Emilio Vargas wanted to play high school football in Texas. His father, Javier Vargas, wanted the best for his son. As a lawyer, Javier had the means to fulfill Emilio’s wish, so he arranged for the sixteen-year-old to leave Mexico City to stay with family in Georgetown and play at East View High School. Javier and the rest of the Vargas family soon joined him.

Because Javier’s Mexican attorney license didn’t transfer to the U.S., he had to take other jobs to support his family. He worked in restaurants and construction. Emilio kept bringing up the traditional Central Mexican Hidalgo-style barbacoa de borrego (lamb) he pined for—he couldn’t find it anywhere nearby.

Javier, whose father taught him how to make barbacoa when he was eight, mentioned barbacoa to Keith Sheffield, a builder he’d done some work for. He told him about the aboveground, wood- and charcoal-fired brick hornos (ovens) and the lamb meat wrapped in maguey leaves. He said he wanted to be able to cook barbacoa, like his father and grandfather, and serve it to family and friends. Sheffield was supportive, and he offered a parcel of his land just outside Georgetown, in an unincorporated part of Williamson County, to do just that. He said that if Javier and Emilio cleared out a three-sided barn filled with old tools and machinery, they could use it to cook barbacoa. “Within two days, it was spotless,” Sheffield says.

The finished horno was a bit lopsided, as the bricks did not line up properly, but it worked well enough, and everyone was happy for a taste of home. 

The barbacoa wasn’t supposed to be for anything more than an occasional family-and-friends gathering, but Javier had bigger dreams. He approached Sheffield and said, “You’re good at business. I want to start a business.” “Okay, what can I do to help?” Sheffield responded.

In March 2023, Vargas, with Sheffield as a business partner, started making and serving barbacoa under the name Barbacoa El Abuelo. Word started to get around on social media, and hungry customers lined up. The majority of patrons were Mexican and Mexican American, but Instagram food influencers also showed up.

As the business’s social media presence grew, some issues arose. First, a large Mexican restaurant chain based in Lubbock sent a cease-and-desist letter for using “Abuelo.” Then the county health inspectors took notice and said the partners didn’t have the proper licensing, according to Sheffield. The county was willing to help them through the permitting process. In November 2023, eight months after its opening day, the business closed to renovate in accordance with county regulations and rebrand. Although they didn’t have to close, the team members told me they wanted to do the right thing.

After five months, the revamped El Grandpa Mexican BBQ opened to the public the day before Easter. 

A taco de barbacoa, a taco de lengua, and a taco de montelayo.
A taco de barbacoa, a taco de lengua, and a taco de montalayo. Photograph by José R. Ralat
The hornos inside the trailer.
The hornos inside the trailer. Photograph by José R. Ralat

A long line formed before the 8 a.m. opening, and customers were eager. So were the Vargases. They invited the crowd to watch them remove the lamb—seasoned with just salt and garlic and cooked for a minimum of eight hours—from the two 3,000-pound hornos. The animals were cut into nine pieces to fit into the hornos, and as I saw my favorite part, the sweet costillas (ribs), being lifted out, I mentioned how much I loved them. Javier smiled and said, “Ah! You know your borrego.” I told him about my travels in Mexico and my experience with Hidalgo-style barbacoa across the country. I couldn’t contain my excitement.

I ordered half a pound of the costillas with some store-bought white corn tortillas on the side, as well as each of the three tacos on offer. The servings of meat in each taco were hefty, especially the lengua, which was cut into large chunks. The mixed borrego was juicy with a sneaky, pleasant gaminess. The montalayo, lamb stomach filled with seasoned offal, had an expected but not overpowering funk. It was my favorite. I sipped refreshing consommé after each bite. Although the costillas had the sweet flavor I expected—it was exquisite—the presentation was disappointing. The backside of the slab of ribs had a thin, rectangular layer of fat that was hard to remove. Nevertheless, El Grandpa is impressive.

The Vargases put the two hornos into a trailer specially made by Ennis-based Johnson Custom BBQ Smokers. Another trailer is used for ordering and final prep. The covered dining area’s corrugated roof and posts were built by the owners and employees, as were the wooden steps up to the register and the raised wooden walkway between the trailers. 

El Grandpa Mexican BBQ isn’t the only place serving traditionally prepared lamb barbacoa in Texas. But some restaurants struggle with making it legally, as health department regulations consider cooking food in earthen ovens to be unsanitary. Tres Chiles in Houston publicly advertises that it prepares in-ground barbacoa de borrego, ostensibly making it easier for health inspectors to take notice and action.

Alex Sarmiento, general manager of El Pastor Es Mi Señor, in San Antonio, had his plans to cook barbacoa in hornos approved by the city. Meanwhile, sisters Daniela and Rosa de Lima Hernández of La Santa Barbacha, in Austin, tell me they are ready to install hornos but have had trouble navigating the knotted regulations of Austin’s health department. Adrian Davila, third-generation pitmaster-owner of Davila’s BBQ, in Seguin, has been preparing lamb barbacoa in an in-ground pit for years. Several businesses in South Dallas secretly offer traditional Hidalgo-style barbacoa, but none wished to go on record for fear of city interference. 

Texas is on the precipice of a Hidalgo-style barbacoa movement, even if the centuries-long practice has to comply with local regulations. In Williamson County, that means the hornos must be mobile, even if they’re not designed to be, according to Sheffield. The Hernández sisters say their hornos would have to follow the same guidelines, but building big, heavy hornos isn’t easy, much less putting them inside a trailer. “We’ve wanted to do it for so long,” Daniela Hernández says. She hopes she and her family can make it happen sooner rather than later.

For now, at least in Central Texas, we have El Grandpa Mexican BBQ serving traditional barbacoa de borrego. “It’s the only barbacoa I know how to do,” Javier says. Emilio adds that their way of cooking the traditional cuisine while keeping the county happy is “a great revolution for the industry.”

El Grandpa Mexican BBQ
150 Haverland Drive, Georgetown
Phone: 737-444-9382
Hours: Saturday–Sunday 8–sell out