Eduardo Casas knew he was doing more than repurposing an old building into a new restaurant when he opened SMOKE: Texas BBQ & Watering Hole.
SMOKE BBQ would be housed where the Rainbo Bakery held forth on Harrison Avenue in Harlingen. Rainbo was a mainstay Harlingen business for over seven decades. Memories run long in the city when it comes to the iconic bakery.
“My idea in opening here was to incorporate the history of the building in the business,” said Casas, a La Feria native. “I felt a responsibility to do it because in Harlingen, it seems like everybody knew someone who worked at Rainbo.”
History came alive when SMOKE BBQ opened in early 2018. Streams of former employees and their families walked in to see what had become of the old bakery. Casas was expecting personal reconnections, but it was more than he expected.
“An older gentleman who worked here for many years was brought in by his family,” Casas said. “He had suffered a stroke, and when he came in and saw everything, it was very emotional. I was moved.”
It took Casas two years to rework and refurbish the old Rainbo building.
The landmark Harlingen structure had been vacant in recent years. There was plumbing and air conditioning work to do. The restaurant would need more bathrooms. The original floors were kept in place. Casas then began the creative work of designing the restaurant to visually combine the history of the bakery with that of Harlingen. It was a natural fit in Casas’ view.
“This building is too historic to be used for industrial,” Casas recalled telling a business acquaintance who at the time owned the abandoned Rainbo building. “I think a BBQ place there would be great.”
It turns out Casas made the right call.
The Valley Baking Company opened its new facility on Harrison in Harlingen with much fanfare in December 1930.
The local newspaper was all in on the significance of the moment.
“Giant Neon Sign To Shed Its Rays For Miles Around” is how one headline in the Valley Morning Star described it. The $300,000 plant boasted of having the largest bakery sign in Texas. The entire Rio Grande Valley was invited to a three-day grand opening event that included an orchestra with space cleared for dancing to celebrate the festivities.
“The baking plant ranks as one of the largest and most modern in the South,” the Valley Morning Star reported.
After all of the hoopla subsided, it was time to get the business going. For generations it was the hardworking and loyal bakery workers who maintained and operated Rainbo. Casas knew this first hand because the father of one of his high school football coaches worked at Rainbo for 30 years. It’s part of what motivated him to host a special celebration in March 2018 that served as a reunion for former bakery employees.
Casas hoped to hold such an event yearly, but those plans are shelved for the time being. He’s not stopping, however, in his efforts to pay homage to the Rainbo employees of yesteryear. Casas intends to dedicate a wall at SMOKE BBQ that will have bricks with the names of the bakery’s workers. As the restaurant’s Facebook page puts it, such a wall is a way to preserve “the history of the people who worked here and their contributions to the history of Harlingen.”
Featuring Harlingen & Great Food
Local history is featured when you walk into SMOKE BBQ and see Harlingen’s history on its walls.
Artwork on one wall features an H-E-B delivery truck – circa 1940s – in front of a local warehouse to signify that one of Texas’ largest grocers once had its headquarters in Harlingen. Next to the truck is a Valley Baking Company visual that says, “Butter-Nut Bread Twenty Products But Only One Quality.” On the south end of the spacious restaurant, there’s local football history featured in the form of Bird Bowl I. It marks the first time Harlingen High and Harlingen South played against each other in September 1993.
“My goal is that every time you come here you see something new,” said Casas, referring to all of the artwork and visual historical features at SMOKE BBQ.
The brisket, ribs, turkey and chicken shouldn’t be forgotten amidst all of the Harlingen history. A busy lunchtime crowd on a recent Friday indicates customers frequent SMOKE BBQ more for the tasty dishes than the rich history on the walls of the restaurant.