Ramiro “Ram” Vargas was in rough shape in 2015. His doctor told him kidney failure was imminent. Ram, 31 years old at the time, was 400 pounds, and would need to lose half of his weight before he’d be eligible for a kidney transplant. He had gastric sleeve surgery for weight loss, and was put on dialysis. Ten months after his surgery, Ram was down to 145 pounds, but he was still spending twelve hours a day in dialysis, and the medical expenses were piling up. He couldn’t work at his previous job with the state, so in his limited free time Ram and his wife, Nidia, cooked smoked chicken plates for sale. “My main goal was never to be in barbecue or start a business,” Ram says. “I just wanted to live.”
The fact that Ram is still alive, let alone operating the year-old Vargas BBQ, in Edinburg, is something he says happened only “by the grace of God.” He never got a transplant, and he quit dialysis in 2018 after a medical mishap at the facility. Ram’s doctor told him that he wouldn’t live much more than a month if he stopped getting the treatment. He’s still beating the odds, but the trauma sent Ram into a deep depression. He sought therapy and started taking Xanax, which, he says, came with the side effect of suicidal thoughts. Terrified for himself and his family, he quit taking the medication and turned to the church. “I found Jesus Christ, and I got healed,” he says.
Ram dedicated his life to church and family. “He just let go of everything,” Nidia recalls. She encouraged him to pursue his barbecue hobby. He already had a smoker. A friend at church gave him a second, and he learned to cook barbecue through online videos, books, and trial and error. “I burned a lot of barbecue,” Ram admits. He eventually found success in some local competitions, and the couple started selling smoked meats out of their home. They gained a following, and a year ago they leased a restaurant space in Edinburg. They had so little to start with that they begged the landlord to lease them just half the building. After the first month, they brought in enough revenue to lease it all. Business has grown steadily since.
Nidia’s journey to co-owning a barbecue joint is no less astonishing than her husband’s. The stress of raising a family (they have three children) and being the sole breadwinner during Ram’s treatment took a toll. She was also overweight, she says, which brought its own distress. Because of their sizes, “we were the black sheep of the family,” she says, and her physical heath was suffering as well. She went through the same weight-loss procedure as Ram, and her other ailments eased considerably. She was in a better place, but if they wanted a family-run restaurant, she needed to learn how to cook.
“She couldn’t even make rice,” Ram says of the time when they started making those early fundraiser plates. Remembering Nidia’s first batch of thoroughly undercooked menudo, he says, “I couldn’t swallow, it was so bad.” Menudo is now one of her specialties. She learned by finding recipes for sides and desserts she liked and making them her own. When the restaurant opened, Ram handled the smoked meats, but everything else fell to her. Now, her brisket fideo and green spaghetti are as popular as the barbecue. “Even my mom asked, ‘Who taught you how to cook?'” Nidia says, laughing.
Nidia now has some assistance in the kitchen from chef Matthew Aleman, who helps produce the massive menu. Nidia is trying to get all of her recipes down on paper so he can re-create them, and would eventually like to focus more on the business side of the restaurant than the kitchen. “We don’t even have a sign yet,” she says.
They don’t have a dining room either. For now, customers place their orders online or over the phone, and line up in their vehicles outside the restaurant for curbside service. The Vargases are working to build a patio for covered outdoor seating, and they’ll renovate the existing dining room later. When I visited, they moved a table outside so I could photograph my tray of food before eating.
Well, really, I had started eating a few hours before then. The Vargas BBQ breakfast menu is served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and lunch service begins at 11:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., or earlier if they’re sold out. I was there at opening time to get a Big Mig taco. It’s named in honor of the Vargases’ friend Miguel de los Santos, who gifted them firewood for several months. It might as well have been an homage to Miguel Vidal, the owner of Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, who created the Real Deal Holyfield breakfast taco the Big Mig is modeled on. Refried beans and fried potatoes are topped with salsa verde, a generous slice of smoked brisket, bacon, and a runny fried egg. That all rests on a flour tortilla made by Nidia with beef fat from the brisket trimmings.
When I came back for lunch, I already knew the brisket was good, but I enjoyed a few more juicy bites from the fatty side. The pork ribs were properly tender, with great flavor from the oak smoke and the house rub, which goes on everything. It includes salt, black pepper, garlic and onion powders, paprika, and cayenne. You’ll also find the rub sprinkled atop the creamy mac and cheese and providing an orange hue to the potato salad, which features a mayo and mustard dressing.
Ram taught himself how to make sausage and offers three versions daily. I tried the classic beef and the jalapeño-cheddar. They both had great color and snap, and were plenty juicy. The less conventional jalapeño popper sausage was dotted with cream cheese in hunks so large that its flavor dominated the bacon and jalapeños.
They do well with the basics at Vargas BBQ, but it’s the barbecue that speaks to its region that has me excited to return. First on the agenda will be the smoked beef cheek barbacoa (Saturday only) and the mollejas, which I missed. Among the regional items I tried this time, Ram’s smoked fajitas could have used a better sear to finish them, but I loved the slices of well-smoked meat wrapped in a tortilla. Nidia developed a consommé recipe based on her menudo broth that works well for the birria tacos stuffed with chopped brisket and melted mozzarella.
Sides include an award-winning charro bean recipe, cream corn, and broccoli cheese casserole. A fan favorite that was recently promoted to the everyday menu is the green spaghetti. It’s a dish that’s not often served in restaurants in the Valley, but is reserved for events like quinceañeras and weddings. I’d gladly welcome it into the Texas barbecue pantheon. It looks like spaghetti mixed with pesto, but its sauce is actually a mix of pureed jalapeños, poblanos, and cilantro blended with cream cheese and sour cream. I couldn’t get enough. Nidia’s brisket fideo is a meal all its own, featuring ground brisket (not smoked) in a rich broth. She says the key is not to overcook the pasta. She promises it’s a long way from the fideo she used to make for her kids with dry seasoning packets from the store.
The food the Vargas family is producing is great, especially given their complete lack of cooking skills just a few years ago. They’re building a joint that will please the smoked brisket diehards, while also shining a light on the cooking traditions of their region. And everything is infused with their own identity, which has been shaped by struggle and rebirth. Nidia’s version of capirotada is an example. She offers the dessert only during the lenten season. It’s an unusual hybrid of bread pudding and trail mix topped with shredded cheese. Nidia uses orange rather than traditional white cheese because that’s what her mother uses. She prefers peaches to bananas because the latter turn gray, and she can’t choose between pecans, almonds, and peanuts, so she includes them all, along with raisins. The massive slab will fill you up, so take it home to share.
Because of their weight-loss surgeries, neither Nidia nor Ram can enjoy a plate of their own barbecue. “I love to produce it, and I love to see people eat it,” Ram says, but once he’s done sampling a few bites for quality control, he’s full. The same goes for Nidia. “God gave me a gift,” she says of her recently discovered cooking prowess, so it wouldn’t be right not to share it. The couple finds their rewards elsewhere. “Life has turned around for us,” Nidia says. “We’re business owners.”