In Oaxaca, Mexico, grilling and mezcal making go hand in hand

A barbecue takes shape at a traditional mezcal still in Oaxaca. On the grill: costillas enchiladas, or adobo-rubbed ribs.
Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Woodsmoke is deeply woven into the fabric of Oaxacan life. It hovers over the market stalls of food vendors. It infuses weddings and birthday parties. It's the impetus of the barbecues that spring up around traditional wood-fired mezcal distilleries.

"They are very, very social things and usually you invite everyone, your neighbors, your family," said the Oaxacan-born Luis Martinez, who now lives in North Carolina. "And there is not a single barbecue without mezcal."

Cooking costillas enchiladas, or adobo-rubbed ribs, on the edge of the mezcal distillation process in Oaxaca.

Mezcal makers in Oaxaca still roast maguey agave in wood-fired earthen pits. They use earth, clay and fire in the distillation process, too. The resultant heat and smoke create the perfect environment for cooking ribs or the fleshy cactus pads called nopalesall of which become infused with the flavor of mezcal.

Martinez recently visited Villa Sola de Vega in Oaxaca, where his import company Tequio Foods is helping local farmers revive mezcal traditions to diversify their revenue streams. Once the stills were up, the coals smoldering, distillers shoveled live coals into a wheelbarrow, creating a makeshift barbecue. 

There they grilled adobo-rubbed ribs called costillas enchiladas and charred fresh nopales pads, their spines scraped off with a knife. 

Luis Martinez in Oaxaca, where he was born. Now living in North Carolina, Martinez runs Tequio Foods, a heritage Mexican food import business that also aims to raise capital for farmers and villages in his homeland.

These cactus pads, which taste like tart, earthy green beans, slump and grow smoky in the heat. They're an Oaxacan barbecue favorite, as are the tlayuda.

Sometimes referred to as a Mexican pizza, tlayuda come together on a large tortilla spread with lard, beans and cheese. The magic is in the live fire, but also in the lard, a byproduct of carnitas. The leftover fat is traditionally stirred with salt and left to ferment for a few days to become asiendo, a deeply flavorful brown paste. 

"You take that and put it on a tortilla with beans cooked with avocado leaves," Martinez said. On goes Mexican quesillo and cabbage, then it's all cooked to a crisp on the grill over live fire, perhaps a piece of meat sizzling right next to it. 

"A Oaxacan barbecue doesn't exist without tlayuda."

It's the same with mezcal, he said. Here are some of his favorites.

Mezcals for your Oaxacan barbecue

Harvesting mezcal in Oaxaca

Brand:Mezcal FaneKantsini

Type of Agave: Arroqueño

Region: Sola de Vega

Mezcal Master:Sosima Olivera

Freshly made mezcal from a traditional distillery in Oaxaca.

Brand: Mezcal La Locura Mezcal

Type of Agave: Tobasiche

Region: Matatlán

Mezcal Master: Eduardo Angeles

Traditional clay pots for distilling mezcal in Oaxaca.

Brand: La Neta Mezcal

Type of Agave: Tobalá

Region: Miahuatlán

Mezcal Master: Hermógenes Vásquez

Cleaned agave in Oaxaca.

Cook the recipes:

Oaxacan chorizo

Costillas enchiladas, or grilled chile-marinated pork ribs 

Grilled salsa roja and nopales