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Behind Backyard Bar-B-Que's James Beard Award-Winning Barbacoa

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Barbacoa is an ancient method of cooking. Dig a hole, pour in hot coal, set the meat, smoke until tender. In South Texas, this is the traditional method to cook whole beef heads. One establishment in Brownsville is so esteemed for its savory barbacoa, it won a prestigious James Beard Award last year. NPR's John Burnett takes us to Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The restaurant is a little yellow house about a mile from the twisting Rio Grande, where the Vera family has been preparing barbacoa for the last 65 years. It's only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you need to know how to order. So I asked Brownsville native and taco connoisseur Letty Fernandez to order for us.

LETTY FERNANDEZ: Some corn tortillas and cilantro and then - so one pound of cachete. Maybe - do you like the lengua? It's mixed up with the cachete, which I think is good.

BURNETT: The cachete is cheek meat - lengua, the tongue. Other parts - the palate, eyes and sweetbreads - are also on the menu. The meat is shredded to the consistency of pulled pork. You tuck it into a warm corn tortilla with onion, cilantro and a spoonful of fresh salsa ranchera. This is ranch food - simple, cheap, intensely flavorful - made from the discarded parts of the animal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And cilantro is yours.

FERNANDEZ: Yes.

BURNETT: We walk from the dining room to the smokehouse out back. In the center is a brick-lined pit, seven feet long, filled with triangular foil-wrapped cow heads.

ARMANDO VERA: This is where the magic happens.

BURNETT: The owner is 60-year-old Armando Vera. He's stout, wearing a hunting cap and a black COVID mask, the son of founders, Alberto and Carmen Vera. They started selling barbacoa from the front of the house when they lived in the rear. But the tradition goes way back.

VERA: Barbacoa, actually, it's something that's done in the - originated in the ranches in Mexico. You know, you dug a hole in the ground. And the beef head, you put it in the ground, and you cook it overnight - about 10 or 12 hours overnight.

BURNETT: Vera's is believed to be the last restaurant in Texas to cook barbacoa the old-fashioned way, in a pit. This subterranean style of cooking is how barbacoa became the root of the word barbecue. At Vera's, they have to burn mesquite wood down to charcoal. That alone takes eight hours.

VERA: It's a lot of work. The prep is three or four days. My salsa, just getting the salsa going is about a day and a half.

BURNETT: Last winter, he received a call from Chicago. It was the James Beard Foundation informing him that Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que had been selected for an America's Classics Award. They were going to fly him to Chicago all expenses paid for the ceremony.

VERA: I didn't even know what it was. They called twice, and I hung up on them twice. I didn't know what it was.

BURNETT: The Beard Foundation had to get in touch with the Brownsville mayor, Trey Mendez, a Vera's regular, to convince Armando Vera.

TREY MENDEZ: And he thought it was just a scam phone call. So he stopped answering and didn't believe it was true. And I said, no, Armando, this is real. It's legit. It's a big deal, and you need to call them back.

BURNETT: Since all the publicity surrounding the award, now Vera's has customers visiting from all over Texas. Adan Medrano has driven down from Houston to join us. He's a food author, historian and filmmaker.

ADAN MEDRANO: I love the cheeks, the beef cheeks that we had with the salsa ranchera. It was delicious.

BURNETT: His film about Indigenous cooking, titled "Truly Texas Mexican," will be released in March. He's got a cookbook out by the same name.

MEDRANO: My dad used to make with my mother this barbacoa de pozo. Barbacoa de pozo is traditional. It's iconic to our culture, really, the Mexican American culture of South Texas and northeastern Mexico. So it takes me back.

BURNETT: You can find barbacoa on the menus of some serious Mexican restaurants, but the beef heads are cooked in big kettles on a stovetop, not underground. Medrano says the tradition is now being kept alive, mostly by backyard cooks.

MEDRANO: So long as there are people who are passionate about this, it will not end. People in Houston and in San Antonio actually dig holes in their backyard to this day and make this barbacoa de pozo.

BURNETT: Because that's the way their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did it. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.