Joe and Christan Zavala spent their Thanksgiving weekend in a satisfied glow. Their barbecue joint, Zavala’s Barbecue, in Grand Prairie, had just been featured in the newly released, U.S.-focused season of Taco Chronicles on Netflix. The show, whose third season debuted on November 23, had two episodes focused on tacos in Texas, one based in San Antonio and the other in Dallas. In both, barbecue tacos got a nod with an appearance from 2M Smokehouse, in San Antonio in addition to Zavala’s. When the Zavalas opened their doors on Saturday, turkey-weary viewers were clamoring for their tacos. Joe said he had to buy an extra fifteen dozen flour tortillas to add to the thirty dozen they had planned for from a local supplier. While that might not sound like a lot for a taqueria, this restaurant’s main draw is the meat—not what’s wrapped around it.

But two of the taco offerings at Zavala’s are popular enough to have developed their own followings: the simple sliced-brisket taco and the Sloppy Juan taco. A mix of smoked brisket and pork shoulder chopped together with barbecue sauce, the Sloppy Juan is everything great about a sloppy joe, but in a warm flour tortilla. Texas Monthly taco editor José R. Ralat provided commentary for the Taco Chronicles episode and called the brisket taco at Zavala’s “peak Texan.”

While they weren’t featured on the show, the smoked and grilled fajitas are a specialty that Zavala’s now serves every day. Typically, restaurant fajitas are made with less-expensive inside skirt steak that requires a marinade to tame its tougher texture. Joe Zavala springs for the 44 Farms outside skirt steak, at almost $15 per pound raw, because he wants to make the best fajitas possible and he likes to make people happy. The smoky and nicely charred steak is cooked medium (anything less would be challenging on such a thin cut), and the resulting tacos are simply spectacular. You can choose to add grilled onions and bell peppers, but definitely ask for some pico de gallo and a squirt of Zavala’s green sauce.

The nod Taco Chronicles gives to barbecue tacos is admirable, but they’re a topic worthy of their own full episode—or even a season. It would need to include Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, purveyor of what Zavala calls “the OG brisket taco,” or even go back further to Arnold’s Texas Bar-B-Que, in East Dallas, which closed in 1999. That joint’s barbecue tacos “didn’t go over as well then,” said Arnulfo “Trey” Sanchez III, who ran Arnold’s with his father and family friend Don Glasco. Sanchez is having success with Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q, in Grapevine, which is known for smoked brisket birria tacos. On a recent visit, I was taken with a newer creation.

Smoked pastrami was the special, and I wanted a slice. Sanchez said he’d make me an off-the-menu pastrami taco instead. Ask for it any time pastrami is offered. A hint of sweetness from the brine came through the black pepper coating on the smoky brisket, which was chopped and layered onto a sturdy corn tortilla with thick slices of pickled onions and pickled mustard seeds that popped with each bite. It was drizzled with what looked like yellow mustard but was actually a habanero salsa disguised with the addition of yellow bell peppers and yellow mustard. Sanchez co-created the salsa and the taco with kitchen manager Brandon Lee. “I like my colors,” Sanchez said. “I like stuff to catch your eye.” Sanchez called the slice of pickled red jalapeño the cherry on top.

Over in San Antonio, Taco Chronicles chose its subject well with 2M Smokehouse. Owners Joe Melig and Esaul Ramos have a style of barbecue all their own, and they are popularizing a newer form of barbacoa, a dish with a rich history and a deep tradition in both Texas and Mexico. Rather than cooking whole cow heads, 2M uses only HeartBrand beef cheeks. Traditional barbacoa is cooked in a subterranean pit with wood coals and a thick layer of maguey leaves to cover the meat. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Q, in Brownsville, is the only restaurant in Texas that still cooks barbacoa in the ground, while all the other places steam or braise their beef. 2M brings back the wood-cooking tradition of barbacoa, but with the post oak in an offset smoker. The joint trades out maguey leaves for banana leaves because those are what Melig’s family used for its backyard barbacoa, and he enjoys the flavor. The leaves also protect the edges of the beef cheeks from drying out. The barbacoa is only served at the restaurant the first Sunday of every month (that’s this coming Sunday, people!), so I’ve never tried it there, but I’ve enjoyed those smoky tacos at several barbecue festivals.

If Taco Chronicles ever returns to the area, it should give some love to another smoked-barbacoa Sunday special just east of San Antonio. Burnt Bean Co., in Seguin, smokes 240 pounds of beef cheeks every week for its Sunday-only breakfast. But the first iteration of the menu didn’t say “barbacoa.” Ernest Servantes Jr., who co-owns the restaurant with David Kirkland, first listed the dish as “tatema,” the name he used for smoked beef cheeks in his hometown of Uvalde. In fact, in his first year attending Southwest Texas State (now Texas State), in San Marcos, a friend asked if Servantes wanted to get some barbacoa. To his friend’s astonishment, Servantes didn’t know what the word meant, even though he’d been eating it his whole life.

I first encountered the word “tatema” in Mario Montaño’s 1992 dissertation, “The History of Mexican Folk Foodways of South Texas: Street Vendors, Offal Foods, and Barbacoa de Cabeza.” He said “tatema” was derived from the Aztecs’ Nahuatl word “tlatemati,” which means “to burn,” and in Spanish, “tatemar” means to roast or grill. In Texas, I’ve only seen “tatema” used to describe barbacoa in the Uvalde area, but I think it’s a useful way to differentiate between the traditional process for barbacoa that’s cooked in the ground and that of this newer version.

Servantes’s father, Ernest Servantes Sr., “has mastered the craft” of tatema, according to the younger Servantes. “That’s the treat of going home,” he says about the mesquite smoke in the air and the aroma that fills the house in the morning from the slow cooker where the smoked beef cheeks are finished overnight. “Waking up to that smell is better than Folgers coffee,” Servantes Jr. said. You can find tatema on taco menus around Uvalde, and Servantes Jr. wanted to carry that hometown tradition to his restaurant when it opened in 2020.

Servantes Jr. said Burnt Bean Co.’s process for preparing beef cheeks is “basically the same way we do it in the backyard in Uvalde.” He smokes unseasoned beef cheeks with post oak for seven to eight hours until the surfaces are dry. “They literally look like charcoal,” he said. Then they go into a deep pan with seasonings, onions, garlic, brisket tallow, and water. Everything is covered and placed in the oven to finish.  

Once the beef cheeks reach a certain level of tenderness, Servantes Jr. knows they’re done. He sifts through them to pick out any chunks of fat he missed in the trimming process and any bits of gristle. He calls the finished version of his tatema limpio, meaning “clean.” He eventually switched the name from “tatema” to “barbacoa” on the menu to eliminate confusion from customers. Even then, some of them weren’t convinced the dish was barbacoa. The limpio presentation and the heavy flavor of smoke had some mistaking it for chopped brisket, but there’s no mistaking the richness provided by all that gelatin in the beef cheek.

In the San Antonio episode, Fermín Núñez, chef at Suerte and Este, both in Austin, made a statement that stuck with me. He explained Texas taco culture as a pyramid with three sides. One side is made up of the Mexican-style tacos made by taqueros who showcase the tacos of their homeland, the second side is breakfast tacos, and the third side is barbecue tacos. It’s amazing that restaurant barbecue tacos have come so far so quickly since Valentina’s popularized them in 2013. Zavala said he was excited to tell his restaurant’s story on Taco Chronicles and maybe drum up more business. While watching the show, he realized how proud he was to be representing Texas barbecue-taco culture. “It was Texas. It was Chicano,” he said of what he saw on the screen, adding, “[The barbecue taco] is our piece of who we are.”