A Brownsville restaurant is the last stronghold for South Texas barbacoa.
Armando “Mando” Vera is likely the last of his kind. The stocky, mustachioed 53-year-old pitmaster owns Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. Grandfathered in after the city reformed its health regulations, Vera’s is the only known restaurant in the Lone Star State where traditional barbacoa de cabeza de res en pozo — translated as pit-mesquite-smoked cow head barbecue — is legally prepared.
Now that most commercial barbacoa cooks have been forced to take their cow head cooking indoors into large stove-top steamers or ovens, I’m thankful for Vera’s underground exception as I sample a pinch of cachete, or beef cheek (the most common form of barbacoa), from a red and white paper boat set in front of me. There is an almost imperceptible scent of smoke, like the barely visible waves of heat rising above the pit. The fat has melted away in the long, slow cooking process, leaving the meat glistening.
This is Texas, specifically the Rio Grande Valley, where chips and tortillas are considered the only necessary utensils. So, using my fingers, I lift two helpings of barbacoa the size of a pair of limes into fresh corn tortillas, give each parcel a shot of homemade salsa, and finish with the traditional garnishes of cilantro and chopped white onion. I take a bite and am silenced.
My day’s drive to South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, which began at 3 a.m. in Dallas and ended at lunchtime in Brownsville, was worth it just for those first bites. The barbacoa was everything my friend Daniel Vaughn, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue (Ecco Books, 2013), had said it would be. The city itself, however, makes for an odd Mecca of barbecue.
Chain restaurants and big box stores frame Interstate 69E into Brownsville; mom and pop shops and restaurants branch out from there. Along the Rio Grande, which forms the U.S. border with Mexico, frame houses are dilapidated. Farther north, newer middle-class homes peek out from side roads. Whole stretches of land have been cleared and reduced to dirt, while downtown storefronts, once abandoned, are slowly being reoccupied. It is nothing like the verdant agricultural hub described to me by friends and family. The soul of Texas, the heart of beef country, the birthplace of Tex-Mex, the bridge between old Mexico and new Texas — this place is worn around the edges.
It’s hard to say whether the city is on the upswing like neighboring McAllen to the west or barreling toward desolation à la Harlingen to the north. But whichever way Brownsville and the valley are going, culinary traditions continue to prevail, and none is as significant to the region as barbacoa.
Barbacoa is barbecue. In fact, the word barbecue is the English interpretation of the Spanish word, because what we know as barbecue in the United States originally hails from the Caribbean islands. As Spanish explorers and missionaries noted, barbacoa was used to describe a grain store or a stick framework upon which meat or fish was grilled or roasted. Eventually the term was applied to the style of cooking, which made its way to the mainland and traveled north to what is now the U.S. border with Mexico.
South Texas barbacoa de cabeza (literally barbecue of the head) practitioners are traced at least to the time Americans began immigrating to Texas in the 19th century. When Anglo cattle ranchers butchered beef, they would pass on unwanted cow heads — brains, eyes, and all — to their Mexican ranch hands and vaqueros. These workers would do what they could with the scraps. They cleaned the discarded skulls and meat, wrapped them in maguey leaves and/or burlap, and placed the head into a pit heated by mesquite coals. The pit would be filled with maguey and soil, and the heads would be left to cook overnight or longer.
This method of preparation is given a modern update at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, where the family’s barbacoa customs go back to Vera’s uncle, who was taught by a gentleman from Mexico and then went into business with Vera’s father. Later, in 1955, Vera’s father struck out on his own and opened a restaurant with the help of his mother.
“It started across the street,” Vera says, pointing to a parked red pickup truck. His parents’ store was a meat market that cooked and sold barbacoa in the same way that storied Texas barbecue joints like Kreuz Market in Lockhart and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor trade in brisket, ribs, and sausage. Having grown up in the business (Vera was born in 1960) he takes his father’s lessons to heart.
“First, I clean [the heads],” he says. “I soak them in water and wash them. I take the blood off — not all of it, but most of it. Then we wrap them in foil.” Once protected in extra-heavy-duty aluminum foil, the unseasoned cow heads — up to 90, but usually only 40 to 50 — are placed in his brick-lined barbecue pit and covered by stainless steel sheet metal, which is in turn covered with packed soil. There they’ll smoke for eight to 12 hours. I ask Vera how he knows the mesquite coals are hot enough for the beef and when the heads can be removed. “Like this,” he says, extending his bare forearm out over the pit.
Vera’s weekly process entails gathering his materials on Wednesdays, cleaning the heads on Thursdays, and starting the fire on Fridays. The barbacoa is then ready to be removed from the 5-foot-deep pit on Saturday morning for weekend consumption. Which is important, because barbacoa is a festive dish, one that is most commonly served on Saturdays and Sundays when there is ample time to savor it.
