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This Liquor Store in North Pasadena’s Barrio Hides One of the Finest Lamb Barbacoa Specialists in Los Angeles

[dropcap size=big]F[/dropcap]rom the outside, Super Liquor on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena is your standard barrio issue convenience store: Korean-owned, a refrigerator door solely dedicated to malt liquor and fortified wines, and a pane of bulletproof glass between the cashier and the customer. 

Hidden inside, at the end of the first aisle after a self-serve drinking water refill station, is a counter. Behind it are whisps of gamey steam emanating from a tiny kitchen, in front of it a few tables, and a mural of a valley filled with green grass and roaming sheep. Welcome to “Mendez Restaurant,” a Mexico City-style barbacoa specialist that has been quietly serving Pasadenian paisas and those lucky enough to have stumbled into the liquor store—like Instagram user @Jamesxralboon who made it his personal mission to make sure L.A. Taco tries his spot—and be pleasantly surprised since 2005.

For many in Mexico’s Anahuac region, the act of feasting on lamb barbacoa on a weekend morning is a habitual practice as strong as going to their place of worship. Along with Mexico’s other weekend taco institutions like carnitas and birria, lamb barbacoa fulfills a ritualistic need to gather with loved ones, feast, and celebrate that another week has flown by.

This tradition made its way to Los Angeles along with the droves of immigrants from that area of Mexico who relocated to the county. Make the drive to the industrial wastelands of Aqui Es Texcoco in Commerce on a Sunday to witness the compelling power of barbacoa there. There are families, there are pulque and beer on the table, and there are tacos piled with roasted lamb. The same can be seen at the pioneering hole-in-the-wall in a Boyle Heights strip mall, El Borrego de Oro, or the newer and delicious La Barbacha, or perhaps the barbacoa restaurant with the best name ever: Barba Kush. It’s common taco knowledge to know that these regions of Los Angeles are rife with good barbacoa. But while they were slanging tender lamb in L.A.’s real eastside, Mendez Restaurant flew low, breaking down up to eight whole lambs to satisfy their loyal Pasadena following on any given weekend.

The lamb is properly rendered, leaving your fingers sticky with flavorful collagen and fat. It's grassy enough for lamb heads but without scaring away the lamb averse.

Ynez Mendez is one of those immigrants. From Mexico City, she took a risk in 2005 and asked Super Liquor’s owner to rent her a corner of his establishment in hopes that her paisanos nearby would love it as much as her family. In the beginning, that was the only thing on the menu. Her son, Eduardo, and her daughter, Jessica, at her side. They all shared the duties of recreating the barbacoa she learned to make from her father, who made the trek from Mexico to Los Angeles to share his recipe before he passed away. At least as close they legally could, using gas and pots instead of woodfire and earth, since the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health doesn’t take too kindly to thousand-year-old cooking traditions sometimes. 

Tacos de barbacoa and consomé at Mendez Market.

Nearly 15 years later, the restaurant is still alive and kicking. Eduardo now is in charge of butchering the whole, fresh lamb that he gets in on a weekly basis. They’ve added menudo, pancita (spicy lamb offals), and other hearty dishes like chilaquiles to their menu. They also now offer their tender barbacoa on a daily basis. On a Monday just before noon, a man walks out with a pot that he brought himself to be filled with Mendez’s consomé. A woman who’s waiting for him in an idling car in the store’s parking lot smiles when he gets in the car. In the dining area, a landscaper who works at a nearby nursery whom Eduardo greets like a distant family member comes in and orders something to go.

“We have clients who come from Palmdale, Lancaster, Long Beach, San Bernardino, Ventura, and as far as Tijuana,” Eduardo shares as our plate of tacos arrive. Weekends are their busiest times, he shares that it is not uncommon for the line of hungry paisas to snake out the liquor’s front door. If you’re truly all about that lamb life, you can ask Mendez Restaurant about their Para Sus Fiestas” menu. As of the publishing time of this story, a 40-pound whole barbacoa’d lamb with the works can be yours for $420. 

“What makes my mother’s region of barbacoa different is our restrain from using spices,” Eduardo kindly shares with me in Spanish when I ask about his family’s style. 

Siblings Manuel and Jessica of Mendez Restaurant.

That respect for the purity of lamb comes through in each bite of their barbacoa tacos and it is heightened after each sip of the consomé, which should always follow a bite of Hidalgo or Mexico-style barbacoa. The lamb is properly rendered, leaving your fingers sticky with flavorful collagen and fat. It's grassy enough for lamb heads but without scaring away the lamb averse. As a seasoned barbacoa eater, I always request costilla, one of the tenderest cuts: ribs. Also, this usually informs the barbacoyero that you know your shit and that you don’t mind eating the gelatinous, fatty part of lamb. The tacos do suffer from mediocre packaged tortillas, but hey, you can’t have it all sometimes am I right? And if you’re like me, just double up on the al dente garbanzos and puffed rice inside the consomé and call it a day, especially if the most beautiful game is on the TV behind you and the broth is soothing your soul. 

You’re in Pasadena after all, not in La Purificación, Mexico, so take what you can get.   

Mendez Restaurant is located inside Super Liquor. 125 E. Orange Grove Blvd. Pasadena. CA. 91103. (626) 405-0998  

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