“We’re sold out of barbacoa,” Daniel Sanchez, co-owner of El Sancho Tex Mex BBQ in Mission, told me in his soft, purposeful tone. “This is the Valley. Barbacoa is king; it sells out first.” Of course I knew how quickly barbacoa is gobbled up by customers across the Rio Grande Valley, especially on weekends. But only two hours had passed since the trailer, parked behind Jitterz Coffee Roasters, opened on the Saturday I visited. Barbacoa wasn’t the only meat that was unavailable. Carnitas and sausage were also gone. All that was left was brisket. My sense of defeat was deepening and the large Americano in my hand was beginning to scald my palm.
I went with the mesquite-smoked brisket in a Truchador taco. (The brisket is predominantly served in tacos, but the other options are a breakfast sandwich and a combo plate.) The meat is fatty and sliced thickly, and the locally sourced flour tortilla is flaky. As the taco—packed with roughly blended refried beans, glistening brisket, a fried egg with a trickling yolk, and a ribbon of bacon—is lifted, the tortilla cracks. Shards arch outward from the surface but don’t fall.
The tortillas in the Mission area are smaller than the charger platter–size flour tortillas of Brownsville, but despite being just seven inches wide, El Sancho’s tortillas are unyielding. They can bear the weight of the chopped brisket, tortilla chips, salsa verde, heavy-handed queso fresco, fried egg, and avocado wedges on the El Rey taco. They’re feats of culinary skill. And these tacos exist because of the most important thing in Sanchez’s life: family. Family gave him his passion for cooking. Family helped him through the misery of a dull job. Family has made and continues to make El Sancho a thriving business.
Sanchez’s journey to becoming a taquero-pitmaster began with his grandmother. She owned a taqueria in La Joya, ten miles west of Mission. She taught him to love menudo, tamales, making flour tortillas by hand, and Mexican stews and entrées like puerco asado. They were big dishes for hearty workers’ appetites and family meals. Then, when he was nine years old, Sanchez started working at his father’s taqueria, Sabor de Mexico, in Mission. The boy grew up mastering knife skills, trimming meat, grilling, making salsas, and seasoning pork shoulder for trompos. Sanchez took on more responsibility through his teens, managing the restaurant while also babysitting his younger siblings. Sanchez says his father made top-notch tacos but struggled with business acumen, and by the time he was seventeen, the elder Sanchez had sold Sabor de Mexico. Instead of souring him on the food industry, instead of plunging him into depression, the closure solidified Sanchez’s passion for cooking.
He went on to high school and college. He met his wife, Ale, and they married when Sanchez was twenty. Shortly thereafter, the couple had their first child. The food industry would have to wait. “I’m a family man, first and foremost,” Sanchez said. “I had to make ends meet, so I started working at a computer tech company.” He worked there for thirteen soul-sucking years. “It started me on a dark path, man, thinking this was the best life had for me.” This rut, as he described it, seemed unescapable.
Then his father-in-law introduced him to the concept of the carne asada, a Mexican tradition of gathering around food, including grilled meats, barbacoa, brisket, charro beans, rice, and tortillas. Attending the carne asadas rekindled Sanchez’s passion for cooking. In August 2015, he sold barbecue chicken plates on the weekends, taking orders through Facebook and Instagram. He had no previous experience smoking meats, but he needed to revive his connection with food. Perhaps barbecue was the way out of the tech world, he thought. So, from 2015 to 2019, with the help of his father-in-law, Sanchez dug into smoked meat. From chicken, they moved to barbacoa, and eventually worked up to brisket. “We’d load the back of my wife’s SUV with plates of food to deliver,” he said. “Sometimes, we would just go door to door.”
Business flourished. Sanchez and his father-in-law began to build a food trailer. Meanwhile, Sanchez was also looking at potential sites to park the trailer. Wherever it landed, Sanchez insisted it had to serve the community. “I want to be something the people of Mission can be proud of,” he said. “This city means everything to me.” In September 2019, the owner of the coffee shop Jitterz in Mission approached the taquero-pitmaster with an offer to set up in the back parking lot. Three months later, El Sancho was slinging barbecue tacos and barbacoa on the property, slowly building its customer base via Jitterz’s long-standing popularity and its social media presence.
After my first visit, I returned early the next day and scored a barbacoa taco. It’s another hefty order bursting with shredded beef cheek and capped with avocado wedges and queso fresco. The weight of the filling gave the edges of the tortillas a frilly shape. And I tried another brisket taco, this one also filled with chicharron en salsa verde. The pork rinds stewed in green sauce balanced crunchy and tender textures. The salsa didn’t overpower either protein; rather, it imparted tart and bright flavors to the already robust taco.
Ordering these tacos might come with sticker shock—the average price is $9. That might have been enough for locals to shun El Sancho, but the impressive size of the tacos outweighs the cost. As Sanchez told me, despite the rising costs of meat, produce, and disposables, he is not going to skimp on the fillings or portions. (The smoked carnitas pozole is available in 16-ounce and 32-ounce containers.)
In 2021, Sanchez was finally able to quit his tech job in order to devote himself fully to El Sancho. He said his flexible schedule allows him to spend more time with his wife and children. The excitement was apparent in his voice. “I get to go on dates with my wife during the day,” he said. “I spend more time with our kids. I get to go to football practices and actually be a part of the team as an assistant coach. El Sancho gave me that.” In turn, Sanchez gives us some of the best Tejano barbecue tacos in the state.