The sign for barbecue seemed like a mirage along the relentlessly flat farm-to-market road in South Texas. I wasn’t expecting evidence of civilization for another ten miles, in Benavides, before encountering the gas station in the middle of nowhere that’s home to Gonzalitoz Bar-B-Q. Behind a small counter inside, the menu was short. Fajitas, mollejas, and brisket by the pound, on a bun or in a taco. Before that day, I’d never seen mollejas (the Spanish word for beef sweetbreads) on a barbecue menu, but not long earlier, I’d eaten some at J&S Pit Stop in San Diego thirteen miles north. At Gonzalitoz, I ordered three tacos, one for each smoked meat. Savoring the mollejas taco on a concrete table outside, I wondered if I’d overlooked a South Texas barbecue staple. Were these the only two joints in the state serving smoked mollejas, or were there more?

There were more.

You can whiz past plenty of South Texas while driving to Brownsville or McAllen on Texas highways 77 and 281. These roads connect the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Corpus Christi and San Antonio, respectively, so towns like Alice and Kingsville might even look familiar to the speeding traveler. I’ve stopped for barbecue in both (and a few other towns) on my way to and from the LRGV and was therefore proud enough about my attempts to cover that area of my barbecue beat. That is, until I took stock of how well I’d canvased all of the state in the nearly seven years I’ve been Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor. A map of Texas proved otherwise.

Texas has 254 counties, a fact drilled into the heads of anyone who followed Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 senate campaign, during which he famously visited each and every one. I thought I might be close to accomplishing the same feat, so I filled in my own map late in 2019. I still had eighteen to go. I tepidly sought wisdom from the social media masses. Three counties strung together in South Texas that I’d never set foot or tire on seemed like fertile ground based on several recommendations, despite their combined population of just over 17,000. That’s the equivalent of everyone in the Panhandle town of Pampa spread out in an area just shy of Connecticut’s footprint. I had some driving ahead of me.

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There’s no dining room at La Estacion Barbeque in Hebbronville.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

The only thing I found in McMullen County was a speeding ticket. The county seat of Tilden is basically a crossroads with several fuel stations and no barbecue. Heading west, I found a plate of reheated brisket just across the La Salle County line in Fowlerton. I promptly U-turned, eventually heading south to Duval County, where smoked brisket, the daily special at the recently opened Smoke in Freer, gave me a thick slice of hope on my journey to San Diego, the Duval County seat. That’s where my personal mollejas trail began.

Sarah Chapa runs the pits at J&S Pit Stop in San Diego. Her sister Rachel Saenz helps in the kitchen, and niece Catherine Solis runs the register. “We’re just three girls here,” Chapa told me over the phone when I called a few weeks after my visit. Chapa and her husband, Joel, opened the place together in 2018. Then he returned to his job in Louisiana with the oil company Schlumberger. He comes back every other weekend, and his first request is the mollejas, sometimes with egg in a breakfast taco. J&S opens at 7 a.m. during the week (they’re closed over the weekend), and Sarah said the full barbecue menu is available by 10:30 a.m.

I tried a combo plate of sliced brisket, mollejas, and a massive pork spare rib. The brisket and ribs were both respectable, but I was drawn to the browned chunks of mollejas and the fact that my plate came with both a slice of white bread and a warm flour tortilla, made in house by Saenz. “If [a plate] has mollejas, or fajitas, or chicken fajitas, we’ll give a tortilla and a slice of bread, because sometimes you want to make a taco with your mollejas,” Chapa explained, and that’s exactly what I did. I added a generous squirt from the bottle of their special recipe picante sauce made with serrano peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and vinegar. It played well with the salty meat, which had pleasantly chewy browned edges and a concentrated flavor of seasoning and smoke. It was one hell of a first impression for a barbecue item I hadn’t previously tried.

