I’m not going to say that Tex-Mex barbecue is the future of Texas barbecue, but it’s perplexing that the pairing hasn’t been a bigger part of our past. These two Texas cuisines seem like natural partners on the plate, and now the merger is happening across the state. Grocery store tortillas have been around for a while as an afterthought option for sausage wraps and barbecue tacos, but as I wrote in an article about Tex-Mex barbecue in our December issue, “When you enjoy a slice of juicy brisket wrapped inside a warm tortilla, you’re celebrating the marriage of our two most beloved cuisines … But the current Tex-Mex wave is deepening the bond between the two cuisines in new ways.”
The recent article highlighted some of the most influential pitmasters who are bringing barbecue and Tex-Mex together, but in traveling the state I’ve found a lot more to like. I wanted to share some of the best dishes I found. Tex-Mex barbecue really has taken the state by storm, and this list is a reflection of that. Here are the fifteen best bites of Tex-Mex barbecue in Texas, starting with my top six, in order, followed by nine other bites I loved:
1. Barbacoa de Cabeza at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville
Armando Vera is the OG. The 58-year-old has been cooking whole steer heads with wood coals in the subterranean pit behind his Brownsville restaurant since he was 12. It’s the only restaurant in the country, that I know of, still offering barbacoa cooked in this way. I love barbacoa, but a recent visit to Vera’s reminded me just how special the place is. The crunchy edges on the cachete aren’t something you can get from steaming beef cheeks. Wrap the meat in a locally made corn tortilla, and top it with a few dollops of their habanero salsa, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t get to Brownsville sooner.
2. All the Tacos at Valentina’s Tex-Mex Barbecue, Austin
Miguel and Modesty Vidal started the recent conversation about Tex-Mex barbecue when they opened their Austin food truck in 2013. I sifted through all their taco options—brisket with guacamole, smoked fajitas, barbacoa, and the Real Deal Holyfield breakfast taco—to try and determine which one belonged in this slot. Maybe it’s the incredible quality of their house-made flour tortillas that makes everything inside them taste better, but I couldn’t pick a favorite. Try them all.
3. Carnitas Taco (Friday only) at Flores BBQ, Whitney
It was this taco that persuaded me to pursue this list in the first place. Valentina’s is well known, but the tacos at this little joint in Whitney aren’t far behind. Owner and pitmaster Michael Wyont makes flour tortillas with smoked brisket fat instead of lard or oil. On Fridays you can get them stuffed with his version of carnitas, which are made from a lusciously fatty portion of smoked pork shoulder. The salsas are made with vegetables smoked right alongside the pork to add an extra smoky punch.
4. Smoked Barbacoa Tacos (First Sunday of the month only) at 2M Smokehouse, San Antonio
Esaul Ramos and Joe Melig have plenty of options on the menu to satisfy your Tex-Mex fix, but you’ll have to wait until the first Sunday of the month for their best one. Admittedly, I tried this taco at the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in November and not at the restaurant (it was the first Sunday of the month!), and it was a highlight of the day. The beef cheeks are smoked, then braised within a banana leaf wrapping before they’re shredded and made into tacos. The fat and smoke and pepper all play off one another for a bite of barbacoa that can only come from a smoker.
5. Chile Relleno Sausage at Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue, Tomball
Tejas seems to offer a new surprise every time I visit. Their Tuesday special of smoked barbacoa is great, but it was this sausage that made an impression unlike any other sausage I’ve tried. It’s genius to combine the flavors of poblano and cheese with chile powder and cumin inside a smoked sausage. When you take a bite, you realize that it isn’t just reminiscent of a chile relleno—this sausage actually tastes like a chile relleno. Not bad for a chocolate shop.
6. Barbacoa Frito Pie at Micklethwait Craft Meats, Austin
Tom Micklethwait offers smoked beef cheeks on the menu every day. Sometimes you’ll find them as a taco special, but most of the time you order it like everything else—by the pound. The last time I stopped in it was to try the famous, and stunningly beautiful, brisket Frito pie. A thick slice of brisket usually gets layered over the top, but I had an idea. Could I swap out brisket for smoked barbacoa in the Frito pie? Yes you can, and I’ll never eat it with brisket again.
