Israel “Pennie” Ochoa and his wife Connie opened Pennie’s Meat Market in Galveston in 1978 at 1713 37th Street. The building had housed a meat market in as far back as least 1913, when a butcher named Franke Henry listed his business there in the Galveston directory. The Ochoas sold raw meat, but their specialties were Israel’s barbacoa and Connie’s tamales. “My mother-in-law started to make tamales, and it took off, so my father-in-law started to make barbacoa,” Ochoa’s son-in-law, Louis Moreno, remembers. After Israel passed away in 2003, Connie continued to run the market. The decline in Galveston’s population immediately after Hurricane Ike was too much to weather, and without an heir interested in running the market, she was forced to close Pennie’s in early 2009.
Enter Louis and Isis Moreno, who in 2015 were planning a quiet retirement from the Texas City refinery where both worked. “We were thinking about moving to the Hill Country,” Louis said, but their hometown of Galveston had a strong pull. Isis’s elderly mother, Connie Ochoa, had recently moved in with one of Isis’s sisters, leaving Ochoa’s recently renovated house empty. The Morenos moved into the house, which shares a lot with the shuttered meat market. Even though it had been closed for six years, they soon learned how dearly the neighborhood missed the place.
“I couldn’t mow my yard without someone stopping me on the street and saying, ‘Hey, are you going to open Pennie’s back up?’,” Louis remembered. He was still two years from retirement then, and Isis didn’t reach hers until January of this year, but by 2016 they had a plan to renovate the old building into a new business. On October 24, 2017, Pennie’s Tex Mex Take Out opened. The family recipe barbacoa and popular tamales (they sold 2,200 dozen the last two months of 2018) took center stage, but the raw meat counter was abandoned in favor of serving smoked meat. “I loved to barbecue,” Moreno told me, so he added the new wrinkle in Pennie’s updated identity.
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Pennie’s is tiny. There’s only enough room for a few people to stand at the ordering counter at once. If a line forms, folks have to wait on the steps outside. There’s no seating inside, and every order is packed up to be eaten elsewhere, although there are a couple picnic tables in a side lot. Until just a few weeks ago, the barbacoa and barbecue were only sold by weight, but they’ve recently added the option for tacos. The excellent flour tortillas are sourced locally, but Moreno said, “We’re fixing to start pressing our own tortillas out.”
After 11 a.m., there’s a full barbecue menu on offer with brisket, pork ribs, smoked chicken, and sausage. I was there early on a Saturday morning for the barbacoa, which is served only on Saturday and Sunday when they open at nine o’clock. The barbacoa, made with braised beef cheeks, is usually gone by noon. Thankfully they make sure a smoked brisket is ready at that early hour. Cameron Moreno, Louis and Isis’s son, chopped the first few slices from a fresh one for my brisket taco. I added a barbacoa taco and rounded out the trio with a tamale taco. The latter features the nicely seasoned pork and beef mixture they use to fill their tamales. It was like eating a tamale where the masa had been traded out for a fluffy, warm flour tortilla.
I didn’t get back for the full menu that day, but the chopped brisket was promising. The brisket that Cameron had pulled from the fat-soaked butcher paper had a nice bark, and the chopped beef from the flat was still plenty juicy. The strong smokiness from the oak wood was well-tempered by the raw onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. The barbacoa was worth the special planning. Moreno wouldn’t talk much about the preparation. “Of course it’s top secret for us,” he said. Whatever they do makes for some luscious shredded beef. It was even better after adding a dash or two of salt.
Moreno seemed happy with his change in retirement plans. He gets to cook barbecue and keep the neighborhood happy. “This is where locals eat,” he said, adding, “We’re trying to reach the tourists.” Offering tacos, a more portable way to enjoy their offerings, is a good start, a move Moreno credits to his son Cameron. “I’m a refinery worker, so I’m no marketing expert,” he said, laughing. I suggested smoked brisket tamales. He was worried the steaming of the tamales would deaden the smoke flavor of the barbecue, but he promised to try it. And I promised to come back for the full menu on my next trip to Galveston.
Pennie’s Tex Mex Take Out
1713 37th Street
Thu-Fri 11-6, Sat-Sun 9-6 (or until sold out)