In the “it’s about time” department, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville today was named one of six recipients of an America’s Classics award by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. This honor is given annually to “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally.” Vera’s, which had been previously considered for the recognition but had never won it, will be celebrated along with other nationally known chefs and restaurants at the James Beard Awards gala on May 4 in Chicago.
Although the Vera’s Backyard name suggests classic Texas barbecue, its tasty specialty is “barbacoa de cabeza” (barbecued cow’s head) prepared the historic way: the meat buried underground in a brick-lined pit and smoked over wood coals for up to twelve hours. (Modern Texas barbecue is cooked in an above-ground pit or a smoker, and the barbacoa typically sold in taquerias and restaurants is cooked on a stove.) Vera’s is the only restaurant in the state still permitted by health authorities to use the underground method.
Vera’s was opened in 1955 by the father of the present owner, Armando “Mando” Vera, and it remains a family operation that occupies a small wooden house on a busy street. The large sign out front touts “barbacoa en pozo con leña” or “barbacoa in a pit with firewood,” and the pit room is around back.
Many of the local customers order to go, and the most popular order is cachete—cheek meat. But Vera’s cooks all parts of the cow head, including in-demand tongue and, for the brave, eyeballs. Its operating hours are limited to weekends—Friday 6 a.m.–2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 a.m.–2 p.m.—but like any good Texas barbecue joint, Vera’s closes early if it runs out of meat. Given this new national recognition, that might start happening more often.