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BBQ Anatomy 101: Beef Head

An Exploration of Texas Barbacoa

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Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Before there was Texas, one form of Texas barbecue was cemented in the culture of the Rio Grande Valley. How so? The answers lies in a hole in the ground. We’re talking about barbacoa de cabeza en pozo—beef heads cooked with wood coals in subterranean pits.

Beef barbacoa can be found on menus in nearly every corner of Texas if you find the right taqueria. (Most of it isn’t traditional barbacoa, as it probably didn’t come from a whole beef head, and it almost certainly wasn’t cooked in the ground if you find it for sale in Texas.) Finding the good stuff takes some effort. It might be scarce, but wood-cooked barbacoasometimes called tatemais just as important to Texas barbecue culture as any other form of slow-cooked meat, and it has a history that goes back a lot further than smoked brisket.

After Texas Monthly‘s list of the best barbecue joints in Texas came out in 2013, some questioned the absence of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville. It’s the only restaurant left in Texas that still cooks whole heads in the ground with wood coals, and it is also a personal favorite of mine. Our food editor, Patricia Sharpe, explained that “barbacoa is its own category,” and a rebuttal was posted almost immediately on dallasfood.org (the writer of which is a friend of mine). He wrote, “Texas Monthly has built a rhetorical border fence around ‘Texas barbecue’,” and he had a point, as I learned after he lent me a copy of a dissertation by Mario Montaño entitled The History of Mexican Folk Foodways of South Texas. (Much of the background information in this article comes directly from that dissertation.)

Texas barbacoa as we know it today has its roots in Mexico, but not until post-Spanish colonization, when they brought cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs to the area. As Montaño explains, “The ancient Mexicans had no cattle, sheep, or goats and relied in wild game and several domesticated animalsturkey, quails, pigeons, and hairless, mute dogsto provide them with meat.” A common way of cooking these meats was rescaldo, or cooking directly in the hot ashes. A popular form of rescaldo was (and still is) mixiote, which is seasoned meat wrapped in the thin epidermis of the maguey leaves (but more often in parchment paper today) before being placed in the fire.

This type of cooking pre-dated barbacoa, and certainly pre-dated Texas. The first mention of “barbacoa” was in Gonzolo Fernandez de Oviedo’s book De La Natural Historia de la Indias from 1526 where he chronicled his trip to Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic). It wasn’t until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 that the barbacoa-rich area in the Rio Grande Valley became part of Texas. We sort of fell into a good thing with one giant shift of our southern border. The United States gained a good deal of land, and Texas added barbacoa to its cultural menu. Barbacoa of many types, be it goat, mutton, or beef was already popular in northern Mexico. Meat from the pig’s head was reserved for stuffing tamales, but cattle, sheep, and goat heads were used for barbacoa de cabeza. It was beef-head barbacoa that became the barbecue dish of choice in the Rio Grande Valley.

Much like the open-pit barbecue methods in Central and East Texas, barbacoa wasn’t an everyday dish in the early days of Texas. As Montaño explains, “Barbacoa serves…to convey the message of a special food event, associated with a very special occasion.” While the meat markets of Central Texas began to commercialize their barbecue methods shortly after the Civil War, it took longer for barbacoa’s to makes it to the restaurant counter–and usually it wasn’t a restaurant at all. Even today, you’re more likely to find barbacoa de cabeza at a meat market or tortilla factory.

Manchas Eagle Pass
Faded sign of the now closed Mancha Meat Market & Grocery in Eagle Pass. Photo from Google street view

In Eagle Pass, Texas, just across the border from Piedras Negras, Mexico, Don Juan and Dona Queta Rodriguez started selling barbacoa in the early thirties. In 1937 they opened Rodriguez Grocery & Meat Market. They were joined by Don Celso Rodriguez who sold his goat head barbacoa (called cabezita) and Herrera’s Grocery in Eagle Pass owned by Don Arturo and Dona Noemi Herrera. Further down the river in Laredo, Don Salome Gomez gained fame as a cook and vendor of barbacoa de cabeza. In 1944 Don Perfecto Mancha and Dona Rosita Mancha opened Mancha Meat Market & Grocery in Eagle Pass. Their barbacoa de cabeza preparation was the subject of the 2001 documentary Smokestack Lightning, which followed along for one day of their six-day barbacoa preparation. Sadly, all of the sources for barbacoa listed above have been closed for years.