And here are eleven more great bites, presented alphabetically by restaurant name:
Smoked Brisket Enchiladas at Ace’s BBQ, Mission
In a South Texas strip mall, they bring barbecue and Tex-Mex together all over the menu. The smoked brisket enchiladas come covered in a red chili sauce and plenty of melty processed cheese. It’s a glorious mess. I suggest a bowl of fideo on the side.
Smoked Brisket Carne Guisada (Tuesday after 4 p.m. only) at Brotherton’s Black Iron BBQ, Pflugerville
Tex-Mex Tuesday starts at 4 in the afternoon at this Pflugerville barbecue joint. John Brotherton and Marvin Briley have created a whole series of special tacos and enchiladas, but I was most drawn to the comfort of the carne guisada. They use a mixture of raw beef and leftover smoked brisket, so it’s got that hint of smoke, but not too much.
Smoked Brisket Breakfast Taco (check pop-up schedule) at Eddie O’s BBQ, Houston
Eduardo Ortiz doesn’t have a restaurant, nor does he have a food truck. He does pop-ups around Houston at least weekly, and sometimes more often. Check his online schedule to find luscious smoked brisket tucked inside tortillas made by Ortiz’s grandmother. On a recent Saturday, mine came with a fried egg on top (cooked to order, so get it as runny as you like), and a fiery salsa.
Smoked Brisket Taco at Garcia’s, San Antonio
It seems wrong to reheat smoked brisket in a steamer, but that’s what they do for every order of the smoked brisket (or pork) tacos at Garcia’s. The beef comes wrapped in a hous- made flour tortilla with a healthy serving of guacamole. They’ll even add in an egg if you ask nicely.
Short Rib Tamale (dinner only) at Killen’s Barbecue, Pearland
Ronnie Killen recently announced that he’s opening his own Tex-Mex restaurant soon. While we’re waiting for Killen’s TMX, try some of his specialties on the Killen’s Barbecue dinner menu. I loved the brisket enchiladas, but those silky smoked short ribs inside the fluffy masa of well-made tamales were the favorite.
Smoked Beef Cheeks at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, Austin
Evan LeRoy made a bold move in Austin when he decided not to offer smoked brisket every day. His smoked beef of choice has been beef cheeks, which are on the daily menu. This food truck may have something to do with the current craze of smoked beef cheeks, and here’s hoping the price doesn’t spike. Try LeRoy’s beef cheeks on their own, in a sandwich, or served atop a halved and smoked avocado.
Smoked Chicken Enchiladas (Wednesdays only) at Meat U Anywhere BBQ, Grapevine
Tuesdays and Thursdays are for brisket tamales at this popular DFW area barbecue joint, but on Wednesdays, it’s all about enchiladas. Stuffed with smoked chicken and topped with a poblano cream sauce and a serious helping of melted cheese, they’re not your average enchilada. They come two to an order, but when you’re done you might wish you had a third.
Pulled Pork Taco (Tuesdays only) at Smoke Sessions Barbecue, Royse City
Chad Sessions was planing to add three tacos to the menu. He didn’t want to dress the pulled pork taco the same way he was doing the smoked brisket and barbacoa, so he asked his wife, Jessica, for some ideas. She chopped up some dill pickles and threw on some crispy fried onions—the ones from a can. You know what? It worked. The crunch of the onions and the acid for the pickles played well off the tender, rich smoked pork.
Smoked Chicken Taco at The Pit Room, Houston
The first time I ever heard “brisket fat tortilla” was inside the Pit Room in Houston. They’d just opened with a wide array of smoked meats on the menu, a pickle bar like none other, and composed tacos on house-made tortillas that used smoked brisket fat. The tortillas are thicker than most, and what comes inside isn’t your average taco filling, but I love the one that features smoked chicken, green chiles, whole cloves of garlic, and griddled cheese.
To conclude this list, we should have a moment of silence for the smoked brisket torta at the recently closed Kings Hwy Brew & Q in San Antonio. Can somebody out there please get a barbecue torta on the menu?