Sarah said the mollejas are ready to cook straight out of the twenty-pound boxes they’re delivered in. All she does is sprinkle them with her barbecue rub and put them over a charcoal and wood fire. The whole mollejas cook for about an hour. “I wait until they’re a certain color,” she said, then she slices them and puts them back over the coals for another hour. Sarah determines proper doneness with a pull test. If the mollejas come apart easily enough, they’re ready to eat. The cross section looks like a magnified slice of fatty brisket with its large fibers of meat separated by fatty marbling. Sarah’s pull test is the same one I often use on a slice of smoked brisket.

Mollejas are the thymus glands from young cattle. They are white in color when raw and look like pale pork when fully cooked. Sweetbreads are considered offal, just like the liver or the stomach, but this is by far the most mild of any beef offal cut. In fine dining restaurants, they are often poached, chilled, then portioned out for breading and frying. The texture of the sweetbreads is creamy, like a lightly fried oyster, and the membrane that surrounds them provides structure when a sweetbread is sliced, plus a bit of chew when eaten. There are plenty ways to prepare them, but most chefs agree cooking them slowly provides the best outcome, so using a barbecue pit seems like a natural fit.

I’m referring to the mollejas I sampled in South Texas as “smoked” for clarity, but of the places I tried, only Gonzalitoz called their cooking implement a smoker. Barbecue is one of many ventures they run out of their secluded Exxon station, which is also a feed store and a mini-mart. A brick pit was installed by Beto Gonzalez Sr. and his wife Lupita when they borrowed $15,000 to open the place in 1972. When the bricks starting crumbling, they built a manual rotisserie smoker. That eventually gave way to a more modern Southern Pride rotisserie that’s fueled with mesquite. The couple’s sons, Beto Jr. and Alvaro (who goes by Al), both work with their parents. Al is in charge of the cooking. “If something gets overcooked, I’m the one responsible for it,” he told me. He smokes the mollejas for three or four hours at 250 degrees in the smoker.

The 42-year-old Al left his job as a mortgage banker fifteen years ago to return to the family business. “I knew where I needed to be,” he said of this little patch of property at the corner of FM 1329 and FM 2295. They called the place Gonzolitoz to make it sound like a town’s name, and while they have an Alice address, they’ve got this corner of Duval County all to themselves. Al said his dad, who is now 79, chose the location because “he didn’t want to compete with a bunch of stores in town,” and he certainly got his wish.

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Seasoned mollejas in the pit at Avila’s Bar-B-Q in Hebbronville.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Brisket on a bun is the best-seller inside Gonzalitoz, where most orders are taken to go. There are a few stools at the end of the counter for locals, but I took my tacos outside on a warm, sunny day. Slices of heavily seasoned mollejas spilled from a flour tortilla as I opened it to add some salsa made by Lupita. The recipe varies from day to day. “She always adds a different chile or a different tomato or tomatillo,” Al said. Shredded lettuce and grated cheddar cooled the heat of the salsa, and after a few bites, I was glad I had skipped the most popular order in favor of the regional specialty.

The tortillas at Gonzolitoz come from Jim Hogg County to the south. Their supplier is Hillcrest Tortillas in Hebbronville, another town with plenty of mollejas to offer. Every other weekend,* Robert Treviño burns mesquite down to coals to cook a massive array of barbecue meats at La Estacion Barbeque just south of the railroad tracks in Hebbronville. Both beef and pork ribs, cabrito, and carne guisada are on offer. I tried the brisket and tender fajitas on a combo plate with a solid trio of rice, beans, and potato salad. I liked the fajitas far better, but I kept going back to the genius concoction of a Frito pie made with carne guisada instead of chili. The other prizes were wrapped in foil packages of their own.

Pan de campo is a thick bread made in a Dutch oven. It’s like a marriage between biscuits and a flour tortilla. The version at La Estacion was still steaming, with a surface slick with fat and browned in a pattern resembling a leopard’s spots. I received it first and had to stop myself from eating it all while waiting on the rest of the order. The mollejas taco was also wrapped in foil. A thick flour tortilla held chunks of milky white mollejas that had been heavily seasoned and roughly chopped. With just a bit of their chunky salsa, it made for one terrific taco.