Throughout South Texas the signs for barbacoa usually denote Sabados y Domingos (Saturdays and Sundays), an indication that dish remains a weekend item. Cleaning and preparing beef heads is arduous work, which is why you aren’t likely to find it on a daily menu. Commercial barbacoa is usually made from steamed beef cheeks, maybe with some beef tongue mixed in. And that “barbacoa” you get at Chipotle is just beef shoulder. For real barbacoa de cabeza cooked with wood in the ground (that you don’t make yourself), you only have one option–Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, in Brownsville.

Veras Brownsville  - 2

I first visited Vera’s in 2012. Thankfully it was a Saturday, so I could go right back the next day for breakfast. Vera’s opens so early that you might be able to catch them at the end of your night out. Officially, it opens at 5:00 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only, but Armando “Mando” Vera will probably serve you at little earlier because he’ll be around. By noon, you’ll be lucky if there’s any barbacoa left. There are a few tables inside, but most customers get theirs to-go along with some fresh tortillas from Capistran Tortilla Factory down the street. I go for the cachete or cheek meat, but there’s plenty more options on the menu (including some incredible carnitas). Since he cooks the whole heads, you can get each individual item. Tongue, lips, and even eyes have an a la carte price. The cheapest option is everything that’s left and chopped together into mixta.

Veras Brownsville  - 1
A barbacoa (cachete) taco at Vera’s
Veras Brownsville 04
A beef eye at Vera’s in Brownsville. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter
Veras Brownsville 03
Mando Vera and me enjoying a beef eye taco. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Shopping for beef heads to cook at home will be tough at a big name grocery store, but most meat markets and Hispanic grocery stores offer it, especially if you call ahead. As for restaurant ordering, there isn’t even an IMPS number for whole heads. In past columns we’ve discussed the IMPS 100 series (beef) and the 400 series (pork), but for items from the cabeza, you need to look at the 700 series entitled Variety Meats and Edible By-Products. There you’ll find beef tongue (IMPS 716 or 717, depending on the trim) and cheek meat (IMPS 723). You should also note that there are two parts of the tongue, the tip and the root. The even slices of tongue you may have seen at the deli or on that fancy charcuterie plate are from the tip.

A peeled tongue tip from a backyard barbacoa de cabeza

Back at Vera’s, Mando cooks with mesquite wood. It burns down in a subterranean pit to form a bed of coals. Beef heads are unseasoned and wrapped in aluminum foil (agave leaves are the common and traditional wrapping for folks cooking barbacoa at home) before being placed on the coals, then the whole thing is covered with a heavy lid to cook overnight. (If you read about grandfather clauses in last week’s column, Vera’s is an example of a restaurant with an actual grandfather clause that allows them to cook in a brick-lined, underground pit.) In Montaño’s description of the barbacoa preparation at Mancha’s, he noted that the heads were seasoned with garlic and salt, but most barbacoa you’ll get is in need of a salt shaker.

Veras Brownsville 05
A tray of barbecue at Vera’s. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

The rest of the seasoning is up to you. Cilantro, raw onion, salsa roja, salsa verde, and little cups of chile piquins can be purchased at Vera’s. Most of the barbacoa I’ve eaten is wet with fat, but the cachete at Vera’s is drier. It has a cleaner flavor, or slightly smoky pot roast, except its the best pot roast you’ve ever eaten. It’s also Texas barbecue through and through.

Barbacoa Menu:

Cachete – Cheek

Jeta – Face

Labios – Lips

Lengua – Tongue

Mixta – A mix of all the head meat

Mollejas – Sweetbreads

Ojos – Eyes, which are a delicacy

Palatar – Palate, or the roof of the mouth

Sesos – Brains, which are not often found since whole beef heads no longer include the brain

Barbacoa Glossary:

Barbacoa – This means beef heads in Texas and Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley. Further inland in Mexico, it can just as easily mean whole goats, sheep, or other meats. Further inland in Texas, you’re less likely to find it made with whole beef heads.

