitchens from Chez Jose to Elway’s and, most recently, Machete (where he was a part-owner and left in 2019 after eight years), Avila said he needed a break to find his way back to cooking.

“All of that took a toll,” he said. “It was a machine; you do the same thing every day. It wasn’t even fun, to be quite honest.”

When he talks about his projects now, he’s thinking back to scenes from growing up in Mexico — cooks sitting around a kitchen table, peeling tails off the hominy and letting it soak overnight until its kernels bloom like popcorn.

Or Thursday nights — “Jueves Posolero” — at the neighborhood restaurant, where Avila and his mom and brother would eat two-for-one pozoles after work.

Sunday’s barbacoa recalls similar childhood experiences with his grandmother in Tezontepec, where families would gather on Sundays, underneath “the biggest (tent) you’ve ever seen.”

Rows of stalls lined the market, each selling barbacoa, “and everyone has their favorite.” So they’d find theirs and sit down to eat at communal tables with heaps of meat, tortillas and consommé.

“But everything was right there — the (fire) pits and the animals are just behind all of it,” Avila said.

So decades later, at his own Sunday roast in the Westwood neighborhood, Avila parks the food truck behind RISE, a local food collective, next to his fire pit and in front of the community gardens. Diners can park their cars on a nice day and find a spot to spread out and dine.

And the new restaurant, on Ballpark’s stretch of Larimer Street, will have a cozier but similarly humble approach. Avila wants diners to come by for five types of pozole — red, green, white, veggie and seafood — as well as carnitas and mezcal. And that’s mostly it.

The restaurant will showcase real bone broths, nixtamalized corn and masas made from scratch.

And Avila still plans to make the drive weekly to Wellington for a sheep or a hog or whatever he’s planning to cook, because, “I’m not making fresh pasta from Italy that’s nice and beautiful,” Avila said. “I’m not doing that at all.”

Some useful terms

  • Barbacoa de borrego: Sheep barbecue, or grill, prepared traditionally in an underground fire pit.
  • El caldo: Broth made from the bones of the grilled meat and prepared simultaneously, also called consommé when clarified.
  • Hominy: “Nixtamalized” corn (maíze) that’s soaked in an alkali solution.
  • Hoyo: Traditional fire pit used for barbacoas.
  • Maguey: Agave plant that’s used to make mezcal; also its leaves cover the meat in Avila’s traditional barbacoa.
  • Mezcal: Traditional agave spirit made in Mexico (tequila is a type of mezcal that’s made from just one type of agave plant). Mezcal gets its distinctive smoky flavor from the agave being cooked in firepits.
  • Nixtamalization: Process of taking dried corn and soaking it in an alkaline solution. The nixtamalized corn can then be ground and used for masa to make tortillas, or the hulls can simply be removed and the resulting hominy kernels can be used in pozole.
  • Pozole: Traditional hominy and meat soup of Mexico, most often prepared in white, green and red varieties (green featuring salsa verde, red with salsa rojo and white without either).
  • Tezontepec: A town in the Hidalgo state of Mexico (just north of Mexico City) known for its barbacoa, and where Jose Avila learned the tradition he replicates in Denver.
  • X’Tabai or Xtabay (pronounced Ish-ta-bai): Referring to a Mayan myth from the Yucatan, in which a beautiful demon lures men to their deaths. Avila says his business names represent his mother and daughter and other important women in his family, as well as his fascination with the darker and mysterious aspects of Mayan and pre-hispanic Mexican culture.


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