Barbacoa... Let's see, that's a very popular dish in southeast Texas. It's a popular dish, especially on Sunday mornings and you see it available everywhere, you know, at places like convieience stores, gas stations and... But, what is real barbacoa like? Look to Vera's if you are hungry for real barbacoa.
As with all of my reviews, I have no affiliation with the restaurant reviewed, and there is no monetary gain on my part, as I am simply a person who likes to eat, and I love to write-up, and publish my dining experiences.
Photo: Vera's is open only on Sundays, as the sign proclaims. You need to get up early to get your barbacoa, as often, they run out of meat before noon. It's late Sunday morning, September 28, 2003, and we're ready to enjoy some "old school" barbacoa at Vera's.
Photo: Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que is a Brownsville icon, as it is the ONLY remaining restaurant in Texas, or for that matter, the entire U.S.A., that still makes barbacoa the "old-school" way; in a pit. Vera's has been smoking barbacoa in a pit since 1955.
Vera's is, indeed, a family operation, as the business is operated by Adelita, Mando, Mando Jr., Meli and Mandy. This is a rather unique operation in that they cook the barbacoa in a mesquite-fired pit, in the ground. There are only one or two other operations in the state of Texas that cook barbacoa this way. Since mesquite implants such a delicious taste into the meat, you may wonder why more barbacoa isn't prepared this way? The reasons: It is labor intensive (Mando Jr. says they start on Thursday) and the health police don't think it's sanitary to cook food in the ground. Mando Jr. is able to operate under a grandfather clause. Most barbacoa in Texas is cooked in the oven or a crock pot, not in a brick-lined pit like Vera's is.
Photo: The smokehouse that contains the brick-lined pit where the cabezas are smoked. We actually visited the restaurant on Saturday, in order to get a look inside the smokehouse, where the friendly owner/pitmaster, Mando Vera, graciously gave us a tour of his one-of-a-kind operation.
Vera's Backyard has had many articles written about their operation, mostly among the Texas BBQ circuit, most notably in the book "Smokestack Lightning" (author, Lolis Elie and photographer Frank Stewart.) As I mentioned before, their operation is unique. Vera's has one mission in life: Barbacoa. Barbacoa is a generic word in Spanish for "barbecue," but in this part of the country it means a slow-roasted cow's head separated into various cuts and served with tortillas and salsa for breakfast.
Photo: Mando shows us the pit in the smokehouse, that he has just uncovered, where the foil-wrapped cabezas have been cooking.
Photo: The smoked cabezas have been removed from the pit and are ready to be cut up and separated, according to the cut of meat. This work is typically done on Saturday afternoon, as the meat is sold on Sunday morning. Barbacoa is traditional Sunday morning breakfast in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
The preparation of the food begins with the fire. The smokehouse-annex is located In back of the main restaurant. It is a rather unpretentious building, constructed of corrugated metal. The annex portion of the complex is dedicated to the purpose of cleaning the meat, and wrapping the meat in aluminum foil before placement into the brick-lined barbecue pit.
Photo: The brick-lined pit has been uncovered and the foil-wrapped cabezas (cow's heads) are still in the pit. It's late Saturday afternoon, and the meat won't be sold until early tomorrow morning.
So we pulled into Vera's parking lot in search of barbacoa on Saturday, but they were closed. Their business card advertises that they're open on Saturday and Sunday, but in reality, Saturdays are reserved for take-out orders, ordered in advance and Sunday is reserved for the drive-up, take-out and dine-in (most folks prefer to dine out) crowd. But as we were about to leave, we noticed that the door to the smokehouse was open. Jerry and I, not being the bashful sorts, basically walked in and introduced ourselves.
In the smokehouse, Mando was tending the pit, as we walked in and introduced ourselves. Not the shy type, Mando explained the workings of his operation and allowed us to photograph the smokehouse and the preparation area in the annex. We promised that we would be back the next day, (Sunday) to feast on barbacoa.
Ok, now lets fast-forward to Sunday morning, September 28, 2003...
Photo: Sharlene and I point to the menu choices, that are posted outside of the restaurant. Contrary to what we're pointing to, the general choice was "mixta," which is a mixture of everything.
