Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville, Texas

I recently wrote up five Texas barbecue places from the Hill Country. (Scroll to the end of the page.) Vera’s offers another face of Texas barbecue spots, the Rio Grande Valley. I’ve had one blog post (here), and that from the far reaches of the Valley, a place celebrated in song and story. Unlike the Hill Country, the Valley serves delicacies the like of which you’ve never experienced.

I haven’t made it to the Valley myself, but here’s a cheeky post from my eyes on the ground, our Senior Idaho, Mississippi, and South Texas Correspondents Doug Herbert and Toni Gelston. They offer a report on a tongue-tickling barbecue place with a unique — literally unique — menu. They went down to Brownsville at the southern tip of Texas for a memorable breakfast that’ll have you licking your lips. Here from Doug —

We got here at 7:00 am for a meal I’ve been anticipating for decades — Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas. I had a trial here in the late 1980s. I was co-counsel with Eddie Rodriguez, a prominent local trial lawyer, who was later president of the Texas Bar Association.

In the period when we were getting ready for trial, I kept East Coast hours, getting to Eddie’s office around 9 or 9:30 in the morning, much to the amusement of the office staff. I noticed handwritten signs all over town saying “barbacoa – Sunday morning.” I figured “barbacoa” was Spanish for “barbecue,” so these signs were pretty exciting news for me. I mentioned to Lulu, Eddie’s secretary, that I was planning to take time off from trial prep on Sunday morning to get some barbacoa. Lulu adamantly said, “Oh no, Mr. Herbert. I’ve seen your morning schedule and by the time you got there, the only thing they would have left would be the eyes and I don’t think you’d like the eyes.”

It turns out that barbacoa means cow’s head barbecue. It traditionally is made by burying a whole cow’s head in brick-lined pits and smoking it overnight.

At the time, I did not end up getting any barbacoa, though that was more because of my last-minute trial prep fire drill than Lulu’s warning. But I’ve been eager to try tradititional barbacoa for more than three decades now. At this point, due to silly health departments, the only place that is allowed to (legally) serve barbacoa that is cooked by burying it is Vera’s, which opened in 1955 and has been grandfathered as an exemption to health department regulations.

Vera’s is only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. It opens at 5:30 am and if you get there too late they might be sold out of some of the choicest parts of the smoked cow heads. So, as I said, we got here at 7:00 am [Ed: an early hour for Doug.]

(I wish Lulu had been around to see it), and they weren’t out of any of the parts. [Ed: It’s a good looking place for breakfast.]

There was some initial confusion, as the barbacoa part of the menu is only in Spanish and the first young lady we talked to behind the counter spoke only Spanish. But soon a very friendly and helpful English-speaking young lady emerged from the back to help us order.

We got a half pound of cachete entero (cheeks and lips),

a quarter pound of molleja y jeta (sweetbreads and the jaw meat around the sweetbreads),

and a quarter pound of lengua (tongue).

The pre-tip total including a big stack of corn tortillas, pico de gallo, avocado salsa, onions and cilantro, coffee, and a Diet Dr. Pepper, was $28. They also gave us a few complimentary pieces of carnitas (grilled pork chunks).

It was all real good. My favorite was the lengua (the smokiest) and Toni’s was the cheeks and lips (the most umami).

The molleja was delicious too, but it was unlike any sweetbreads I’ve ever had. Usually they are grilled or broiled and have a firm texture. But these were soft and wet, like stewed meats – but smoky. I’d be very interested in learning how they managed to do that with a head that cooked all night. It seems like that would firm up the organ meat.

We were lucky to have a good conversation with Armando Vera,

the owner and the son of the founders of Vera’s, Alberto and Carmen Vera. Armando has been cooking at Vera’s since he was 13, almost 50 years now. We talked a lot about his restaurant and the honors it’s won (it has a James Beard American Classic Award and is always on the Texas Monthly’s definitive list of the fifty best barbecue places in Texas). We also talked about other Texas places, especially Terry Black’s.

When Armando learned we are from Virginia, he talked at length about the visit that the husband-and-wife team who run ZZQ Barbecue in Richmond had made to Vera’s a few years ago and how nice and knowledgeable they both are. He urged us to say hello to them the next time we go to ZZQ, which we will definitely do.

You may have noticed that although Vera’s was not out of any cow head parts, we did not get the ojos (eyes).

Sadly, I wimped out, fearing that Lulu was right. In my defense, Mr. Vera said that he doesn’t care for the ojos himself, though he said they are “the Mexicans’ favorite part — they’re like Mexican caviar.”

Isn’t that a great report? Will you forgive the puns in the introduction? Brownsville is well off my beaten path, but Vera’s is the sort of restaurant that warrants a special trip. I’ve had tongue in deli sandwiches and tacos, and enjoyed it, although seeing a tongue sliced gives me the willies. Like eyes and, uh, mountain oysters, it has a personal quality. Cheeks generally are fabulous, being right next to an expanse of bone — cow cheeks, pig cheeks (guanciale!), grouper cheeks, you name it. And I absolutely loved the beef mouth, which I guess includes the lips, in a salad with calf’s foot in Lyon. And breakfast is a great time for barbecue, as I’ve found at Sid’s Catering and Valentina’s Tex Mex, two superb places. You might add Brownsville to your list of winter getaways, and if you go, make it a point to go to Vera’s. Let me know about the flavor and texture of the eyes.

***

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*The five are The Original City Market in Luling, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Terry Black’s and Valentina’s Tex Mex in Austin, and Pinkerton’s in Houston.

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6 thoughts on “Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville, Texas

  1. We get down to South Padre Island once a year, and always make a pilgrimage to Vera’s. IMO the best barbacoa in the state, but don’t miss the carnitas wrapped in the house made tortillas and splashed with the avocado salsa, onions and cilantro. If anyone in ‘cue circles does it better, we haven’t stumbled upon them. This really is “must do” BBQ.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I completely agree about the carnitas (which are shown in the taco picture above). I think they’re the best carnitas I’ve ever had. South Padre is a lot more built up than I remember it from back in 1988. Way more family friendly and environment friendly too. We took ATVs jumping over the sand dunes in 1988 and had to keep a cautious eye out for the pickups whizzing by on the beach at 50 mph. Today the dunes seem well protected and although there was plenty of vehicle traffic on the beach, it was all going pretty close to the 10 mph speed limit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for posting this, John. I’d love to know why the door says they don’t have eyes but so have brains, when the opposite is true.

    I’ll bet the foot and mouth salad you had in France was made from the palate instead of the lips. They had palate on the menu at Vera’s, but there is only so much stomach space so we had to pass.

    Liked by 1 person

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