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To many Texans, Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer who shipwrecked near Galveston Island centuries ago. For folks in Brownsville, cabeza de vaca (head of the cow) has a much tastier meaning. And you won’t find a more authentic version of real-deal cow head barbacoa than at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que.
Before lunch, I asked owner Armando Vera for a look at his pit because you can learn a lot about pit bosses by seeing the tools they use. Vera’s pit was unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s literally a pit in the ground, about 4 feet deep and full of blazing logs. It looked like a gateway to Hades.
Vera explained that an open pit is the traditional way to cook Mexican-style barbacoa. An entire cow head is wrapped in foil, placed in a hole and covered with burning logs for 10–12 hours. Vera’s is the only place in Texas that still cooks barbacoa underground, the traditional way that Vera’s father used when he started the business in 1955.
Even though I found the sight of the head to be less than appetizing, I decided to judge the barbacoa with my mouth instead of my eyes. The menu included almost every part of the head: lengua (tongue), ojos (eyes), jeta (jaw) and cachete (cheek). I ordered a bit of everything, along with homemade tortillas and salsa.
With each bite, the image of the full head faded, replaced by savory flavors of perfectly smoked meat, tangy salsa and pillowy tortillas. The barbacoa offers flavor, smoke and texture that you can’t get cooking it in an oven or over a stove. The experience at Vera’s prompted me to do something I never expected to do in my lifetime: I ordered a second helping of lengua.
Chet Garner shares his Texplorations as the host of The Daytripper on PBS.