When you walk into the restaurant, you can tell that their main business is takeout, as there are only a few picnic-style tables and even fewer benches. The decor of the restaurant could be described as "earthy" or plain, but clean and unpretentious, as are many of the family-owned and run businesses in this part of the country.
Photo: It's late Sunday morning, and Mando Vera and his wife, Adelita, owners of the restaurant, are taking orders for barbacoa from us, and other customers. Most of the business is take-out, as the inside dining facilities are primitive, at best. Most customers purchase barbacoa by the pound, take it home, and enjoy it after church.
Photo: Adelita Vera, Mando's charming wife, prepares our table. Our "table" was a picnic table, and our amenities were plastic utensils, paper napkins and styrafoam cups. Vera's does most of their business on take-out orders, so dining room amenities are spartan.
Photo: Mando, hard at work at the counter, weighs an order barbacoa for a customer. Barbacoa is sold by the pound, and slightly over a pound of barbacoa registers on Mando's scale.
We went to the counter and picked up our order: 2 pounds of cachete, 1 pound of mix, 18 flour tortillas, 2 Sprites, 4 Coca Colas and in-house made salsa for garnish. Total cost of six people? Just under $25.00. I might add that the meat is served in a paper rectangular throw-away bowl covered in aluminum foil, the tortillas are in a plastic package, and the salsa is in small plastic containers. No cloth napkins here! A roll of paper towels on the table will work just fine. The sodas come out of an ice chest on the floor; the fridge is used to cool whatever meat isn't sold, not for sodas and for ice. Did I ever mention that this place isn't pretentious? Now comes the fun part: Dig in, pig out, and enjoy! That we did. If you have ever have had barbacoa the old-fashioned, low tech method, the way Vera's does it, you'll never want to go back to the crock-pot stuff. This barbacoa just shouts flavor at you, but is not overpowering or overly smoky flavored; it has a taste that strongly suggests of pot roast. It is just plain delicious. Jerry and I especially liked the "mixta," as the flavor was a little stronger and had a slightly "rustic" taste, but the others liked the cachete as it was so tender that it would just melt in your mouth. (Note to the less adventurous: The "mix" or "mixta" contains cachete, lengua, cestos and ojos; (that's Spanish for cheek, tongue, brains and eyes; all the good stuff.) Vera's doesn't make the tortillas, but they purchase them fresh from a local company, and they taste the way a tortilla should taste.
Photo: The cuts of barbacoa are separated and sold that way, or mixed, as per the customer's request. This is a look inside the kitchen, just over the counter. Note the ice chests in the background of the photo, where the soft drinks are kept, as Vera's doesn't enjoy refrigeration. This fine restaurant is as "old school" as it gets.
Photo: We're enjoying a breakfast of barbacoa and tortillas at Vera's. We're a few of the rare "in-house" diners, as most barbacoa is sold as take-out. Notice the "no frills" utensils, including aluminum foil, styrafoam cups, paper towels and plastic forks.
All of us ate our fill and we still had almost a pound of meat and a few tortillas left over to take home and enjoy at a later time.
I think that the next time I eat at Vera's, I will take my food home and use my own homemade salsa cruda to eat with the barbacoa and tortillas.
Photo: Barbacoa, salsa and tortillas is a traditional Sunday morning breakfast in southeast Texas, and we're participating in the tradition.
Photo: Barbacoa, along with salsa and flour tortillas, is enjoyed by all of us. Note the lack of amenities, as we're dining on picnic tables, enjoying our soft drinks from styrafoam cups, and using paper towels as plates. The barbacoa is served in aluminum foil. Truly "no frills" dining on this Sunday morning at Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas.
If you like good, uncomplicated food that is "local" in taste and origin and you enjoy patronizing a local, hard-working business, and like to get mucho "bang" for your buck, Vera's is for you! Did I not mention that you'll get the best barbacoa that you've ever had? When we visit this part of the country again, we will be back for more.
One last note is that I didn't take all of the photos published on this page. Most of the photos were taken by my long-time friend Jerry Flinn, of Bay City, Texas, who is a fellow "foodie," and a great fan of anything Texas, especially when it comes to great food.
Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que
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