Barbacoa de Cabeza – Barbacoa made with whole beef heads instead of just cheek and tongue.

Cabezita – The head of a goat cooked as barbacoa.

Descarnando – The act of removing meat from a carcass or skull for barbacoa.

Tatema – An Aztec word used to describe specifically barbacoa cooked in the ground with wood coals. You won’t find the word used often these days, but it signifies that your barbacoa isn’t steamed.

These are a few places where I’ve found great barbacoa in Texas:

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que (The best barbacoa in the country)
2404 Southmost Road
Brownsville, TX 78521

Briskets & Beer Smokehouse (highly seasoned and smoked cheek meat)
2002 Chihuahua St
Laredo, TX 78043

Gerardo’s Drive-In
609 Patton St
Houston, TX 77009

Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory
340 N. Pierce
Eagle Pass, TX 78852

Raul’s BBQ
1820 S Zapata Hwy.
Laredo, TX 78046

Leave a comment below if I missed your favorite place to get a barbacoa fix, or anywhere else that you can find barbacoa de cabeza in Texas.

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  • Yolanda Flores

    Rios barbacoa in San Antonio Tx

  • Velma Rodriguez

    Pena’s Meat Market in Corpus Christi, Texas has the best barbacoa!!!

  • John Villarreal

    Great article! My family opened our business, La Milpa Tortilleria here in Brownsville, Texas, back in 1983. Since then we have been selling fresh corn and flour tortillas. On Saturdays and Sundays we sell tamales and menudo and on Sunday’s we sell barbacoa de cachete and lengua. We are known for selling the leanest barbacoa in town. You should come try it! 239 W St Charles.

  • Belen

    My oldest sister, Ellena, makes a mean cabeza! She cooks it the old fashion way – underground! When she pulls it out and unwraps it she pounds the head on the table and the meat falls right off – sabroso!

  • David Campbell

    It is interesting the author didn’t mention that scene in the movie “Giant” where Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) was first introduced to barbacoa de cabeza. I can still remember Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills) breaking open the head with a hammer and yelling “Yeeehaw … get it while it’s hot!” Her reaction (fainting at the sight of beef brains being scooped out of the skull by the spoonful onto her plate) was quite memorable.

  • Jason Chapa

    Ruiz Barbacoa in Corpus Christi is excellent. Small place near Agnes and Laredo St.

  • Rudy Mack

    I lived 2 blocks from Mancha’s in Eagle Pass. Everyone in the city agreed that they made the best. Back in 1969 I made a “Pozo” and cooked a Cabeza using mesquite. Head was wrapped in 2 wet burlap sacks and placed on top of a bed of coals overnight. It came out perfect. Perfecto and Rosita Mancha were wonderful people.

  • Martha Menchaca-Stolowski

    Mancha’s Grocery in Eagle Pass, Texas had the best barbacoa I ever eaten. There’ll never be another one like there’s.

  • Check out La Currumina at the market in Piedras Negras, just across from International Bridge I in Eagle Pass, Daniel. It’s right next to La Michooacana (a pink and white colored fresh fruit popsicle and ice cream place). They have a big ‘ol block of wood where they lay the cachete with just the right amount of fat I might add right on the block and using what I can only describe as a hatchet, they lay one serving at a time right into freshly made corn tortillas (or flour if you wish… make mine corn!) before they add cebollita (diced onion) and cilantro! My Daddy (RIP) used to take me to La Currumina (which was run by Don Chuy Salazar who recently passed away in 2011) every Sunday morning before we’d head off to play baseball. Next time you come to Eagle Pass I highly recommend… Another place we used to go to as a boy was Ruiz Grocery on Main. Thanks for the interesting piece and look us up when you come. We’re The News Gram, the only daily bilingual newspaper in town.

