Where does the time go? 2017 is flying by. It’s already Halloween next week. I love the fall holiday season, and this year, I was thinking of how I could cook a Halloween-themed dinner for adults. This means no abundance of candies, no ghoulish eyeball soup, no pumpkin everything. After days of mulling over how I could create a cohesive holiday meal, I decided to take the easier (and, in my opinion, more sensible) route and cook a Día de los Muertos dinner.

Quick cultural lesson: El Día de los Muertos translates to “the day of the dead” and is a traditional Mexican holiday taking place from October 31st to November 2nd. It is a period when the deceased are remembered and honored by setting up altars with offerings of their favorite foods. Growing up in a Vietnamese Buddhist family, we celebrated a similar memorial day every year on the anniversary of the departed family member’s death. A feast would be cooked, and the food would be placed on the altar in front of their framed photo. Joss sticks would be lit, a prayer would be said, and then everyone gets to eat, but only after the joss stick has finished burning, symbolizing that the offering has officially been received by the departed.

I picked barbacoa tacos as the recipe to share with you this día de los muertos as: (1) it’s Mexican, and (2) it’s kind of Halloween-themed in that barbacoa is typically made from a cow’s head, and you know how Halloween foods tend to circle around body parts.

In the case of these barbacoa tacos, in addition to oxtail and chuck, I use beef cheeks, which are tender when braised. Serve them up with other Mexican favorites like elote, and you’ve got yourself your own día de los muertos celebration.

Happy Halloween and Day of the Dead to all of you!

Recipe: Tacos de Barbacoa

Notes: This recipe can easily be made ahead by prepping up through step 2 and storing the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to move on to step 3—just reheat and continue.


  • 3 dried chile peppers (such as guajillo or ancho), , stemmed & seeded
  • 2 lbs beef oxtail, cut crosswise
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 8 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 (6 ozs) can chipotle peppers, drained
  • 1/4 c cider vinegar
  • 2 tsp soy or fish sauce (optional)
  • 2 lbs beef cheeks
  • 2 lbs beef chuck or boneless short ribs
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Accompaniments:

  • 16 to 24 tortillas, warmed
  • diced white onion
  • chopped cilantro
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges


  1. Make sauce: In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, roast dried peppers until fragrant, flipping halfway through. Transfer to container, add 2 c stock, and microwave until simmering, approx 5m. In same heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, heat oil and sear oxtail; transfer to platter. Heat more oil and sauté onion and garlic until caramelized, scraping up fond, approx 10m. Add cumin, oregano, cloves, and salt to taste; cook until fragrant, approx 1m. Add chipotles, vinegar, and remaining 2 c stock; bring to boil. Lower heat to medium and cook until reduced by half, approx 10m. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Add dried peppers with stock and soy sauce if using; purée with immersion blender until smooth.
  2. Cook beef: Preheat oven to 275°F. Add beef cheeks, chuck, oxtail, and bay leaves to pot with sauce; bring to boil. Cover slightly and roast in oven until fork-tender, stirring occasionally, approx 4h, adding stock as needed. Remove from heat and transfer beef to platter, discarding bones and bay leaves. Bring sauce to boil and cook until reduced as needed.
  3. Shred beef and return to pot, stirring to coat. Serve with tortillas, onion, cilantro, and lime wedges.

Active time: 1h
Total time: 5h
Yields: 8 to 10 servings

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