On the back of Arnulfo “Trey” Sánchez III’s white-and-black Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q trailer at Hop & Sting Brewing in Grapevine are the words “a family tradition since 1979.” The cursive lettering lets customers know that Sánchez isn’t some upstart inspired by the relatively recent popularity of barbecue tacos. Next to those letters, a Día de los Muertos–style calavera bandit wearing a large sombrero, bandoliers, and a beard is a clue to the trailer’s precise pedigree: Sánchez has been making Tejano barbecue since well before it was made famous by the likes of Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, which opened in Austin in 2013 and helped turn “Tex-Mex barbecue” into a food-journalism buzzword. The inspiration for the skeletal figure on the Vaqueros trailer is Arnulfo “Arnold” Sánchez Jr., Trey’s father and his pitmaster predecessor. The gunfighter getup is a reference to Arnold’s days as a trick shooter at Fort Worth’s historic stockyards.
The family barbecue tradition had its origins in the 1950s and ’60s, when a young Arnold Jr. tagged along with his dad, a deliveryman. Father and son often dropped off ice or hickory wood at barbecue joints, and Arnold was captivated. He marveled at the yellowed, smoke-stained walls, the aromas, and the employees’ work ethic. In the late seventies, he joined the competitive barbecue circuit, going on to win several grand championships. Arnold also competed in chili cook-offs. He performed poorly. Back then, he says, North Texas chili cook-off judges prized the dish’s hue, which was supposed to be a standard red color. “They were called bowls of red for a specific reason,” Arnold says. His chili never won at home, but, he says, his bolder, darker-hued chili racked up awards in South Texas.
The secret ingredient was an ancho chile–dominated seasoning purchased from Hernandez Mexican Foods on Alamo Street in what was once Dallas’s Little Mexico neighborhood. (Most of the neighborhood occupied what is now Uptown; the Hernandez store has relocated, but the Tex-Mex restaurant across from it, El Fenix, remains.) Arnold’s dad would often accompany owner John Hernandez to Mexico to purchase chiles and other foods for sale at the store. Arnold disliked crossing the border because, he says, border patrol officers often treated norteños (northern Mexicans or Mexican Americans from just north of the Rio Grande) with disdain. “They’d give you hell at the border. My dad was the one who instilled that in me. Sure enough, when we went down they’d give him crap every time. I got to where I didn’t even like to go,” Arnold says. But it was worth it for the chiles.
In 1989, Arnold opened his first restaurant, Arnold’s Texas Bar-B-Q and Chili Depot, in a converted East Dallas gas station. It was there, amid the decorations of bull skulls and saddles, that fifteen-year-old Trey learned the smoked-meat craft. To hear Arnold talk about it, his son was born for barbecue. “[Trey] had the natural ability to slice and dice like a machine,” Arnold recalls. At the time, the younger Sánchez was a drummer, and he attacked the cutting block the same way he played the snare. “He’d take two meat cleavers instead of one. And, boy, he would go to town on that block. You could hear it like a machine . . . it was going to get people’s attention,” his father says.
Sometime around 1994, the barbecue joint began selling brisket tacos on nixtamalized corn tortillas from the Dallas Tortilla & Tamale Factory. Father and son agree that—at least to their knowledge—theirs was the first restaurant in North Texas, and one of the first statewide, to sell barbecue tacos. After that, the men’s memories differ. Arnold says the barbecue tacos sold briskly. In Trey’s recollection, they were popular with the staff but not with customers. Either way, Tex-Mex barbecue wouldn’t become a trend for another twenty to thirty years. The elder Sánchez closed his namesake joint in 1999, going on to open two other spaces. He describes them primarily as venues with stages for musical touring acts; the businesses also just happened to sell barbecue.
Trey went on to become a teacher, then a stay-at-home dad, then the business manager for his wife’s dental practice. All the while, he often traveled in Mexico, cultivating a strong connection with the tacos, moles, and tamales prepared by his grandmother and aunts, and learning about other preparations. In 2018, he combined his two culinary passions by starting Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q as a catering business and then a trailer, eventually finding a home at Hop & Sting. His dad was involved in the early stages of Vaqueros, but has officially passed the barbecue torch to Trey.
Vaqueros sold tacos from the beginning. At first, the trailer was only open on Saturdays at Hop & Sting, as Trey devoted much of his time to personal delivery of large orders across the region. Then the brewery crew persuaded him to stop delivering barbecue and open his trailer more than once a week. Thursday Taco Nights were born about a year ago, thanks, in part, to COVID-19.
One of the first tacos to go on the menu was the barbecue brisket birria taco. The item was inspired by a visit to Guadalajara, where Trey went on the hunt for the best of the metropolis’s traditional foods: tortas ahogadas, carne en sugo, birria de chivo, and more. He knew he couldn’t replicate the birria and likely couldn’t sell it to his suburban Dallas–Fort Worth clientele. Trey says his father urged him not to prepare goat birria. “It might scare off people,” he remembers the elder Sánchez admonishing him.