  • Morales Family Continues Proud Eagle Pass Heritage; 
    Among Best Barbacoa in Texas

    A.D. Ibarra
    -Eagle Pass

    You get up on a lazy Sunday morning, your stomach starts to grumble and you cannot expect your wife to wake up early to make breakfast like she does the other six days of the week, so you think about it and close your eyes and imagine yourself taking a bite of a steaming hot, fresh corn tortilla filled with cachete de res and garnished with diced onions, cilantro and salsa! 
    Sound good? Well today’s your lucky day because right here in Eagle Pass is one of the five best places in Texas to do just that according to Texas Monthly’s very own Daniel Vaughn, the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory on Pierce!
    “¡Órale!” You jump out of bed, put on your chanclas and head over to your favorite meat market to pick up a couple of pounds of tatema, which is better known in greater South Texas as ‘barbacoa’, to provide breakfast for your family while picking up Sunday’s News Gram in the process.
    A Texas Monthly supplement entitled “BBQ Anatomy 101: Beef Head An Exploration of Texas Barbacoa” by Vaughn reaches way back in Texas history, Eagle Pass, Texas history in fact, and makes reference to several local establishments, and I use the word establishments specifically because those mentioned herein are veritable establishments in local lore.
    Among those locales which are considered amongst the best barbacoa producers in the state is none other than the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory, the labor of love which is still in operation under the watchful, caring eye of Heriberto Morales who began this business back in 1989.
    “Mi orgullo siempre han sido mis hijos y mi esposa,” said Morales on a cool Friday morning in downtown Eagle Pass, “Uno de ellos es abogado y mi hija es profesora, los dos graduados de UT.  Y esto es cuestion de trabajo, trabajo, trabajo.” 
    What not many people know though, is that Mr. Morales and his wife would personally deliver five hundred pounds (about forty heads of beef) barbacoa de pozo to homes on either side of main in Eagle Pass before heading off to follow their dream in Chicago when they got a call from brother Felipe who advised the couple that the Pedras Negras Tortilla Factory which then belonged to Coche Moreno was up for sale and the rest as they say is history.
    “Estabamos en Chicago.  Ni esperabamos tenerlo.  Es mucho trabajo,” stated Mrs. Morales, “Y gracias a Diós mi hermano Felipe fue el que nos dijo del negocio.”   “De la noche a la Mañana.  Fue dificil al principio, pero gracias a Diós y al esfuerzo de todos salimos adelante.”   
    The art of cooking it underground as by definition it is, beef heads cooked with wood coals in subterranean pits, is well documented throughout the article even stating that the technique is older than even the process to cook brisket.
    Vaughn’s story which was published on July 8, 2015, highlighting barbacoa across South Texas, actually shows a fading Mancha Meat Market & Grocery sign announcing ‘barbacoa de pozo los domingos desde 1942’ and mentions how barbacoa was brought over from Piedras Negras in the 1930’s.
    Their barbacoa de cabeza preparation, according to Vaughn’s piece, is explained in detail in the documentary Smokestack Lightning, however, unfortunately, these establishments have been closed for years.
    One of the only five barbacoa establishment Vaughn considered ‘great’ included the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory which is still located at 340 N. Pierce right here in Eagle Pass where you can still go and enjoy barbacoa to this day the way it was meant to be prepared.  
    Piedras negras Tortilla Factory is unique in that, according to son Eddie, his Mom came up with the buffet-style display of showing customers everything separately.
    “First of all the barbacoa takes twelve hours to cook so we begin our Saturday and Sunday heavy traffic day at 8:30 AM on Saturday to open at 8:30 PM where we remain open all night through Sunday afternoon selling everything from tamales, to menudo, tripas, mollejas, carnitas, different types of salsa and fresh tortillas de harina and maíz,” added Heriberto, Jr.
    Although state regulations prohibit the traditional way of cooking the delicacy, the Morales Family in Eagle Pass continue the tatema tradition in a very big way.

  • This ran Sunday in The News Gram… You can check it out, the edited verision, ha ha, at our website… They didn’t like my UIL Ready Writing-like intro ! Ha ha! Oh well… I just work here! Let’s go to La Currumina across the river some day… Look us up! Thanks for including Eagle Pass in your piece!

