Traditional Barbacoa and Beyond at Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, TX
Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que has a certain mystique among barbecue lovers. Although it seems like every taco truck in Texas sells barbacoa, Vera's is the last commercial vendor in the country selling the traditional version of this specialty from the Rio Grande Valley. It's the real thing—whole cattle heads smoked over mesquite in an underground pit. Today most health departments in Texas cities have banned this cooking method, which is rooted in ranching traditions, but Vera's has been grandfathered in.
What I had at Vera's was like nothing I've ever had before. Located in Brownsville, at the southernmost tip of Texas on the Mexican border, Vera's doesn't have a website or any Yelp review, which only adds to its legend. Over the years, I've asked for advice about visiting Vera's. Barbecue expert Daniel Vaughn told me to get there early—"the earlier the better" (Vera's famously opens at 4:30am), but others said "it's closed" or "the owner doesn't want people from out of town going there." I had no choice but to make the long drive to Brownsville to see for myself.
My fears evaporated as soon as I set foot in the door around 6:45am. The owner, Mando Vera, put me at ease right away with his warm welcome and friendly manner. When I asked, "Why do you open so early?" he shrugged and answered simply, "It's just a tradition, that's the way it's always been done." He's routinely gets up at 3:30am to face the day.
Born and raised in Brownsville, Vera has always worked at the business that his father established in 1955. His wife and children typically work there, too, but the day I visited, his assistant Beto was helping out. Although they're open only on weekends, Vera says Sundays are the busiest days.
Holding court at his regular table, Vera can see his regulars as they exit their cars. He gives Beto a heads-up on their order before they even enter the building, calling out "dos libras y media de cachete" or "una libra de lengua." There's a sign apologizing to customers that the prices have gone up due to the drought: "The price of beef has gone up 90% in the last few years." "I'm hoping I can drop prices a little bit soon," Vera says, but still, $8.95 to $10.50 per pound for traditional barbacoa sounds more than reasonable to me.
After Vera cleans the heads and smokes them in an underground pit for 8 to 10 hours, he separates the meat into cheeks, tongue, eyes, and mixta, aka everything else that's leftover. "The eyes are the most popular. We usually sell out by 9 o'clock," Vera says. "We call it Mexican caviar," he laughs, noting its reputation as a delicacy.
Vera sensed my interest, so he scooped an eye out of the steamer. It was even larger and more intimidating than I expected, but he assured me that they removed the eyeballs before smoking. I took a deep breath and bit into it. The texture was sticky, almost gluey. It was all muscle—not dry, but also not at all moist. The flavor wasn't so bad, but it still wasn't my favorite thing to eat before 8am.
"But me, I like the mixta the best." Mando says. I have to agree—the finely chopped mixta is the most flavorful of all the categories. I wouldn't call the meat gamey at all, but it was the most savory and flavorful, and I appreciated the crispy bits distributed throughout. In contrast, the smoked cheeks disintegrated into long shreds with a delicate smokey crust. The meat was firm and ultimately had the vague flavor of a good pot roast, without any of the heaviness that I usually associate with barbacoa.
Although I enjoyed some the larger pieces of tongue that were still intact, most of it turned to mush during the smoking process. All of the meat had an unmistakable mesquite flavor with a pervasive smokiness that was slightly sweet and metallic. If I were to eat this meat plain with just a fork, it would definitely need some salt. But eaten the way it's supposed to be eaten, in taco form with fresh salsa and corn tortillas, it's just about perfect.
After I'd eaten the barbacoa, Vera eagerly took me into the kitchen to show me a pot of simmering carnitas. He dropped a few of the golden nuggests, still dripping with lard, into a paper boat. I let them cool, and then bit into one—it was crisp on the outside, and oozing in the middle. I told him they were the best carnitas I've ever had, and he assured me the secret is completely immersing them in the lard. "That's what some of my customers told me, and we give them what they want."
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Later this summer Vera plans to drive his daughter back to school in the Midwest. As his kids grow up and leave Brownsville, I can't help but wonder how long this unique operation will stay in business. The old smokehouse on the property is currently undergoing renovations, and barbacoa is being smoked off-site. Vera didn't seem optimistic that it would be completed soon. Should you find yourself in Brownsville someday, be sure to stop by Vera's before 9am. You'll want to try everything, because who knows when you'll have the chance again.
Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que2404 Southmost Road, Brownsville, TX 78521 (map); 956-546-4159
About the author: Meredith Bethune is a writer, blogger, and sausage and bacon maker. She is currently living in Austin and learning about the wonders of barbecue and chicken-fried steak. Follow her on Twitter (@MeredithBethune).