I’m not here to tell you that I’m an authority on barbacoa. I know enough about it to be dangerous, and I’ve eaten enough of it to know that what I ate at Vera’s was something special. The funny part is that the best place to get barbacoa in Texas doesn’t have a single Yelp or Urbanspoon review. Take that however you like, but a visit to Vera’s isn’t exactly adventurous.
You can read a much more detailed version of the process that owner Mando Vera goes through to get traditionally smoked barbacoa in Smokestack Lightning, but here is the abbreviated process. Mando washes whole cow heads. These days those whole heads don’t include the brain (sesos). Brains haven’t been available commercially since 2005 due to the mad cow scare. The cleaned heads are then wrapped in foil unseasoned and placed in a brick-lined pit. Mesquite and ebony coals have been cooked down in a deep brick-lined pit where the wrapped heads are then stacked. The pit is covered with a metal lid then with dirt. The whole heads will cook in the pit for around eight hours. Until recently, this process occurred in a small building just behind the restaurant, but a fire forced the operation to move temporarily to an off-site pit until the damage can be repaired. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get to the other pit. Mando was just too tired after a very long day.
(The taco above is so beautiful that you’ll see it again in this review.)
The whole heads are then brought into the restaurant’s kitchen where they are unwrapped and meticulously cleaned by Mando and his staff. Meat is separated into cheek (cachete), tongue (lengua), and eyes (ojos), and the rest is chopped into mixta. Mando’s wife and daughters then serve it up from steam tables just behind the ordering counter. Orders are generally made by the pound with a half pound being the smallest order. They don’t serve tacos, but rather offer chopped raw onions and cilantro, raw chile pequin, a trio of hot sauces, and warm tortillas by the pack from nearby Capistran Tortilla Factory. The salsa verde with tomatillos, avocado, lime, green chiles, and cilantro was my favorite. Now it’s time to assemble.
Vera’s is unique in Texas. Due to health codes, there is not another place in the state where you can get barbacoa like this from a commercial vendor. For the most traditional backyard barbacoa, cooking with wood in a pit in the ground is the only way to do it, but the health department frowns on this sort of cooking. As long as Vera’s remains operational they will be grandfathered in and allowed to continue to cook in the old way. With no exaggeration, if this place closes it will mean the end of traditional barbacoa available commercially in Texas.
Vera’s is also a unique business model in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Most every place that serves barbacoa is either a tortilla factory or a meat market. Like Vera’s, these places usually serve it on Saturdays and Sundays only, but it’s a smaller part of a large operation. On the weekends, Vera’s is all cow head, all the time (except a sad brisket that we’ll get to later). The careful selection of another shop’s tortillas spoke of their focus rather than any sort of corner-cutting. The small building has a few tables inside, but the business (other than Nick and I) was strictly take-out. We sat for over an hour on a Saturday morning watching the crowds chat with Mando and leave with plastic bags filled with steaming meat—all of this happening while he was assembling taco after taco.
Smoked brisket was on the menu, so I had to order it, but it’s not really worth a mention here. I’ll just say, order the barbacoa.
I felt like too much of a gringo if I had just ordered the cachete, so I got a half pound of the mixta as well. The mixta was so fatty and gamey that I must admit it was hard to enjoy without the tortilla and plenty of salsa verde. I later learned that cachete is what just about everyone orders unless its gone, then you’re left with mixta. I’ll be getting cachete from now on.
I was so full on the initial visit that Saturday morning after days of eating that I was force-feeding myself. I knew Vera’s was a special place, and against my normal pattern we returned the next day with a hungry stomach. Another reason for returning was a promise from the owner, Mando. When I inquired about ojos, he said that indeed the eyes were a delicacy and that the cost is no matter to those that come in requesting them. He showed me a cooked eye, which weighed in at around a one-fourth pound each, and I asked him if he liked them. He paused with a pondering look and confessed that he’d never tried one. We then agreed that I’d return the next day, and we’d each eat our first eye together.
The next morning Nick and I sat for about an hour eating and waiting for the right moment when Mando could steal a few minutes. After a few tacos of cachete and salsa verde, we were ready for the eye. Mando brought out a small paper boat of chopped meat. I had envisioned dangling the eye over my mouth and taking a large bite, but Mando said this was only going to happen if a tortilla and some salsa was involved. We quickly wrapped the gooey meat into a tortilla, feigned a tortilla toast, and chowed down. Eyes are a muscle, so it tasted about like a gamier version of the mixta, but it was hard to get over the unstable texture that offered no resistance. I think Mando and I were both glad we split the eye, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless. We had only a minute or two to laugh about it before Mando went back to deal with the unceasing line of hungry Texans.
After two days of eating this barbacoa and a couple of hours of watching Mando’s daughters enjoy it at one of the dining room tables, I came up with my preferred method for eating it. The cachete is rich like any fatty cut of beef would be but a hint of the smoke has kissed the meat as well. Unlike the usual barbacoa that is steamed, this meat is a bit firmer and not as wet, but it wouldn’t in any way be considered dry. It’s also cooked without seasoning, so the sprinkling of a little salt is a normal and helpful addition. Place a bit of the salted meat in a warm tortilla along with some of their excellent salsa verde and enjoy, over and over and over.
It might not be the kind of Texas barbecue that you’re used to, but this sort of smoked meat has been around far longer than the smoked brisket that I love so much. It is Texas’s real native barbecue, and Vera’s is a Texas historical treasure. It’s worth a pilgrimage.
(This review originally appeared on Full Custom Gospel BBQ.)