As we continue exploring the Valley’s three Bar-B-Que establishments featured last month in Texas Monthly’s “Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas” we found ourselves journeying to Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas.
Nay on the “journey” it was quite the experience. Picture us: 7:00 a.m. on a SATURDAY with unflattering “sleep” in our eyes and yawns that would put any lion’s roar to shame. We jumped in our car and began the (mas o menos, depending on your speed) one-hour drive to Brownsville.
Gaby: As I took the wheel, all I could think about was how much this reminded me of an opening scene in one of those Looney Tunes cartoons. The sun was peeking its head out, we were both mellow (never does that happen), and I could literally hear in my head Rossini’s William Tell Overture’s transition Ranz des Vaches.
Trisha: What an appropriate theme song, since we were definitely “Call[ing] to the Cows”! Thankfully, we also had some 80’s tunes blaring on the radio to drown out the overture in our heads and mildly awaken our spirits.
Then, just as we arrived at Vera’s, being the responsible and prepared drivers that we are, the “E” on the gas tank flashed on. “Hey, Gaby, your fuel tank is on échale!”
Gaby: It was the personification of the emptiness we were feeling in our bellies before being enthralled with what was behind the doors of that small, yellow shack.
Trisha: Okay, you must STILL be hungry because it sounds like you are hallucinating?
Gaby: I am being poetic!
Trisha: *raised eyebrows* Ah, is that what we’re calling it?
When you walk into Vera’s you’ll simply see four rectangular tables with individual wooden benches, one round table where the owners normally sit and talk while they wait for customers to arrive, a large counter that acts like the Berlin Wall between you and the barbacoa, and of course, a small table proudly displaying its not one, but various Texas Monthly mentions along with a basket filled with the now infamous Yeti BBQ Passport. Every passport is ready to go with a “Vera’s” stamp in the qualifying square.
Side Note: Along with the Texas Monthly’s “Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas”, Yeti partnered up with the magazine and created a sort of passport to encourage folks to visit all the 50 establishments by December 31, 2020. Fill up your passport, and receive various gifts from the king of tumblers and coolers based out of Austin.
Trisha: We walked in and were immediately welcomed by Mr. Armando and Mrs. Adela Vera sitting in their customary table eating spoonfuls of a recently cut watermelon. “Buenos Dias, bienvenidas! What would you like?”
We were concerned thinking that we’d either arrived super early and beat the rush, or worse, we were too late and the barbacoa had run out! We were the only ones in the restaurant, with the exception of the proprietors and their helper. Immediately, our eyes were drawn up to the menu board where the daily specials were handwritten on neon color sheets. On the bottom right hand corner stood a photo of Mr. Vera Senior. To our delight, considering our less than ideal morning appearance, nothing was formal and everything and everyone was laid back.
Gaby: Birria, carnitas, brisket, cachete, lengua, and ojos! Just about any kind of meat you could think of was up for grabs and I wanted it all! My eyes were bigger than my stomach.
Trisha: Not this time, my dear. We actually ordered half a pound of brisket and a pound of cachete barbacoa (both recommended by the magazine), ½ an order of maiz tortillas (nine) from Capistran’s Tortilleria off of Lincoln Street in Brownsville, TX, a full avocado, green and red salsas, cilantro y cebolla and 2 half-liter Mexican Coca Colas.
Gaby: I hadn’t had any dinner the night before. I was a tad hungry. Plus, we got our butts out of bed pretty early on a weekend so that we could enjoy this feast!
As we were being total public nuisances and climbing on benches to take our “foodie pics” and post them online, Mr. Vera kindly offered us a taste of the Carnitas, marinated with acidic oranges and salt then thrown into the pozo (literally a hole in the ground) out in the back. While everything we ordered was delicious, Texas Monthly got it completely wrong by not recommending this amazing dish!
As we made our barbacoa tacos, locals and foreigners to the Valley slowly began to fill the place. The habitual faces quickly made their orders, while outsiders tried to decipher between “Barbacoah” and “Ca-she-tees”.
Gaby: Now, the way you make your taco is essential to your experience. Grab your tortilla, lay it out on your paper plate, grab a good portion of barbacoa, spread it, proceed to lay on top of it a slice of creamy avocado, sprinkle on cebolla y cilantro and a dash of salt, lime and your red salsa. Remember, “pinky up” is not a lifestyle, but it helps to maintain the balance from having your taco tip over.
Trisha: Okay, all of that minus the raw onion for me and make mine the green salsa. After inquiring, because I absolutely had to know what was in that delicious, medium-spice salsa, we were told the green salsa is made with jalapeños, avocado, cilantro and onions all blended together.
Gaby: I proceeded to ask about the red Habanero sauce. Mr. Vera gave me a stern look and said, “It’s Habanero. It’s my mom’s recipe and the rest is a secret.” Noted, don’t ask about the red sauce.
Everything with the exception of the brisket is made in the property’s pozo. Traditionally, barbacoa is made in an underground pit. Each piece of meat melted like butter and, while we struggled with our bellies quickly filling up, we were champs and kept going. Hey, we didn’t drive all the way out here for nothing!
While we ate, the tables filled slowly but surely. At one point it seemed like we were all breaking bread together.
Trisha: “I help out here on Sundays, try everything,” one older gentleman said across from us. “This is the best of the best!”
Gaby: “Trisha, let’s share the last of our avocado with our visitors from Austin.” They were truly missing out on the magic a Hass avocado adds on to a taco.
As we all shared our meal, we listened to Mr. Vera talk about how he had started helping out his father at the age of 12. He is one of three siblings and is the only one who chose to oversee the family business. His face lit up when he talked about the weekends spent at the restaurant with his father.
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que was first opened in 1955 across the street from its current location. In 1957, Mr. Vera Senior bought the lot across the street for about $1,000 and the “joint” has remained there ever since. While the tiny house still has all the characteristics of that era, the Vera’s have modernized their location by adding a drive-thru, having a facebook account and graciously accepting credit card transactions.
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is located at 2404 Southmost Road, Brownsville, TX 78521. They ONLY open Friday-Sunday mornings from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. but, fair warning, the barbacoa normally runs out on Sundays by 12:00 p.m. You can reach Vera’s by calling (956) 546-4159 or follow them on Facebook at @VerasBackyardBarBQue. Make sure to, as Mr. Vera likes to say, “check in” or “tag” them!
Gaby Jones and Trisha Watts work hand-in-hand with the service industry. Jones is in charge of craft and imported beer for L&F Distributors and Watts is the communications director for Visit McAllen. Each week they will have a new adventure and provide an opinion on various locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley.