Why Tex-Mex Barbecue Is More Tradition Than Trend
The food style mashup has deep roots in Mexican-American cooking.
Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex are beloved cuisines that, like many things in Texas, have a larger-than-life reputation. Visitors come from the corners of the world to sample Central Texas brisket, and Tex-Mex is imitated—sometimes even successfully—all over the country.
It’s apples and oranges (or more like burnt ends and tomatillos) to compare the two food styles, as they’re both diverse and nuanced, deserving their own spots in the state’s cultural canon. But perhaps it was inevitable that the two would merge into a complementary fusion of flavors. There’s not a singular event pointing to the genesis of Tex-Mex barbecue. Current iterations of the style can be traced to restaurants within the last decade, but the merger developed naturally over time, perfected at backyard cookouts long before it came to professional kitchens.
That was certainly the inspiration when Miguel Vidal opened Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin in 2013. He wasn’t trying to start a trend or capitalize on the union of two Texas staples. Instead, he wanted to serve people the kind of food he grew up eating with his family in San Antonio.
“This is how we eat at home,” says Vidal, noting that every holiday, quinceañera, or other get-together featured grilled meats alongside fresh salsas, rice, beans, and tortillas. “This style of cooking has been done for generations—it just didn’t have a title and wasn’t represented in restaurants.”
When preparing to open his own restaurant, Vidal—who trained at kitchens in Austin and Miami—kept coming back to the food his family made: “I thought, this is how we eat at home in the backyard. That’s the point. That’s why people will be drawn to it.”
Valentina’s uses mesquite wood, a fuel source popular with cowboy- and asado-style cooking, rather than the more common post-oak associated with the majority of Texas barbecue joints. “It puts out wonderful flavors for steaks and ribeyes, so why not capture that for a long cook?” he says.
Mesquite gives the restaurant’s barbacoa subtle earthy and grassy notes that pay homage to how the meat was traditionally cooked in underground ovens. The fan-favorite brisket can be ordered by the pound or sliced into tacos and topped with tomato-serrano salsa and guacamole. Meats are served with the choice of fresh tortillas or bread, and sides include charro beans, Mexican rice and smoked corn topped with crema, chili salt, and cilantro.
“These are the best elements of Mexican-American cuisine—rice, beans, tortillas and salsa—with the best barbecue of Central Texas,” Vidal says. “We put them together to create a good representation of Tex-Mex barbecue. It’s what true Tejano cooking is and what it can be.”
That same idea can be found at 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, run by friends Esaul Ramos and Joe Melig. Both grew up cooking in their backyards with their dads, but after Ramos honed his skills at Austin’s famed La Barbecue, the pair decided to strike out on their own, opening the restaurant in 2016.
“Our intention was never to do Tex-Mex barbecue,” Melig says. “Growing up with Mexican family, it’s natural to have tortillas and salsas when you barbecue, and to incorporate white cheese and pico de gallo. We just wanted to invite people to eat the way we grew up eating.”
That means barbacoa wrapped in banana leaves and thrown on the pit. The macaroni is topped with chicharrones, and the ubiquitous jalapeño-cheddar sausage links served across the state are tweaked to include Oaxaca cheese and serrano peppers. Tacos are served on fresh flour tortillas, and pickled items include serranos and nopales.
Not everything receives the Tex-Mex treatment. The brisket, ribs, and turkey are seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and meats can be ordered by the pound or in sandwich form. Melig notes that traditional Texas barbecue doesn’t need to be messed with just so you can say you’re doing something different. Instead, he and Ramos view what they’re doing as equally traditional. “This isn’t a trend for us, it’s just the way we eat,” Melig says.
Ronnie Killen’s foray into this category began with a tamale. After opening Killen’s Barbecue in 2013 in Pearland, a suburb south of Houston, he made a short rib tamale that resonated with customers, including Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn. That early success led to experiments with other Tex-Mex dishes like tacos and quesadillas.
Part of his inspiration was practical. When you lovingly cook meat for 12 to 16 hours, you can’t let a single ounce go to waste, so he employed leftovers to make tamales and tacos. He also looked to his kitchen staff. “It’s natural to bring Mexican influence to barbecue,” Killen says. “A lot of the guys in the kitchen cook this food already. They’d bring something they cooked at home, and it was always really good.”
Killen’s menu features 13 proteins, plus sandwiches and traditional sides like coleslaw and potato salad. Special dishes may include briskets rubbed with Mexican oregano, chile powder and guajillo, or barbacoa made with adobo sauce and served with smoky consommé.
A Tex-Mex section features brisket enchiladas, brisket-topped queso, and pulled pork tacos with pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa. The items have proved so popular that Killen stopped repurposing leftovers years ago. Instead, the restaurant smokes and slices additional meat to meet the demand. Killen says that during the November and December holiday season, they’ll make 1,500 tamales per day.
In recent years, the Tex-Mex barbecue wave has grown, building on the foundation paved by restaurants like Killen’s, Valentina’s, and 2M Smokehouse. Hurtado Barbecue in Arlington makes its dishes with a Tex-Mex twist—serving brisket tostadas, smoked menudo and breakfast tacos. Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q serves smoked meats, brisket tostadas, refried beans, and a rotating menu of tacos—including birria with consommé, out of a trailer at Hop & String Brewery in Grapevine. And South BBQ & Kitchen in San Antonio complements the usual meats with tacos served on fresh tortillas, Spanish rice, borracho beans, elote, and cilantro-lime guacamole.
These restaurants are proving that barbecue and Tex-Mex are a natural fit. And it doesn’t take much convincing to get diners in the door. “People love smoked meat, tortillas, and salsa,” Melig says. “We are just playing the hits.”