Those are the only days Vera’s is open.
As Vera, my traveling companion, and I sit at a picnic table inherited from a long-shuttered barbecue joint, we’re not at all concerned with the past or process of our meal. We’re simply digging in to all that is barbacoa. In front of us are lengua (tongue), paladar (palate), and mixta (a chopped mix of leftover meats from the head). What’s not included on the table is an ojo (cow eye), a delicacy Vera describes as “Mexican caviar.” I call it “something you sample once.” I did so two years ago, when a friend presented me with one cooked in a West Dallas backyard. Its texture is of a firm grape that pops under concerted effort. Vera says the eyes are the most popular cut, but he isn’t much for it either. Like me, Vera has had eye once. “But I prefer something else,” he explains.
While we sit eating our more preferred cuts, chatting and gingerly trying to remove twists of beef and flecks of cilantro from between our teeth, I point out customers Hispanic and Anglo, all local, stopping in for their usual takeout orders and ignoring the menu. (No one but us outsiders eats at Vera’s.) Business is just fine, the pitmaster says. In fact, it is picking up. More customers would always be good, though, he remarks, and he’s planning accordingly.
He leads me outside to the corrugated metal smokehouse behind the restaurant. The pit room is not much larger than the 5-foot-square space that bears the cow heads that have kept Vera’s in business for decades. It’s awfully small. That a singular Texas barbecue style is coaxed from such tight accommodations is a wonder. It’s downright magical.
Indeed, there is an element of alchemy and mystery to barbacoa. While eating more beef at another Sunday session at the restaurant, my traveling companion was doing backroad reconnaissance. Upon his return, he reported spotting a small but promising place, its gravel parking lot jammed with pickup trucks and a line of people out the door. An hour later, we drove to the establishment and found a wood-frame building and attached carport brimming with baseboards, trim, window frames, and planks that had ostensibly been removed from an interior in the process of demolition. A meek Chihuahua guarded an open door to the side yard. But there was no longer any sign of food or customers. So we cut our losses and hit several joints along and near Southmost Boulevard, the border-skirting road on which Vera’s sits.
All of these restaurants prepare barbacoa according to current health regulations, by steaming it. And it’s everywhere on weekends — even at the place where Vera gets his tortillas, Capistran Tortilla Factory. There, barbacoa is ordered at a drive-through kiosk where the menu is painted directly on the walls.
Marcelo’s, another stop down the street, offers barbacoa from a stove-top steamer. When I asked the people behind the counter for the size of the vessel, an elderly gentleman stretched his right arm over his head, his left toward the floor, and laughed. At Sylvia’s, a restaurant with an interior completely covered by Dallas Cowboys memorabilia, I ordered two breakfast tacos, one with barbacoa, one with bacon and egg. A reasonable request if you’re familiar with the smaller flour tortillas generally used for breakfast tacos. Here, my request was laughable. Rio Grande Valley flour tortillas are the size of a child’s bike wheel. The waitress refused to bring me two. I had one and I was stuffed.
Unlike the fare at Sylvia’s, Vera’s, and Capistran, not all that I would call barbacoa is prepared in pits or cookware, nor is it always beef. El Pastor (“The Shepherd”), a restaurant in McAllen, Texas, specializes in cabrito al pastor (shepherd-style kid goat). The animal is butterflied and spit-roasted over coals, in the same manner as the barbacoa witnessed by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. Guests are offered their own view of the foods from the beginning of their time at El Pastor. The cooking is done behind glass near the eatery’s front entrance. And the results are delightful: Gaminess spears my taste buds. Crispy skin snaps. The urge to order some of the offal creeps up. Perhaps some machito — tripe stuffed with heart, liver, and sweetbreads. It was one of the few non-beef meals I would consume. Yet, in this part of the country at least, barbacoa is all about the cow — specifically the head. And the traditions passed down for generations. And Vera’s, the last bastion of the old ways.
It doesn’t need to be the last pit-smoking restaurant standing, though.
“It’s not that we no longer allow it,” says Roberto Garcia, a supervisor at the Brownsville Public Health Department. “We’re just more stringent. It’s a delicate matter.”
Delicate, maybe. Extraordinary, absolutely. So here’s hoping someone else jumps into the pit business and figures out the new rules. Because barbacoa de cabeza shouldn’t be lost. It connects us to a past we should cherish, not one that should be shamed or shunned. This is Texas, where we are intensely proud of our heritage and are willing to defend it with our lives. Barbacoa is part of that history. Let’s grab a handful and relish it, starting at Vera’s.
From the April 2014 issue.