Since the closing of Mancha’s Meat Market in Eagle Pass, there is only one place in all of Texas—maybe the entire country—that still serves traditional barbacoa: whole beef heads cooked in an underground pit over wood coals. The sign out front of Vera’s in Brownsville says it all: “Barbacoa en Pozo con Leña de Mezquite,” which roughly translates to”barbacoa in a hole with mesquite wood.” The owner, Mando Vera, cooks the cabezas de vaca overnight. In the morning, he removes the meat and has it ready to serve before the sun comes up. All of the head of the cow is used: cheeks, tongue, even the eyes.
Most customers order take-out and get their barbacoa in the form of tacos. Cachete (cheek meat) is the most popular menu item. To accompany it, Vera’s offers three homemade salsas, a stack of flour tortillas fresh from nearby Capistran’s Tortilla Factory, and a container of raw chilepequins (if you’re brave enough for the burn). It’s a good idea to add salt since the cows’ heads are not seasoned; just a shake turns the tender meat into pure bliss. Because of the way it’s cooked, the meat here is a bit drier, with a layer of smokiness that you won’t find in ordinary steamed barbacoa (which is usually only cheek meat). This is a Texas treasure worth seeking out while it’s still around. It could well be the last example of a way of cooking that is very much endangered.
So why, you may be wondering, is Vera’s not on our top fifty list? After all, the BBQ Snob (aka Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn) included it in his five favorite places in his book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat. It’s a fair question and one that we struggled with. It boils down to this: barbacoa isn’t barbecue, or at least not the type of barbecue we were judging for the magazine. The Top 50 BBQ list is mainly about brisket, ribs, and sausage. Barbacoa is its own category, which is why we’re discussing it here.
At Vera’s the cow’s heads are wrapped in foil and basically steamed over coals. Smoke is involved, but mainly because it seeps in. With ordinary barbecue, smoke is the whole point. In fact, in the introduction to our 2003 barbecue story, Texas Monthly senior editor Joe Nick Patoski wrote, “And don’t get me started on barbecued crab, barbacoa, or anything grilled over flames or cooked in an oven . . . They may be delicious, but they’re not the real deal . . . It goes without saying that within this carne-copia, folks have strong individual preferences.”
So there you have it. This explanation will not satisfy everybody. But to again quote barbecue savant Joe Nick Patoski, writing in our 1997 story, “. . . if it isn’t worth arguing about, then it’s not Texas barbecue.”