LaVaca BBQ in Port Lavaca serves five smoked meats, two house-made sausages, six sides, and three desserts every day they’re open. On Saturdays they add beef ribs, and Sunday is for pit-smoked barbacoa, but ask Lupe Nevarez about the joint’s specialty, and the answer is surprising: smoked tamales. They’re almost hidden in the bottom corner of the massive menu board that hung behind Nevarez as he worked the cutting block during a recent Friday lunch. I assumed they were steamed tamales stuffed with chopped barbecue until I watched Nevarez unwrap the glistening butcher paper pouch that surrounded his thoroughly unique take on tamales.
It’s not just that Nevarez, a native of nearby Palacios, thinks he serves a damn fine tamale (he does). He said the purpose for the dish was “to give back to the Texas barbecue culture.” Much of what a new barbecue joint offers is copied from others, be it through tradition or gathering new ideas online. So when Nevarez opened LaVaca BBQ last November, he wanted to provide something that hadn’t been done before.
Lupe’s wife and business partner, Christine Nevarez, makes the tamales. She spreads the masa on butcher paper and adds chopped pulled pork and brisket that’s been mixed with what they call their tamale sauce. She uses the butcher paper like a corn husk, folding it over the filling as if it were a miniature brisket. Then it goes into the smoker. While it’s cooking, fat soaks the butcher paper and keeps the tamale wrapped in a moist blanket. The finished product is more than double the size of a standard tamale, and they’re sold two to a plate with one side for $11. The texture isn’t soft like you get from steaming tamales. It’s got some crispy edges, like the skillet cornbread version of a tamale, but every bite is infused with the flavor of smoked meat. “It’s almost like our Mexican heritage going to the Hill Country,” Lupe said.
He may have come up with the tamale idea, but Christine is to thank for the restaurant’s existence. She was a teacher, but the school was more than an hour’s drive from their home in Blessing. Lupe persuaded her to give up the long commute and retire, but she needed something to supplement her income. The couple had competed together in a few barbecue cook-offs and thought barbecue might be just the thing to provide a little extra cash. They crunched the numbers and figured she needed to sell eight barbecue-stuffed potatoes a day to make things even out. They searched for a food truck before realizing that permitting for mobile vending in the Coastal Bend was difficult. An old gas station that was sitting empty in Port Lavaca, forty minutes from their home, looked like a better option.
The family—Lupe, Christine, and their children—spent months on the renovations, and Lupe knew they’d spend a lot of their savings too. He didn’t want to sink everything into a leased building, so he constructed the kitchen inside a shipping container parked outside the family’s house. They paid someone to haul it to Port Lavaca when construction was complete and performed the final hookups then. If the lease is ever terminated, he’ll be able to take the fully outfitted kitchen with him. The same goes for the trailer-mounted smoker. “When you can’t afford to buy it, you have to build it,” Nevarez said with a laugh.
Lupe has been a mechanical designer for 27 years and still works at a local factory Mondays through Wednesdays. His friend and former coworker is a retired welder, Raymond De La Rosa. After Lupe secured a thousand-gallon propane tank, he bought an old welding tool from the factory. De La Rosa agreed to help him turn the tank into a smoker. They noticed writing on the frame of the machine. It read “Raymond De La Rosa”—he’d used it decades earlier. “What are the chances of both of you being back together building this pit?” Lupe remembers asking De La Rose about the tool. It seemed meant to be, and they two men finished the smoker together in six days.
The smoker is designed for top heat. The firebox is raised so that it’s centered within the larger cooking chamber, rather than hanging lower as is normal in an offset smoker. Nevarez admired the Jambo smokers used by many of the pitmasters on the competition circuit, and he designed his smoker to mimic them. He says the top heat helps create a superior bark on the briskets, but I didn’t get to see those results. LaVaca BBQ is open four days a week. On Thursday and Friday they don’t offer sliced brisket, only chopped. Nevarez said the slicing holds up the ordering line. I was there on Friday, and he had just pulled a new brisket for chopping. He recognized me and offered to make an exception with the sliced brisket, but this one had been stored upside down in the warmer. The bark that would have been on the top had sat in brisket fat and juices for hours and had all but disappeared, and I ended up preferring the chopped version that came inside the brisket taco.
The impressive flour tortillas are from the local H-E-B. Stuffed with brisket, house-made pickles and pickled onions, and barbecue sauce, the taco was satisfying as any chopped brisket sandwich. A sweet barbecue sauce called dulce, a more savory sauce meant for beef, and a chunkier version that’s like a mix between barbecue sauce and salsa are all available. The latter goes well on the pork belly tacos that come wrapped in blue-corn tortillas made by Christine. Thick slices of smoked pork belly are topped with mango habanero slaw that brings a crunch that plays well against the tender, juicy smoked meat.
Spare ribs are heavily rubbed with plenty of black pepper before smoking. The racks are then coated in the dulce sauce and wrapped tightly in foil to finish smoking. They’re definitely wet ribs, and I enjoyed the texture and flavor. A good meal can also be had with the well-smoked turkey breast or just a few of the meaty sides, like the brisket-studded pinto beans or the gumbo. Nevarez tries to make items gluten-free when possible, including the tamales and blue corn tortillas, and he did the same with the brisket and sausage gumbo that doesn’t use a traditional roux. It’s not served with rice either, but comes with a scoop of their classic potato salad that pairs well with it. The only dud among the sides was the jalapeño cream corn, which brought the heat, but the cream sauce barely holding the kernels together was broken.
If the barbecue tamale is the specialty of LaVaca BBQ, its crowning achievement is the house-made sausage. Nevarez uses a 75/25 meat-to-fat ratio made with their beef and pork trimmings. The links are stuffed, chilled, cold smoked at a low temperature, and then shocked in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. The par-smoked sausages are hot-smoked every morning for service, and the snappy casings show the work that goes into them. I loved both the classic link that Nevarez said is a tribute to the old meat market joints in Lockhart and the lively version made with serrano and queso blanco.
When she’s not making tamales and tortillas, Christine prepares the desserts. Peach cobbler has a pillowy, buttery layer of crust that doesn’t crumble. “We hate eating cobbler that turns to mush when you put ice cream on it,” Lupe said. The Texas sheet cake is rich with chocolate and less dense than most versions. A small container of Blue Bell vanilla comes free with or without dessert for any paying customer.
The Nevarez family has put together something special in a part of the Coastal Bend short on great options for barbecue of this style. “Jesus. Texas. Brisket.” is the motto painted on the side of the building. They’ve built the place with grit, ingenuity, faith in their abilities, and faith in the community they’re serving. The day they opened, Nevarez said the screen door didn’t close until they sold out of barbecue at 3:30 in the afternoon. January was slow, but business was improving in early February. Before they know it, beach season will be here, and plenty more Texans will discover another reason to be optimistic about the future of Texas barbecue at LaVaca BBQ,