If the Hill Country style of barbecue is endangered, South Texas barbacoa is nearly extinct. There’s only one place left in the state -- and probably the country -- where you can get it, or at least the authentic version of it. Mando Vera at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, TX still cooks whole cow heads in the ground with mesquite coals. He offers it up Saturday and Sunday mornings only, which is when you’ll usually find barbacoa for sale.
Barbacoa cooked in this manner can be made with pretty much any meat, but in South Texas, it’s all about the cow heads. They remain one of the cheapest cuts of meat on the market, yet after spending about 12 hours in a warm, earthen pit, they’re transformed into the best taco stuffing you can ask for. It’s still pretty good out of the oven or the steamer, which is usually how it’s made these days.
You can find meat cooked this way in plenty of Texas backyards. A pit is dug and lined with stones, bricks, or even a section of concrete pipe, and a large mesquite fire is started in the bottom. Once the wood burns down to a thick bed of coals, agave leaves are placed on top of the coals to form a protective layer. The meat and/or heads are laid on top of that, the leaves are folded over, then the lid goes over the pit. Dirt usually covers the lid of the pit for insulation purposes. When the lid is taken off the next morning, the meat is so tender that it falls off the skull. Cheek meat, or cachete, is the most popular portion of the head. Everything is used, including the tongue and the eyes. The shredded meat is generally served up by the pound along with salsas, cilantro, onions, and tortillas. Be sure to salt the meat in the tacos, because it was probably cooked without seasoning.
Here are a few key terms to remember about barbacoa:
barbacoa de cabeza: barbacoa made with whole beef heads instead of just cheek and tongue
cabezita: the head of a goat cooked as barbacoa
descarnando: the act of removing meat from a carcass or skull for barbacoa
tatema: an Aztec word used specifically to describe barbacoa cooked in the ground with wood coals. You won’t find the word used often these days, but it signifies that your barbacoa isn’t steamed.
South Texas barbecue has traditionally been known for barbacoa, but let’s not leave out the cabrito. Whole, young goats are cooked over coals, or roasted on a spit over charcoal. It will come with tortillas, beans, and various garnishes. It is usually ordered from a particular portion of the cabrito. I like the shoulder.