August 2, 2015

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork Barbacoa

If you're familiar with Cafe Rio, you know their sweet pork barbacoa and how good it tastes mixed up in a salad or tacos or burrito or whatever. Our closest Cafe Rio is over 100 miles away, so we usually have to fake the experience by mixing up our own pork and rice and dressing using copycat recipes from the internet.

There are exactly 1 million copycat recipes for the Cafe Rio pork out there. I've read through them all and tasted many of them, and found them all... lacking. Most of them involve a crock pot, but leave the meat sitting in a puddle of flavored water at the end. That's water that will either not come out with your meat, leaving the flavor in the pot, or will come out with your meat, ruining your salad or tacos or burrito or whatever by making it too soggy and drippy. Actual Cafe Rio pork is not sitting in a puddle of water, but has a drippy glaze, loose enough to flavor the other things it's touching, but thick enough to not run around where it's not wanted.

There are a few recipes that attempt to remedy this consistency issue by throwing away all the liquid that's produced in the cooking process and making a new sauce to add to the pork after it's been shredded. That's on the right track, but that liquid you're throwing away has all this great flavor you'd be losing. It's a waste to then make a sauce out of some of the same ingredients that went into the stuff you just threw away. On top of that, the cooking liquid has, like, pork stuff in it. Rendered collagen or something. I'm not actually sure what's coming out of the pork and into the liquid, but it's essentially turned the liquid into pork broth with all this umami and stuff in it, especially so if your pork roast had a bone in it when you started. That porky flavor is super important to the final product.

So, I add the additional step of turning the cooking liquid into my sauce, then reducing it (boiling it for a while until a lot of the water evaporates) until I get the more syrupy/glazey sort of consistency I'm looking for. That's the big revolutionary step that makes this recipe better than the others.

On top of that, I've played with the ingredients somewhat. Most recipes use Coke, which is great for southern cooking, but doesn't seem as good here. Coke braised things seem a little dry and acidic tasting to me, so I didn't think it was the right choice here. I used root beer instead because the flavor comes from, like, herbs or something. I also used Dr Pepper. I think someone told me once that Cafe Rio makes their pork with Dr Pepper. Or, maybe Dr Pepper reminds me of my Uncle Rex, and he spent lots of time in New Mexico, and Cafe Rio's food shares something with the specific style of Mexican cooking from that area so it seemed appropriate. Regardless of my lack of care and thinking that went into the choice of these sodas, the flavor profile was still far preferable to any of the copycat recipes made from Coke.

I made this recipe for a dinner party tonight, and it appeared to be unanimously loved. The guests I talked to all agreed that it was definitely closer in consistency to the actual Cafe Rio pork than anything else we'd tried. And while we didn't have any actual Cafe Rio pork to compare against, we thought it was at least closer to the taste we remembered than the other things we've tried.

So, I'm not going to say this is an exact copycat recipe, since memory is a fickle thing. If put to a direct taste test, I might find that it's actually much further in taste. Even if that were true, this recipe still makes some really great tasting pork, so it's what I'm sticking with from here on out.

Cafe Rio Pork Barbacoa

2 lb pork shoulder roast (If the roast is bigger, scale the other ingredients appropriately)
1 cup Dr. Pepper®
1 cup root beer
1/4 tsp garlic salt
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp chili powder

10 oz can mild red enchilada sauce (I used Old El Paso™ brand)
4 oz can diced green chilies
1/2 cup brown sugar

Put the pork in the Crock Pot® with the sodas and the spices. Cook on low for 6-8 hours until the the pork is ready to shred easily.

When the pork is done, drain all the liquid into a wide skillet or saucepan. Add the enchilada sauce and green chilies and boil on high heat until mixture is reduced by at least half. Stir it at least occasionally so that nothing burns to the bottom. I give it a quick buzz with the immersion blender while it’s in the pan to make everything all smooth, but it’s also okay to leave it chunky.

While the sauce is reducing, shred the pork, return it to the Crock Pot®, and keep the Crock Pot® set to low to keep it warm. When sauce has finished reducing to a thicker, more syrupy consistency, stir in the brown sugar and boil for 1-2 minutes until fully dissolved. Stir the sauce into the meat in the Crock Pot® and cook for 2 hours on low or 1 hour on high until everything’s nice and hot and tasty and juicy.