But Trey couldn’t get the tacos off his mind. This was especially true after he saw the social-media celebrity of the Tijuana-style beef birria tacos at Teddy’s Red Tacos in Los Angeles. Trey adapted the recipe to suit his barbecue operation. He threw in some of the white cheese typically used in the griddled barbacoa tacos that tapatíos (a term for people from Guadalajara) often eat as a favorite breakfast. Trey’s version consists of smoky, juicy parcels oozing with cheese in glistening, orangey-red tortillas. The dish made it onto the menu accidentally. Trey, who sports a long, more-salt-than-pepper beard and is partial to curled-brim cowboy hats, was making his brisket birria tacos for the staff when they caught the attention of a woman in line at the trailer. She requested some. Customers behind her did too. The tacos were a hit.
Trey knows that because of the way he prepares and smokes the beef, his barbecue brisket birria tacos aren’t actually birria in the traditional sense. He’s the first to admit it. “That’s why I throw the word ‘barbecue’ in front of it,” says the second-generation Tejano pitmaster. But the consommé is the real deal. It’s rich, heartwarming, and perfect for dunking the cheesy, griddled beef tacos, which use the same Dallas Tortilla & Tamale Factory corn tortillas as Trey’s father did at Arnold’s Texas Bar-B-Q and Chili Depot. On Sundays, Trey switches to La Norteña’s gossamer, Sonoran-style flour tortillas for succulent smoked cabeza de res tacos.
Trey describes the birria taco as a gateway taco. “It’s kind of the mesh of both worlds,” he says. His preparation balances traditional Mexican influences and spices with barbecue flavors for those people who aren’t really into all the tacos. (I know, it’s troubling to think such people exist; but they do.) The birria tacos bring the flavors together well enough that customers who try them on a weekend return for Thursday Taco Night, curious about whatever else might be on the menu.
Another popular item is the juicy, crispy-edged suadero taco, made from a brisket-trimmings-and-beef-belly combo that is smoked and then braised in its own fat. The taco has a powerful beef flavor, but it’s also masterful in restraint when it comes to seasoning—even if there is a generous topping of queso fresco. That cheese is a workhorse at Vaqueros.
The other tacos are available as rotating specials. Smoked salmon tacos made a popular appearance, and Trey is thinking about bringing them back this spring. Fifteen-day brined and smoked pastrami tacos are even available on occasion. I’ve missed them on every visit, though not for lack of trying.
What I didn’t miss this time around was the taco campechano, that mixed-meat preparation born in Mexico City. Instead of the standard cecina and chorizo, Vaqueros’s open-faced campechanos are topped with Trey’s take on suadero, alongside the prickly cheddar-chipotle house sausage and diced red onions. It’s a delightful blend of old-school Mexican flavors and craft barbecue.
Even better were the tacos dorados, which are held shut with toothpicks. This method of sealing of the tortillas is an old trick, one I was glad to see employed here. I could’ve done with more than one slice of pickled jalapeño, but that’s a minor quibble. The soft, shredded chicken and cubed potato filling, plus cabbage and queso fresco, made for a gussied-up time warp to childhood. These were fun to eat.
The real star, though, was the Monterrey, Mexico–style tacos tlaquepaque, a barbacoa-filled twofer. The tacos were smothered in a brownish-red salsa—one so spicy that it might make you chuckle or hiccup—made from a base of tomatillos, árbol chiles, and guajillo chiles. Of course, Trey smokes his salsa ingredients first. As I stepped away from the trailer after ordering, I heard Trey yell out to me in Spanish, “Do you want them bathed in the salsa?” “Yes, of course. Thank you,” I replied. That’s how tacos tlaquepaque are traditionally served. It’s how they should be served. And they are fantastic at Vaqueros, conjured expertly from Trey’s childhood memories, finished with tight parallel sprinkles of queso fresco and cilantro and onion. This dish alone is reason enough to return to Taco Night week after week.
More than tacos should draw you to Vaqueros’s Taco Night, though. Thursdays are Trey’s night to experiment—sometimes he tries smoked pozole or tamales. Often his best ideas arrive in the middle of the night. “Whether it’s 1:30, 2 a.m., it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to roll out the tacos dorados tonight or whatever it is,’” he explains.
That’s how he came up with the tender and zesty guajillo-rubbed chicken quarters. They’re served over a mound of roughly mashed potatoes that is sweetened with cashews and infused with salsa macha. The dish isn’t quite like anything else you can find in Texas, and that’s just fine with Trey. “I cook what I like,” he says. What Trey likes in tacos is a beautiful addition to the Tejano barbecue taco scene.
At Hop & Sting Brewing Compan
906 Jean, Grapevine
Hours: Thursday–Friday 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday noon to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.