  • Morales Family Continues Proud Eagle Pass Heritage; 
    Among Best Barbacoa in Texas

    A.D. Ibarra
    -Eagle Pass

    You get up on a lazy Sunday morning, your stomach starts to grumble and you cannot expect your wife to wake up early to make breakfast like she does the other six days of the week, so you think about it and close your eyes and imagine yourself taking a bite of a steaming hot, fresh corn tortilla filled with cachete de res and garnished with diced onions, cilantro and salsa! 
    Sound good? Well today’s your lucky day because right here in Eagle Pass is one of the five best places in Texas to do just that according to Texas Monthly’s very own Daniel Vaughn, the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory on Pierce!
    “¡Órale!” You jump out of bed, put on your chanclas and head over to your favorite meat market to pick up a couple of pounds of tatema, which is better known in greater South Texas as ‘barbacoa’, to provide breakfast for your family while picking up Sunday’s News Gram in the process.
    A Texas Monthly supplement entitled “BBQ Anatomy 101: Beef Head An Exploration of Texas Barbacoa” by Vaughn reaches way back in Texas history, Eagle Pass, Texas history in fact, and makes reference to several local establishments, and I use the word establishments specifically because those mentioned herein are veritable establishments in local lore.
    Among those locales which are considered amongst the best barbacoa producers in the state is none other than the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory, the labor of love which is still in operation under the watchful, caring eye of Heriberto Morales who began this business back in 1989.
    “Mi orgullo siempre han sido mis hijos y mi esposa,” said Morales on a cool Friday morning in downtown Eagle Pass, “Uno de ellos es abogado y mi hija es profesora, los dos graduados de UT.  Y esto es cuestion de trabajo, trabajo, trabajo.”  Translation: (The ultimate pride and satisfaction for me comes from my children and my wife.  One of them is an attorney and the other is an educator, both graduates of The University of Texas.  But the basis for our success is work, work, work.)
    What not many people know though, is that Mr. Morales and his wife would personally deliver five hundred pounds (about forty heads of beef) barbacoa de pozo to homes on either side of main in Eagle Pass before heading off to follow their dream in Chicago when they got a call from brother Felipe who advised the couple that the Pedras Negras Tortilla Factory which then belonged to Coche Moreno was up for sale and the rest as they say is history.
    “Estabamos en Chicago.  Ni esperabamos tenerlo.  Es mucho trabajo,” stated Mrs. Morales, “Y gracias a Diós mi hermano Felipe fue el que nos dijo del negocio.” Translation: (We were in Chicago.  We never even planned acquiring it.  It’s a lot of work.  Thank God my brother Felipe told us about the business.)  “De la noche a la Mañana.  Fue dificil al principio, pero gracias a Diós y al esfuerzo de todos salimos adelante.”  (From one day to the next we were in this business and it was hard at the beginning, but thank God and the efforts of everyone, we were successful.) 
    The art of cooking it underground as by definition it is, beef heads cooked with wood coals in subterranean pits, is well documented throughout the article even stating that the technique is older than even the process to cook brisket.
    Vaughn’s story which was published on July 8, 2015, highlighting barbacoa across South Texas, actually shows a fading Mancha Meat Market & Grocery sign announcing ‘barbacoa de pozo los domingos desde 1942’ and mentions how barbacoa was brought over from Piedras Negras in the 1930’s.
    Their barbacoa de cabeza preparation, according to Vaughn’s piece, is explained in detail in the documentary Smokestack Lightning, however, unfortunately, these establishments have been closed for years.
    One of the only five barbacoa establishment Vaughn considered ‘great’ included the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory which is still located at 340 N. Pierce right here in Eagle Pass where you can still go and enjoy barbacoa to this day the way it was meant to be prepared.  
    Piedras negras Tortilla Factory is unique in that, according to son Eddie, his Mom came up with the buffet-style display of showing customers everything separately.
    “First of all the barbacoa takes twelve hours to cook so we begin our Saturday and Sunday heavy traffic day at 8:30 AM on Saturday to open at 8:30 PM where we remain open all night through Sunday afternoon selling everything from tamales, to menudo, tripas, mollejas, carnitas, different types of salsa and fresh tortillas de harina and maíz,” added Heriberto, Jr.
    Although state regulations prohibit the traditional way of cooking the delicacy, the Morales Family in Eagle Pass continue the tatema tradition in a very big way.