People from all walks of life enjoy good barbacoa in the Valley where many establishments feature their own versions and ways of serving this Texan cuisine favorite. From food trucks to nicely decorated spaces, historic buildings, to open patios, live music, bars with TV screens; the Valley’s barbecue choices are plenty. Gone are the days of low-grade meats and links bought by field workers at German and Czech meat markets in Central Texas. Today, customers seek prime cuts of meat and top of the line service.
The word barbecue derives from the Spanish barbacoa meaning a framework for grilling meat and game. The secret to a good barbecue is in the age-old cooking process, sauces and the type of logs used for smoking. In the Valley, most barbecue is still served over butcher paper- a tradition that started at Lockhart meat markets when barbecued meats sold to go over a hundred years ago. There are different traditions of cooking barbacoa in Central, East, and West Texas and they are not all the same.
It is in South Texas, the birthplace of Texas ranching, where the gastronomic influence from northern Mexico gave us barbacoa. Field workers were partially paid with inexpensive cattle heads, which they wrapped in maguey leaves to bury them with burning coals in a pozo (hole in the ground) for long periods of time. The tongue (lengua) and cheek (cachete) are popular barbacoa taco fillings in Brownsville, home to Vera’s Backyard Bar-B- Que; the only place in Texas where barbacoa is still made in the old style and where customers get to build their own tacos with hot corn tortillas and homemade salsa.
“We smoke our meats for 14 hours,” said Mario Dominguez Sr. owner of The Smoking Oak in Mercedes where oak wood is brought from Central Texas for smoking. “Since our opening in 2015, our goal was to serve authentic Central Texas Barbecue with traditional sides. No Spanish rice, beans, or tortillas on the menu. Some customers complained but eventually welcomed the concept and our specialties: the double oak plate, scalloped potatoes, and creamed corn. The Smoking Oak was listed on Texas Monthly’s 50 Best Barbecue Joints in Texas in 2017 and its popularity led to the recent opening of a pet friendly patio soon to feature a bar and live music entertainment.
The Smokin Moon in Pharr was listed among the 2019 Top 25 New Barbecue Joints in Texas by the same magazine. It opened in2018 and hit the ground running. “Two years prior to opening, I tried different recipes, prepared many dinners and listened to feedback until I had a product I believed people would like. We use top prime brisket, certified angus beef and a different rub for each meat,” said owner Joseph Salinas former owner of McAllen’s Copper Moon Bar & Grill. The facility boasts a spacious pet friendly atmosphere at its patio with live music on the weekends. Two new locations are coming to La Plaza Mall and Trenton Road in McAllen. Beef Dino Ribs and Moon Candy prepared with marinated burnt brisket ends – served only on weekends – are their specialty and so are pet treats from Dino Rib bones.
Surrounded by the South Texas Brush and Texas Longhorn cattle, The Longhorn Cattle Company in San Benito has been a Valley must-visit since the 1980s.
This is the place of all you can eat, complimentary, spicy pinto bean soup and huge Idaho baked potatoes stuffed with chopped brisket, cheese, and two scoops of butter.
Jerry Rodriguez started selling barbecue plates from his backyard until his clientele grew. He learned about barbecuing methods working in North Texas and the Valley before he and his wife Amy opened Black Diamond B.B.Q. in historic Hidalgo Viejo. Armed with original recipes cooked low and slow in Ole Hickory Pits smokers they have since opened two new locations in Las Milpas and McAllen. “The brisket is what sells the most, but I put my heart into everything,” said Jerry. The Black Diamond is the only barbecue joint we found that smokes with hickory wood like in the East Texas tradition.
Newcomer, and MVEC member, Reyna’s Texas Style Bar-B-Que values their South Texas heritage traditions by including Spanish rice and beans in its menu as well as flautas and pork tacos. Briskets are seasoned with traditional and local spices and smoked with a blend of oak and pecan logs. Customer favorites include the Bar-B-Q Botana, and bowls served with Spanish rice, beans, lettuce, sour cream, and a choice of meat. They have two locations in Harlingen and Weslaco.
Each day, barbecue pit masters all over the Valley experiment with new recipes and new spins on old time favorites. One can only wait and see what is cooked up next.