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.
Left: Vera's is open only on Sundays, as the sign proclaims. Right: The drive-through at Vera's
Vera's is, indeed, a family operation, operated by Adelita, Mando, Mando Jr., Meli and Mandy. They have been in business at the same location, 26th St. and Southmost Road, in Brownsville, TX., since 1955. They are 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.
Left: The parking lot at Vera's. Right: The smokehouse that contains the brick-lined pit where the cabezas are smoked.
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.
Left: Mando shows us the pit in the smokehouse, that he has just uncovered, where the foil-wrapped cabezas have been cooking. Right: The smoked cabezas have been removed from the pit and are ready to be cut up and separated, according to the cut of meat.
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.
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 and...
Left: Vera's menu is posted outside, near the entry door. Right: Sharlene and I make our choices.
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.
Left: Adelita, Mando's charming wife, prepares our table. Right: Mando, hard at work at the counter, weighs some barbacoa for a customer. Barbacoa is sold by the pound.
We went to the counter and picked up our order: 2 pounds of cachete, 1 pound of mix, 18 flour tortillas, 2 Sprites, 4 Cokes and 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, tounge, 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.
Left: The cuts of barbacoa are separated and sold that way, or mixed, as per the customer's request. Right: We're enjoying a breakfast of barbacoa and tortillas at Vera's.
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 barbecoa and tortillas.
Photos: Barbacoa, salsa and tortillas is a traditional Sunday monring breakfast in southeast Texas, and we're partipating in the tradition.
If you like good, uncomplicated food, food that is "local" in taste and origin and like to patronize 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 Mercedes, Texas. Check out Jerry's web site for more information about southeast Texas and barbecoa. Also, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Vera's, nor did I receive any compensation for publishing this article. I am simply a satisfied customer.
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