Joe Quintanilla, who owns Avila’s Bar-B-Q just up the street in Hebbronville, calls his method of cooking barbecuing rather than smoking. “I don’t smoke meat … I cook it with direct heat,” he explained. Quintanilla uses a steel pit, but there’s no firebox. He burns mesquite down to coals in a steel trough near the pit. The hot coals are shoveled into one end of the pit, and the mollejas cook on the end opposite the coals. Avila’s is open only Fridays through Mondays, and Quintanilla cooks 35 pounds of mollejas each day for three to four hours after seasoning them with salt, black pepper, paprika, and chili powder.

Avila’s is housed in a mobile kitchen with a drive-through and wooden decks on either end of the small structure. Quintanilla said the building is just two years old, but he’s been serving barbecue in Hebbronville for 35 years. He previously ran his operation out of a small red building at the opposite corner of the lot where he his now. The old building looks like a bomb went off in it, but some of the walls had to come down for Quintanilla to drag his smoker out after the landlord reneged on a deal. It was there that he served the likes of Nolan Ryan, Lou Ferrigno, and Terry Bradshaw.

Breakfast is popular at Avila’s, which opens at 5:30 in the morning, but the mollejas and the rest of the barbecue menu isn’t ready until 11 a.m. It’s hard to say if I liked the slices of mollejas better by themselves on a plate or in a taco. They were both flawless, and up to now the best I’ve eaten. The slices had integrity but pulled apart easily. They offered little resistance as they readily collapsed between my teeth. A full quarter-pound goes inside every taco. The tortillas are cooked to order on the flattop, and a fiery salsa comes on the side along with a cup of finely diced pico de gallo. The latter exhibited fine knife work, and I appreciated that large chunks of tomato or onion didn’t fall from my taco as often happens with standard pico.

I was so taken with the taco that I almost forgot the rest of my order. Baby back ribs were nicely salty with a surface crisped by the direct heat of the wood coals. The brisket didn’t get much wood flavor as it spent most of its cooking time wrapped tightly in foil. I realized then that I shouldn’t and didn’t care much about the brisket. This was fajita and mollejas country.

Back at J&S Pit Stop in San Diego, Sarah Chapa said her husband Joel insisted they serve mollejas because of their local popularity, but she doesn’t really like them. Considering they’re the first item to sell out, Joel had a point, but Sarah prefers the fajitas, which I didn’t bother trying. I was stuck in my brisket-centric mindset. At a barbecue joint that I’m trying to form an opinion of, my standard order is brisket, pork ribs, and sausage. In this part of South Texas, that wouldn’t give me the best chance at a great meal, nor would it give the pitmaster the option to show off his specialties. This experience reminded me that my Central Texas habits can be a hindrance in finding good barbecue stories worth sharing in parts of Texas that judge their joints differently.

Finding this rich vein of smoked mollejas was exhilarating. I called my wife from the road to tell her what I found and bored a few strangers at the airport with details about the smoked mollejas of Duval and Jim Hogg counties before flying home. On the flight, I wondered what had kept me from exploring these counties before. Was it just that they were secluded and sparsely populated or that they didn’t smoke brisket the way I like? I get many of my leads from readers who share their tips with me, but maybe I was giving out signals that places like Avila’s and La Estacion wouldn’t interest me. All I had to do to find these joints was to share an incomplete map of Texas counties. I’ll marinate on that question more in the future, but for now at least, I can travel the state as hopeful as ever that Texas still has plenty of untold barbecue stories that I’ve yet to share.

* I ate at La Estacion Barbeque (open only every other Saturday and Sunday) the weekend of February 8–9 so use those dates to help determine when you can visit.