San Diego Cooks: El Borrego
When Rodnia Novarro and her mother Rosario Sotelo opened El Borrego, a restaurant in the heart of El Cajon Boulevard, nearly eight years ago, it was with one purpose in mind: to bring to San Diego the traditional cuisine of Southern Mexico, from barbacoa to green pozole.
Novarro and Sotelo, who hail from Guerrero, a town in Mexico’s state of Hidalgo, realized that there wasn’t anywhere to find good barbacoa in San Diego—particularly the kind that comes from their region, made with lamb.
Barbacoa refers to a style of cooking meats, slow-roasted over an open fire or over a fire pit covered with the leaves of the maguey plant (also known as agave or century plant.)
“Barbacoa is something very special,” explains Novarro. “You make it for a special occasion, like a quinceañera or a graduation, because it takes a lot of time in order to prepare. It’s cooked in a pit with ‘aguamiel’ (the sap from the maguey plant), and maguey leaves for flavor. We put the leaves of the plant around the border of the pit and then we put the lamb in the center and it cooks all night for 12 hours.”
Novarro’s interest in cooking comes from her mother, who grew up on a family ranch where she’d watch the cooks preparing the meals. Everything was made from scratch, including the cheese and the tortillas.
One visitor who enjoyed the meals prepared on the ranch, was Lazaro Cárdenas, Mexico’s president from 1934 to 1940. “He kept coming even after he was no longer president,” recalls Sotelo.
Novarro and Sotelo moved to San Diego in 2002. “One of my aunts said nobody here in San Diego does the barbacoa,” remembers Novarro. “So my mom said, ‘Let’s start a business.’ We opened, two blocks away from where we are now, in my aunt’s convenience store, and just on the weekends.”
On the first day of doing business they sold four tacos. Before long, word got out, and six months later they were doing gangbusters. “We were selling 600 pounds of barbacoa each weekend. People were lining up. Some were coming from LA carrying big, empty pots, saying, ‘I need five pounds to go. I need 20 consommés.’”
It didn’t take long for Novarro and Sotelo to figure out that they needed to expand. “People were asking us to create a restaurant, because they didn’t want to wait a week to eat the barbacoa. You have to open more often, they said. They’d also say, ‘I have to go to el borrego, I have to go to el borrego’ (which means ‘lamb’). And, we realized that was the name of the restaurant. The people named it.”
Green pork pozole has become another favorite offering at El Borrego. “We usually do the pozole for one of the most important days in Mexico, September 15, which is Mexico’s independence, not Cinco de Mayo,” notes Novarro. “Usually we have the green pozole, the red pozole, and the white pozole (the colors of the Mexican flag). In the northern region, the red and the white are very common, and in Guerrero, it’s the green because it’s made with squash blossoms.”
Mother and daughter have been working together for years. “It’s not that easy, but we get along pretty well,” says Sotelo of her daughter, and then adds, with a mischievous grin, “But, sometimes I just want to kick her.”
El Borrego Recipe For Green Pork Pozole
1 ½ lbs. pork
1 teaspoon, salt
4 lbs. hominy
2 teaspoons oregano
3 garlic cloves
1 small onion
12 oz. chicken broth
6 oz. pulverized squash blossom seed
5 tomatillos, grilled
5 garlic cloves
3 teaspoons oregano
1 small red onion
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 Mexican pepper leaf (“hoja santa”)
epazote, to taste (a Mexican herb available in most Latin markets)
2 lettuce leaves
12 radish leaves
Cut the pork into 2-inch cubes, then add water and boil for 30 minutes with salt.
Start mixing “Blender #1” ingredients (oregano, garlic, and onion) with the broth. After 30 minutes, drain the pork pot. After 20 minutes, add the hominy and check on the meat.
Add the remaining ingredients in “Blender #2” with a small amount of chicken broth (squash blossom seeds, tomatillos, jalapeños, etc.).
Place the ingredients into a hot pan with a little bit of oil and stir frequently for approximately 10 minutes.
About 10 minutes before the meat looks nice and tender, add the paste into the pork pot and boil for 10 more minutes.
Garnish the pozole bowls with radish, cabbage, cilantro, onion, lemon, oregano, piquí¬n, tostadas, and mini rolled taquitos.