Texans love their barbecue. Whether grilling or smoking meat in the back yard, or visiting a favorite eatery, barbecue aficionados’ varied tastes and favorite cooking methods can spark lively debates as to what makes the best of the best. They may even argue about the correct spelling: barbecue, bar-b-que or simply BBQ.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where dozens of restaurants large and small specialize in classic Texas barbecue, only a handful have been recognized as being in the Lone Star State’s top 50 barbecue joints by Texas Monthly magazine. The most recent listing includes three in the Valley.
Starting in the lower Valley, Mando Vera continues a family tradition of serving up his specialty, barbacoa. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que on Southmost Road in Brownsville was first opened by his father in 1955. “I was born into this,” he said. “I started doing this with my dad when I was a kid.” An old black-and-white photograph of his father in military uniform still hangs over the cash register. Vera’s wife Adela, a school teacher, also dons an apron to help out on Saturday and Sunday.
Vera’s process starts with wrapping whole cow heads in foil and then smoking them in an underground pit over mesquite coals overnight for 12 hours, so fall-off-the-bone tender meat is ready when the restaurant opens at 4:30 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To meet modern health codes, most commercial barbacoa is steamed or done in pressure cookers. But the Vera family’s Vera’s old-school cooking method was grandfathered in, setting his barbacoa apart from others.
Customers can order lengua (tongue), mixto (everything) or cachete (cheek). There’s nothing fancy about the presentation, with the barbarcoa served up in paper containers with corn tortillas on the side, along with cilantro, onions and a variety of salsas. Texas Monthly calls the barbacoa “terrific tucked into a fresh corn tortilla along with Vera’s tangy avocado-jalapeño salsa.”
Vera’s customers start arriving early to secure their weekend fix of their beloved barbacoa, and Vera even offers drive-through pick up. The small restaurant’s offerings are not limited to the cow’s head meats, as Vera’s also serves brisket, carnitas and other traditional meats through lunch, closing at 2:30 p.m.
Up the road in Harlingen, Daniel and Stephania Wright were already fans of the Rio Grande Grill when on a walk through downtown they passed the restaurant and spotted a for-sale-by-owner sign in the window.
Stephania, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, and Daniel, with a background in media, had talked about someday opening a restaurant. Seeing the sign triggered an impulse. “We can’t afford it but let’s just do it,” Daniel said about their quick decision to buy Rio Grande Grill five years ago from Ben Rushing, who had opened the place five years prior to that.
“We stayed true to the concept but we changed a few methods,” Daniel said. Texas Monthly wrote that they “break the rules with the food too, even battering up the smoked chicken to make the best of both worlds: crispy fried smoked bird.” But the Texas mainstay barbecue offering is brisket, smoked overnight over mesquite coals, sometimes with some pecan wood added to the fire.
The brisket is served up sliced on a wooden cutting board with homemade sides like potato salad and cole slaw, as well as a house barbecue sauce and a tangy chimichurri. The brisket also takes on other roles in tacos and enchiladas.
Rio Grande Grill recently added breakfast tacos and a coffee/espresso bar, extending the hours to be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Rio Grande Grill will continue to grow and evolve, the Wrights said. Soon they will open up part of a wall to expand seating into the space next door. They also host occasional specialty dinners out back where there is additional picnic table seating, which give Stephania room to experiment with dishes beyond barbecue and Tex-Mex.
Rounding out the journey to Texas Monthly’s top Valley barbecue joints is The Smoking Oak in Mercedes. When owner Mario Dominguez, Jr. was young, his dad and brother began building brick cooking pits in the back of the family home. Today that home has been renovated to house the rapidly growing business that opened three years ago.
“This used to be the carport,” Dominguez said as he sliced and served brisket for a customer in the serving line. A second serving line was scheduled to open in December. “There were two bedrooms here,” he said about the new serving area that will be used for dine-in customers, leaving the original line for take-out orders.
The Smoking Oak opens Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., or until the food is gone. One day in December, signs started showing up on the serving line around 12:30 p.m.: pulled pork sold out, pork ribs sold out. By 1:15 p.m. the brisket was gone and a sold out sign hung on the front door. “Usually we don’t sell out until 3 or 3:30, but today has been crazy busy,” Dominguez said.
The Smoking Oak dishes out traditional Texas barbecue as well as homemade sides and desserts. Meats are smoked over oak coals, wood is brought in from the Texas Hill Country.
“Fastidious technique is evident in everything he does, be it subtly smoked brisket with expertly rendered fat and salty bark or mountains of succulent pulled pork with a hint of sweetness,” according to Texas Monthly.
Another addition to the building was due to open in December, a second dining area that juts out on land that once was Dominguez’s grandmother’s house. Dominguez is quick to credit his family for helping The Smoking Oak become a Mercedes success story. His dad, Mario Sr., a semi-retired insurance agency owner, hauls the oak wood from the Hill Country and helps with catering events. His mother Juana makes desserts and sides. Aunt Maddy answers phones and runs the cash register. Brother Santana helps with the cooking and keeping the place running smoothly.