At seven on a Saturday morning, I find Armando Vera and his assistant in the prep room of the tin smokehouse behind Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville. The assistant is cleaning about fifty cow heads with a powerful spray hose; when he finishes, Vera wraps them in extra-heavy aluminum foil. In the room next door large branches of mesquite and ebony are burning down to charcoal in a five-foot-deep, rectangular, firebrick-lined pit dug in the ground.
Vera is probably the last restaurateur in the state who prepares barbacoa, Mexican-style barbecued cow’s head (usually eaten for breakfast on weekends), in the traditional manner. Though the word “barbacoa” is Spanish for “barbecue,” in South Texas it refers strictly to the meat from the cow’s head. Most of the barbacoa served today isn’t even barbecued (though the head is still sometimes smoked in conventional pits): It comes from prepackaged meats—cheeks are the most popular—cooked in massive steamers, or the whole heads are baked in ovens. But Vera cooks barbacoa in the ground.
As he does every weekend, the 36-year-old Vera waits until the wood burns down to the proper heat—which he ascertains by holding his hand over the pit—then puts the heads into that big hole in the ground. Next he covers it with a thick sheet of steel, and covers that with dirt, watering it down to settle the dust. His operation, which doesn’t meet present-day health regulations, is grandfathered in. But if his eleven-year-old son, Armando Junior, does not eventually take over the business, as Vera did from his own father, Alberto, 25 years ago, true barbacoa will come to an end. (Alberto Vera, 73, still helps out around the place.)
After the meat has cooked for about eight hours, the dirt is shoveled off and the lid removed, and an overwhelmingly savory, meaty smell fills the pit room. Armando uses a shopping cart to move the heads to the restaurant building. The slick, shiny meat pulls easily from the bones. He puts cheeks, eyes, brains, and tongues into separate containers, combining the meat behind the tongue (what he calls the “sweetbreads”) with what remains—mostly fat, but also meat scraps from elsewhere on the head—to create the mixed meat. The next morning customers will order their favorite pieces by weight; prices range from $4.50 per pound for eyes to $7.25 for cheeks, with tortillas and fiery homemade salsa a little extra.
The cheeks, which are a dark brown, taste almost like pot roast, while the mixta is stringy and fatty, getting its comparatively bland taste from the sweetbreads. The tongue is similarly mild and juicy. Brains are firm-textured, dry, and bitter; the eyes are almost pure fat and definitely an acquired taste. The deep smokiness of Vera’s barbacoa puts it in a class of its own. “For Latin people, this is like marijuana; they’re hooked on it,” says Alberto. Adds Armando: