A Day in the Pit with a Barbacoa Master
It was 7 o’clock in the morning and I was already full when Mando Vera reached a burly arm across the counter and handed me what he calls “Mexican caviar,” in a red-and-white checked paper bowl. I hesitated for a moment, remembering the first time I had tried to eat a cow’s eyeball. It was years ago in Staten Island, New York, and it didn’t go well. The eye had been steamed, and I found the gelatinous thing difficult to choke down.
But this time? It was a different experience. I pulled off a hunk of muscle from the back and tucked it into a tortilla with some smooth jalapeño salsa, a smattering of chopped onions and cilantro, and a sprinkling of salt. The meat was lean and tender, deeply beefy, and slightly smoky. Of course this eyeball was delicious. After all, I was eating at Vera’s.
Located in Brownsville, a city of about 180,000 tucked between the Rio Grande River and the Gulf of Mexico at Texas’ southernmost tip, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que has been serving ojos de vaca since 1955. It specializes in what its sign advertises as “barbacoa en pozo con peña de mesquite,” Mexican-style mesquite-fired pit meat. But not just any cut. Unlike other places down here that oven-roast or steam rump meat and call it barbacoa, Vera’s is strictly traditional. Their barbacoa is cow’s head. With their old-school ways grandfathered in despite today’s strict health codes, Vera’s is the only place in Texas—and, perhaps, the nation—that can legally sell barbacoa that’s been cooked beneath the ground.
It’s an artisan method that Mando Vera has been honing nearly his whole life. “I started around when I was 12,” the 61-year-old told me. He was standing at a stainless steel table in his kitchen, breaking down a cooked cow’s head. With the meat pulled away and the skull and its massive jaw bone exposed, the head looked like something you’d find in the desert if you interrupted a vulture’s meal. Vera coaxed off the cachete, cheek meat, which fell into a dark pile on his cutting board. He pummeled it with a chef’s knife, rendering it a fine chop, which he would dump into the steam trays from which he serves. “My dad and my mom broke up,” he said, “so I had to help my mom.”
Vera’s Chicano parents had learned to make barbacoa from a friend from northern Mexico, where the cooking style has a history that precedes Cortez. There, pit masters wrapped whole heads in maguey leaves and set them over mesquite coals. At Vera’s, the wrapper of choice is double-strength aluminum foil, inside of which the steam-roasted meat crisps just a bit on the outside as it cooks. The rich fat throughout the head melts, tenderizing pockets of muscle, and yielding silky cuts that Vera extracts and sells by the pound: $11.95 for chopped cachete; $13.95 for eyes; $10.65 for mixta, the unctuous scraps left when the rest of the head—sweetbreads, tongue, jowl, soft palate—are separated out.
I had started this morning with tongue, sweet, pillowy slices tucked into the corn tortillas that Vera’s sells in 18-count, paper-wrapped packs from Capistran’s tortilleria. It was a blustery, rain-swept dawn—the kind in south Texas that threatens a real storm—and I had left my hotel, lobby coffee in hand, at 5 AM to get here, because Vera's opens early. A big guy with a thick, black moustache and a serious demeanor when he’s deep in his work, Vera had been pulling heads from the pit out back, setting up salsas on the counter, and prepping steam trays for a good hour and a half before I arrived.
Sunday brings the church crowd to Vera’s. There’s a rush before and after services, when people line up dressed in their finest. But this was a Saturday, the quieter of the two days a week the restaurant is open. The handful of picnic tables were empty in the small dining room of the low-slung building that once served both as the restaurant and the family’s home. “This was the bedroom,” Vera said, gesturing at corner of the open space.
Back then, Vera’s only served takeout. The drive-up window still gets plenty of traffic. Vera was working it along with the counter as customers trickled in.
Retired truck driver Juan Ramirez showed up as he has every week for decades. “I know this guy from 1962, when he used to be a kid, because I lived two blocks from here,” he told me. “I don’t buy barbecue. I buy eyes. The eyes of the cattle. Why? Because I like to see.”
The health benefits of the ojos seem to be given wisdom among Vera’s longtime patrons. The delicacy always sells out first. “My mom likes the eyeball,” customer Ernie Gorena told me. “I’m kind of late, but maybe I’ll get lucky. She’s 94, so I gotta do whatever she wants. It’s given her extra life.”
Brains, he said, were also “a big hit” here, until mad cow’s disease led slaughterhouses to remove them before selling the heads. Mando Vera buys upwards of 50 of those heads every weekend. They arrive by the truckload from Corpus Christi, weighing around 35 pounds a piece, seven or eight of which is meat. Vera simply washes and wraps them—“we don’t put any spices, we don’t put any salt, we don’t put anything”—before he dumps them in the pit.
It was after 9 AM now. I had been chatting with patrons, standing in the kitchen in a hairnet watching Vera chop, and stuffing my face with pure, meaty flavors for nearly four hours now. I wanted to see where the magic happens. Finally, with the small morning rush petering out, Vera took me out back to the pit. In a concrete building in the parking lot, a stack of gnarled mesquite lay in a corner. Vera orders a pickup truck full of the wood each week. A few plywood boards act as timber. He fires them and tosses the wood on top. In the pit, a 5½-by-3½-foot rectangular hole dug 6 feet deep, he lets the wood burn for a good six hours. Then he piles in the foil-wrapped heads, wedging them between sheet metal, where they’ll stay for up to 12 hours.
Grey and rectangular, the pit was cool and empty at this time of the day. Vera would close up shop around 1:30 PM, when he would heat the pit again to cook for Sunday’s crowd, just as he’s done now for over 50 years. In the beginning, the pit was lined with adobe bricks from Mexico. Today, it’s constructed out of more-efficient fire brick. But Vera has made few other changes over the years. He’s added a couple of menu items: brisket; birria, or spice-rubbed lamb; and carnitas, cubes of pork he marinates in tangy sour orange juice and deep-fries in lard. He still offers his mother’s “original” salsa spiced with dried chiles and jalapeños, but he makes others now too, including the gutless “American” for withering gringo palates, and its opposite: a habanero-based tongue sizzler that certain customers request.
“Most of the Mexican people, they like it hot,” he told me. “Because we’re at the border, we get a lot of people from Mexico.”
Is Vera worried, then, that business would be hurt by Donald Trump’s proposed border wall? Not really. He doesn’t think that any wall will stop legal travellers, let alone anyone who really wants to get into the States, and anyway, his barbacoa has weathered political-economic storms before. “Back in ’93, our business was really booming. It was chaos. On a Sunday morning, we would do anywhere from 70 to 80 heads,” he told me. The mid-1990s devaluation of the peso “hurt the border anyway, because a lot of people used to come across, and they used to buy 8, 10 heads, just one person.”
Though most of his customers are of Mexican descent, he does get some business from “winter Texans”—retirees who spend the cold months at the border. And it seems that there’ll be a new crowd in town soon. Elon Musk is bringing his Space-X here; he’s building a launching pad out at the beach so he can blast passengers up off the tip of Texas. If his rocket scientists care to listen to Brownsville’s older locals, they’ll come around to Vera’s for an ojo de vaca taco. It will help with their vision as they look into space.