[RGV] Barbecue, Barbacoa, and Cabrito in the Valley
I've posted a report (with photos) on a recent trip to the Valley at the link below. Here's a brief synopsis.
John Mueller's BBQ (Austin). I got stuck in traffic in Austin, so I pulled off on Manor Road to grab some barbecue at Mueller's. Ordered a half pound of fatty brisket and half pound of ribs. The ribs were okay, but nothing to write home about. (I'm not hot about the barkless, au poivre style, generally.) The brisket, however, was very good--just shy of greatness. In all, it seemed like a very respectable barbecue joint. (You Austinites have so much great barbecue around you. Can't you spare a few pit bosses for Dallas?)
Willie B's Barbecue (Alamo). Adam Graham, food critic for The Monitor (in McAllen), recommended Willie B's, in Alamo, as the best barbecue in the Valley. Most of the gringos there (including a lot of snowbirds) were ordering sandwiches. The Mexican-Americans were ordering ribs and fajita tacos. I ordered brisket, ribs, and a fajita taco. Both brisket and ribs were reasonably smoky, but on the dry side. The fajita taco, however, was quite interesting. They chop mesquite barbecued flank steak and throw it on a tortilla, giving you barbecue sauce and pico de gallo on the side. It's about two fistfuls of meat. The flank steak, like the brisket, was rather dry. But a drizzle of sauce and the pico covered for that, allowing the good smoke and beef flavors to be better appreciated. A unique and pretty darned tasty bit of barbecue.
Irma's (San Juan). I'd read that Irma's had Bill Clinton's favorite tacos. Went there and ordered the "tacos especiales." While I waited, I munched on some tasty freshly fried tortilla strips (from house-made white corn tortillas), accompanied with a trio of salsas (i.e., chile de arbol, avocado/cream, and pico). The large tacos, when they arrived, were filled with fajita meat and cheese, with guacamole and frijoles charros on the side. Not the best fajita tacos I've ever had, but this was still an agreeable, above-average comfort food dish. I'd be interested to try some of their other menu items.
Johnny's Pit Barbecue (Pharr). Okay, Johnny's was one of the main food-related reasons for my trip to the Valley. Chapter 9 of Robb Walsh's "Legends of Texas Barbecue" mentions Johnny's as one of the last bastions of true barbacoa in Texas. Almost all barbacoa served in taquerias and restaurants across the state is steamed or braised either stove-top or in the oven. Often, extraneous flavor elements are added to the mix (e.g., chiles or onion). And, in many instances, they'll use more efficient cuts of meat, rather than the cow's head. But Johnny's, according to Chapter 9, did it right. Well, I regret to inform you that Johnny's doesn't do it at *all.* According to Johnny himself, they haven't done barbacoa for years. So you might want to make a note in your copy of Walsh's book that true barbacoa at Johnny's is no longer an option. (And, since there were no customers there at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon and the meat under the heat lamps wasn't looking promising, I didn't bother to order any of the more conventional barbecue.)
Tupinamba (Reynosa), pictured below. I went here on a tip from Theabroma, who's obscenely knowledgeable about Mexican food and restaurants. She talked up the hand-patted tortillas and fantastic beer-basted cabrito al pastor. If you go here, ask for the menu in Spanish. It's much longer and more extensive than the piddly English version. I started with empanadas de choriqueso--four nicely fried white corn emapanadas filled with a mild cheese and crumbled chorizo. Very good, for what it was, especially with some of the excellent table salsas (i.e., chile de arbol and avocado/cream, though both were much subtler and appealing than the similar salsas at Irma's). For an entree, I ordered the cabrito al pastor, choosing a cut from the pecho (including most of the rib cage and a bit of loin). Wow. I could eat this stuff all day long. Indescribably tender, succulent, and flavorful, without any gaminess. The cabrito also came with a side of delicious charro beans. The dessert I went for, a pastel de tres leches, was unremarkable. But, man, that cabrito....
Vera's Backyard Pit Barbecue (Brownsville). Walsh doesn't mention Vera's in the text of his book. Vera's doesn't make his lists of joints at the end. The only clue is in the caption of the photo on the page before Chapter 9's text begins. I found an address for Vera's in the phonebook and decided to check it out. When I arrived, at 5:30 AM on a Sunday, the place was already quite busy. Cars were in the parking lot, as well as lined up at the drive-through. And the sign out front said, in Spanish, that the barbecoa was done in a pit with mesquite. Bingo! I went in and waited my turn. The cow heads are wrapped in foil and buried with coals in a brick-lined pit in a small building behind the restaurant. After their lengthy interment, they're exhumed and then stripped into component parts for sale up front. You can get cachete (cheek), lengua (tongue), jeta (lips), ojos (eyes), or paladar (palate) separately, or in a mixture of any of the above. I ordered a pound of cheek and some tortillas, then sat down to eat. The meat was very tender, but not at all in a crock pot way. Moist, but not at all mushy. Flavor was clean and direct, with smoky undertones. (Im guessing the mild smokiness was a result of wrapping the heads in foil, instead of the more traditional maguey leaves, banana leaves, or burlap, all of which would allow greater smoke penetration.) Delicious stuff. Most cities' health codes prevent restaurants from doing barbacoa like this, according to Walsh. And the owner of Vera's, as well as several customers, confirmed that, to their knowledge, this is the only restaurant in Texas that still does barbacoa in the traditional fashion. (If any of you know of any other places that do it, please let me know.) Vera's is well worth a visit for anyone who happens to be in the Valley. You have to go on the weekend, though, and you have to go early, since--as with all good barbecue--once it's gone, it's gone.
Black's (Lockhart). On the drive back to Dallas, I passed through a lot of towns where I would have liked to get some barbecue. But, as it was a Sunday, most were closed. Joe Cottons in Robstown: closed. Smoliks in Cuero: closed. Gonzales Food Market in Gonzales: closed. City Market in Luling: closed. But, knowing that Black's is "open 8 days a week," I had my safety in Lockhart. I ordered a half pound of fatty brisket and one sausage ring. On my most recent prior visit to Black's, I'd found the brisket and sausage to be below their usual standards. Not so, on this day. The brisket was fantastic, moist, smoky, and flavorful. The sausage was smoky and densely packed. This was a fitting end to a weekend of good food.
More pics and details at the link below.