The pitmaster best known for putting barbecue in tortillas has created a barbecue sandwich like none I’ve seen before. Miguel Vidal’s San Antonio roots inform most of his recipes at Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, but for La Reina, he looked to a recent trip overseas for inspiration.
In June, Vidal was in Barcelona, Spain as his son attended a soccer camp. The coaches told him to try bocadillos, small sandwiches on baguettes, found in shops and carts all over the city. Vidal was instantly addicted to the version with jamón ibérico and tomatoes—and started thinking about how he could replicate it. “As I’m eating this baguette with jamón and tomato spread, in my head I’m thinking about the pork collars I had back at home and how I’m going to reinvent this dish to put a Texas spin on it,” he says.
The pork collar, a cut between the back of the head and the loin on a pig, is a tough cut that is well-served by the low-and-slow cooking techniques of Texas barbecue. At Valentina’s, the collars spend five hours in the mesquite smoke and come out tasting like a Texas version of ham. Vidal slices them quite a bit thicker than the jamón he enjoyed in Spain, and finishes them on the flat top to crisp the edges before serving. The pork collar itself is so good that he could have just added it to the smoked meat menu, but Vidal wanted to recapture that bocadillo experience and was eager to break from the tyranny of his famous tortillas.
The sandwich, called La Reina (the queen in Spanish), starts with a buttered and grilled bolillo roll. A spread made from finely diced, sautéed onions and a hint of their honey barbecue sauce goes on before the sliced pork collar. Instead of cold tomatoes, Vidal smokes thick slices until they’re softened. The tomatoes crown the pork for this beautiful open-faced sandwich. As Vidal explains, it’s constructed to “showcase the meat in the sandwich.”
Look for La Reina ($13.50 with a side) on the specials menu every Saturday and Sunday. I tried one at the end of a long day of eating and couldn’t stop. The pork texture is somewhere between a smoked pork steak and a ham slice, with just enough chew to differentiate itself from the soft, warm tomato slices. I sing the praises of Valentina’s tortillas to anyone who will listen, but you won’t feel cheated out of one of their excellent tacos after trying La Reina. It’s one of the most unique sandwiches in Texas barbecue, and considering the work that goes into each component, one of the most time-intensive. Finding Texas barbecue interpreted across the world is always an adventure—especially when it brings an outside influence back into our own barbecue culture.