Miguel and Modesty Vidal have joked that they’ll keep moving their barbecue joint farther south until they get to Miguel’s hometown of San Antonio. They first opened Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ as a food truck on Sixth Street in Austin in 2013 before heading south to Brodie Lane, then to Menchaca Road in the southern tip of Austin. They made the jump to Buda last June with a new location in the Buda Mill & Grain Co. development.
This is the first location for Valentina’s that isn’t a truck. I stopped in one Saturday soon after it opened, and the line of people waiting to order wrapped around the dining room and between the rows of long tables. I gave up, not aware of the possible shortcut. Modesty told me later that diners can order from the full food menu while sitting at the bar. “That’s the hack,” she said, though the bar seats fill up quickly on weekends.
Instead, I walked around back to see the only Texas pit room I know of that’s in a converted grain silo. I had to crane my neck to see the tops of the exhaust stacks, which are so tall they require fans to help pull the heat and smoke through the offset steel smokers below. Miguel said the stacks and the fans require more cleaning, but the smokers still work properly under the direction of pitmasters Wilmer Contreras and Gerardo Jimenez.
I took too long to return, but I went in on a recent Friday at 1 p.m. There were just a few people in line in front of me. It was long past the 11 a.m. cutoff for breakfast, which begins at 8 a.m., so the Real Deal Holyfield taco I’ve enjoyed so many times was out of the question. I had a plan of what to order, mainly the joint’s greatest hits, but then I saw the chalkboard of specials.
On Friday, Valentina’s offers a bowl of hearty fideo topped with brisket, and baby back ribs with a sausage-stuffed chile relleno. The baby backs were sweet-glazed and smoked until tender, coming easily off the bone. The spareribs Valentina’s usually serves are also available, but Miguel said he’s been offering the baby backs most evenings because they cook more quickly. The chile relleno on the side isn’t battered. The poblano is deep-fried and then grilled before getting stuffed with a spiced ground sausage, and the pepper retains some crunch.
Miguel grew up eating his mother’s fideo so often he grew tired of it, but as soon as he moved away from home, it was a dish he craved. Fideo is pasta that’s sautéed in fat before liquid is added to soften it, similar to risotto, but with vermicelli pasta instead of rice. Miguel cooks the vermicelli first in a mix of butter and olive oil before adding diced yellow onions, garlic, and a tomato mixture that’s been cooked down with salt, black pepper, cumin, and some of Valentina’s Classic Red Rub. He folds in picadillo made from brisket trimmings and tops the fideo with guacamole, pickled red onions, and four beautiful burnt ends of brisket. It’s a hearty dish, with spice and soul. “I made it the way I would want to eat it, based on my mom’s flavor profile,” Miguel said.
The pasta in the fideo can easily get overcooked if it sits in the broth too long, so each portion is made to order. When Miguel sat at the table with me, he didn’t like the look of the fideo I’d been served and proceeded to call out to a staff member to remake it in an uncomfortable dining room exchange. The second version wasn’t noticeably better, so I would have been happier to finish enjoying the first one.
I had another odd moment at the bar. An $8 margarita special was written on a whiteboard. I ordered one for me and another for my guest, plus two glasses of water. The total bill was $31, and when I asked the bartender to clarify, she said the special didn’t start until 3 p.m. (which wasn’t noted on the board), and the waters were charged as $3.25 fountain drinks. That was a surprise to Modesty as well, and she informed me that the bartender is no longer working there.
I did get to enjoy a specialty taco for free that Miguel wanted me to try. The Vidals once had another food truck called Violet Taco, and they served an arroz con pollo taco with rice and smoked chicken bound together in a gravylike sauce and topped with salsa and crema. Miguel served this one in a new corn tortilla the cooks have been making at Valentina’s. It starts with the same masa prepared for tamales, but it’s pressed and cooked on the flattop. I loved the combination of flavors, and the fluffy tortilla soaked up some of that gravy. For comparison, I also ordered an old Valentina’s standby, the smoked fajita taco, on one of the joint’s famous flour tortillas. It was just as good as all the others I remembered.
Opening a massive new restaurant comes with challenges, and in the first month at the new Buda location, a controversial tipping policy came to light. Someone shared an image on social media of an employment contract that laid out a policy that withheld tips for certain infractions. Like at most counter-service barbecue joints, no employees at Valentina’s are classified as tipped minimum wage employees making just $2.13 per hour, which is typical of servers at full-service restaurants. That caused some confusion with the public, but the policy has been changed. Modesty said the joint no longer has that policy nor that contract language.
When the Vidals made their move to Buda, they considered staying open in their previous Austin location as well. The onslaught of customers at the new restaurant made that impossible, but Miguel said Valentina’s may come back in some form in the future. The Vidals still have four years remaining on their lease on the property along Menchaca Road, and a return isn’t out of the question, though there’s no timetable for that. For now, Austinites will have to drive a little farther south to enjoy the same great food, but with air-conditioning, and folks in San Antonio won’t have to travel as far to get an Alamo City native’s creative take on Texas barbecue.
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