First, it was Mexican immigrants from Jalisco and Zacatecas who colonized Santa Ana; starting in the 1950s, Michoacán provided the county seat with its mexicano for more than four decades. Afterward, a succession of oaxaqueños, chilangos, guerrerenses and veracruzanos alternated in defining Mexican life for big, bad SanTana.
But for the past couple of years, a Hidalgo wave has swept over the city, an organic one unlike the master-planned insanity currently gentrifying the city's downtown. A half-dozen or so restaurants now boast those magical words: barbacoa estilo Hidalgo, lamb barbecued in maguey leaves until the meat is impossibly tender, so finely cooked you can nearly eat it by scent alone. And El Borrego Sagrado (The Sacred Lamb, and what a cool name is that?) betters its rivals by serving other Hidalgan specialties as well.
The storefront, green-toned restaurant (follow the hand-painted parking instructions, visible only by going north on Main) does sell tacos, enchiladas and other Cal-Mex favorites, but that's not why you're here. Start with a tlacoyo, a cross between a gordita and a huarache, except it's stuffed with garbanzo beans and topped with crema, cotija cheese and so much cilantro it looks like a sandwich. Only order one so you can enjoy the barbacoa. The wicker basket of handmade tortillas that comes with an order is complimentary, which allows you to make multiple tacos from lamb piled on maguey leaves like a ball of yarn.
The best dish El Borrego Sagrado prepares, however, is the mixiote, a meal almost as ancient as the tamale. The rub used on the meat—chicken, pork or lamb—is as muddy as a riverbed and far more complex: guajillo, achiote, thyme, garlic, sweet with a furtive burn, coating the outside and slipping onto the paper so you can dip the meat in it; it's this paper that allows the mixiote to sweat so that the meat collapses off the bone with the ease of pulling off a line of string cheese.
Come here, before SanTana's hipsters discover El Borrego Sagrado's quirky building and turn El Borrego Sagrado into the city's next pub-tapas-faux-authentic pendejada.
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This column appeared in print as "SanTana's Hidalgo Wave."