- Taco tip number 956.
- When you're in Texas, - Yee-haw!
- and this close to the Mexican border.
(enthusiastically yells) - Move over mijo!
(enthusiastic yell) That's the way you do it!
(accordion music) - I'm Jarod Neece.
- I'm Mando Rayo.
- And we're taco journalists exploring the iconic tacos of Texas through the eyes of the people who make them.
- We're in the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost tip of Texas, and we're here for the barbacoa.
- We'll be heading to Vera's Backyard Barbeque.
- We'll visit the infamous Taco Mile, - And we'll dig our own hole and cook barbacoa the traditional way out on the ranch.
- Where Barbacoa Sundays are a way of life.
- In the Rio Grande Valley, no morning is complete without barbacoa.
- And, we're here at Vera's Backyard Barbecue in Brownsville, Texas, where they've been cooking barbacoa since 1955.
- The traditional way, in a Pozo con Leña de Mezquite.
- In an in-ground pit with mesquite firewood.
- I'm Armando Vera.
I've been the Pit Master for the past 45 years.
I started when I was 12 years old.
- 12 years old?
- Actually, the barbecue business started, it was my dad and my uncle back in '55, and this is where the magic happens, we're here.
- You bring in the mesquite wood in there?
- We got mesquite wood in there, you let the mesquite burn down.
It takes about a good 8, 10 hours to get it real hot, and, then, that mesquite turns into charcoals and we put a sheet metal down there to put our meat in there, and we just leave it there over night.
- A lot of people just think barbacoa is shredded meat.
They might not even know it comes from the head.
- Barbacoa, it's a Mexican barbecue.
It comes from the beef head, and that consists of the lengua, which is the tongue, the cheek meat, which is the cachete, the sweetbreads, which is the mollejas, - The ojos, the eyes, are the Mexican caviar.
- I'm ready.
- Let's do it.
- This is the socket right here, huh?
- Yup, that's it.
- Hm, I mean, this tastes like a really nice meat.
- Yeah, it tastes like barbacoa.
- So, you're the only one in Texas who cooks the barbacoa this way?
- Yes, we're the last one's in Texas to cook the barbacoa in the pit.
- And what's the difference between doing it in a more modern way and your traditional way using mesquite wood?
- It's just like if you take a steak and you put it and you boil it, it's not the same thing as you'd do it on the barbecue pit, you know?
It's gonna give it a different taste.
- And, now, it's our turn to dig our own hoyo, and make our own barbacoa.
(Spanish music) - We're about 40 miles north of Brownsville, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley at Vezzetti Ranch.
- Mr. Rene said to dig here, so that's exactly what we're gonna do.
(Spanish music) - A couple of Rio Grande Valley boys.
You ready to dig?
Well, thanks for coming out, and here's your reward.
(laughs) - Being in the Rio Grande Valley, what are some of the traditions that you're losing?
- Well, you know, I think the border used to be a lot of more continuous.
- I've always felt like I live in one city that is in two countries.
Like, growing up in the valley, even if you look at it on Google Maps, from El Paso all the way to Brownsville.
It's one metropolitan area divided by one river, and living here really is that.
Like, everyone knows the whole city all around, the connections in between.
- And, that's one of the things I don't want to lose.
You know, I don't want to lose having this flow of commerce, this flow of culture.
One of the things that I think, if we have a border wall or if we bring down the national guard, there's gonna be feeling of fear, and this feeling of people not wanting to come here and not wanting to contribute to this open border to this flow of ideas, culture, commerce, and that's one of the things I wanna keep and not separate.
- You know, we dug a hole, we chopped some mesquite, we built a fire, we seasoned some heads.
Put them in and we're gonna hope for the best.
- Now, the cabezas will cook for the next 14 hours.
Coming to the infamous Taco Mile, kind of like my Disneyland.
- I remember being out here years ago, when it was just dirt floors and it was kind of a pirate thing, you know.
You just come out and put your taco stand before the authorities would come get you.
Now, it's all up to par.
- So, tell me, where exactly are we?
- We're about four and a half miles from the Mexican border, and the valley, the Rio Grande Valley.
- Why is barbacoa such a big part of the valley?
- Barbacoa has been a big part of the valley since day one.
It was the farmers way and the ranch hands way of cooking.
Open fire, burying the cow head, the beef head, in the sand.
They wouldn't give you steak, but as a ranch hand you could get the head.
You could get the tail.
You could get, you know, everything, what they call the bull fries.
(laughs) You know, that's what you could get.
So, you learn how to cook them.
Barbacoa came out of that.
It was the cheapest cut of meat that we could buy.
(Spanish music) (alarm ringing) - Barbacoa is part of who we are.
It's a Sunday morning for me.
Sunday morning for a lot of us in the area, and it's part of tradition and part of the beauty and the love that we have for our area.
- Oh, looks good.
Oh my God.
I can't believe it.
(laughs) I was a little nervous.
- Brownsville is the southernmost part of the state of Texas.
We belong in the crossroads of not only two countries, but cultures, linguistics, everything that has to do with being adaptive to both the Mexicano and to the Americano way of life.
- What does barbacoa mean to you?
- Some cultures have fried chicken on Sunday.
(laughs) We have barbacoa.
- It's very south Texas.
You're not gonna get it out of our system.
- Where do you think that comes from?
- The vaquero was here before the cowboy was.
- Way before.
- Way before, oh, yeah, as long as the vaqueros had been in this area, so has the tradition of barbacoa.
It's a connection across generations, whether you're a ranching family today, or a ranching family 50 years ago, that's a tradition that's a continuum.
It goes from time to time, from family to family, and that's what makes it special.
- We can adapt to and be part of, what you might wanna say the American tradition, but, by the same token, we don't want everyone to lose a sight of our roots.
- A family much larger than your own.
It's an extended family.
It's an extended cultural family, that we share the commonality.
The commonality is a cuisine, but it's been a tradition here for many many years.
And, that cuisine binds us.
That cuisine keeps us together, and that cuisine keeps our families in line in this continuum with what was and what will be.
- Here's to Sundays and barbacoa.
(cheering) (Spanish music) - I love Barbacoa Sundays, but I also love it every other day.
- And, I love experiencing Vera's Backyard Barbeque, one of the top 50 pit masters in Texas.
I love seeing him cook barbacoa, the traditional way and feeding families here in the Rio Grande Valley.
- I really enjoyed my time at the ranch, getting my hands dirty, and learning from Mr. Rene.
- And, the Rio Grande Valley is made up of small towns and big cities.
It encompasses two different countries, and it has one river running through it.
- But, the flavors and traditions have no borders.
(bell ringing) - Soups on!
(laughs) Let's go!