Lower Valley barbecue joint wins prestigious national award

BROWNSVILLE — When the James Beard Foundation called Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que owner Armando Vera a few weeks ago to tell him he’d won a major award and would be flown to Chicago to accept it, Vera hung up, convinced it was a scam.

The woman called back. He hung up again. Named for the man the New York Times dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” in 1954, the James Beard Foundation resorted to contacting Mayor Trey Mendez, which did the trick.

“They sent the mayor an email,” Vera said. “He said this is something big. These guys, they call it the Oscars of the food world.”

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is one of six recipients nationwide of the nonprofit foundation’s 2020 America’s Classics Award, given to locally owned restaurants “that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community,” according to the foundation.

More than 100 restaurants around the country have received the award since the category was introduced in 1998. Vera has been invited to the James Beard Awards Gala on May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s just the latest recognition for the legendary Southmost neighborhood establishment Vera’s father opened in 1955, since 1957 located at 2404 Southmost Blvd. The restaurant has been featured in newspapers, magazines and books, and will be spotlighted in an upcoming episode of the “Texas Bucket List” television show.

“We’re coming out in the New York Times next Tuesday,” Vera said.

Shown is the sign in front of Vera’s Backyard Bar-Bar-Que on Southmost Boulevard. (Courtesy photo of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que)

What’s garnered the no-frills eatery so much attention is its barbacoa de cabeza de res (barbecued cow’s head), a delicacy created by slow cooking and steaming the heads for 14 hours over mesquite coals in a brick-lined pit. When the city banned pit cooking years ago, Vera’s was grandfathered in, and today remains the sole practitioner of the traditional technique in Brownsville and probably the state.

The foundation, which announced the award on Feb. 19, noted that cooking barbacoa in the ground stems from the border region’s 19th-century vaquero culture, and is primarily a weekend treat. Vera’s is open 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Fridays, and 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s wise to arrive early for the choicest cuts.

“Brownsville is a four-hour drive from San Antonio, the closest major Texas city, but the chance to savor this disappearing border-town delicacy merits a pilgrimage,” commented the foundation, which describes its mission as promoting “Good Food for Good.” Vera grew up at the restaurant, cooking his first cow heads around the age of 12 and taking over the business when his mother died in 1989. He praised the residents of Southmost for their support over the years.

“We thank God first and then we thank them,” Vera said.

He said he’ll keep making barbacoa until he dies, and joked about being buried in the pit when his time comes.

“I’ve got a passion for it,” Vera said. “I’ve always done it.”

He welcomes all the recognition, meanwhile, since it puts Southmost in a positive light and leads more customers to his door. Vera’s will have a booth in Market Square Feb. 25-26 for the Crossroads Festival and is scheduled to compete at Taco Fest in San Antonio on April 4. Vera said his son, Armando Vera Jr., will travel with him to the awards ceremony in Chicago.

“We’re getting around,” Vera said.