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'Where The Magic Happens': Following A Tasty Taco Trail In South Texas

While the taco long ago conquered America, some aficionados believe this ancient, handheld food reaches its pinnacle in the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

A book out last year — American Tacos: A History of the Taco Trail North of the Border — directs taco lovers to Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas. Brownsville gets a bad rap in the national news because it's often the dateline for stories about border barriers and desperate migrants. But there's a deliciosa side to this laidback city. Among the palm trees, ox-bow lakes and 19th century buildings, the adventurous foodie can discover where the humble taco has been, and where it's headed.

NPR recently blazed a taco trail through Brownsville. Our journey starts with two contemporary Mexican restaurants that are pushing the envelope of what a corn tortilla can envelop.

El Santuario Tacos & Cocktails is living out its motto: "Who Said Tacos Had to be Boring?" Located in the office of a defunct KOA Campground on the outskirts of town, it's doing for the taco what Willie Nelson did for country music. The 33 tacos on the menu include quail tacos with creamy jalapeno corn sauce, softshell blue crab tacos, fried pork belly tacos, and duck with fig tacos.

"We're taking the traditional taco and giving it a South Texas twist, you know, like crabbing and dove hunting," says owner Hector Burnias.

"The taco was born out of a need to carry something, and out of a need to eat," says chef and food writer Adán Medrano, who joined our taco crawl. His latest film, Truly Texas Mexican, a culinary cruise through the food traditions of the borderlands, premiers later this spring.

Hector Burnias, owner of El Santuario Tacos, gave his restaurant the motto, "Who says tacos have to be boring?"
John Burnett / NPR
Hector Burnias, owner of El Santuario Tacos, gave his restaurant the motto, "Who says tacos have to be boring?"

"To those purists who say don't mess with tacos...every traditional taco was new at one point. And that's how food is born, because it's delicious," Medrano says, biting into a bacon-wrapped quail taco.

And why the name, El Santuario?

"We are the sanctuary for tacos!" Burnias says proudly.

Our next stop is Terras Urban Mexican Kitchen in downtown Brownsville, where entrepreneurs are bringing historic structures back to life. On our visit, co-founder and head chef Christian Nevarez brings out platters of corn tortillas filled with ribeye steak, corn and sautéed onions splashed with queso fresco; with cochinita pibil, braised pork in a peppery, yellow spice from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula; and with braised octopus in chipotle salsa and grilled pineapples.

"I grew up eating tacos. I love tacos," says Nevarez, who hails from Matamoros, just across the border. "It's something the common folk eat because it's cheap. The meat is cheap and the tortillas are cheap."

"When we opened this restaurant in 2014," he recalls, "we knew we wanted to do something with better ingredients. If the regular taco is already good, then that means the only place you can go is up, right?"

Terras head chef and co-founder Christian Nevarez says, "I grew up eating tacos. I love tacos."
John Burnett / NPR
Terras head chef and co-founder Christian Nevarez says, "I grew up eating tacos. I love tacos."

In the Lone Star State, tacos often fall into the hybrid cuisine known as Tex-Mex, which is usually pumped full of cumin and loaded with melted orange cheese. But just because a Mexican restaurant is in Texas doesn't make it Tex-Mex.

Medrano weighs in: "I would call this food Mexican American. What Christian is doing is cooking who he is. Just eat it. The food narrates its identity."

Our final stop takes tacos back to their origins.

In a little yellow house about a mile from the twisting Rio Grande is Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que. For 65 years, Vera's has been preparing barbacoa, which, in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, means wrapping an entire beef head and slow-cooking it in an earth oven. Last year, Vera's won a prestigious James Beard America's Classics Award.

The two most popular barbacoa cuts are cachete, cheek meat, and lengua, beef tongue. Other parts on the menu are brains, palate, eyes, and sweetbreads. The meat is shredded to the consistency of pulled pork, and tucked into a warm corn tortilla with onion, cilantro, and a spoonful of fresh salsa ranchera.

This is ranch food — simple, cheap, intensely flavorful, and made from discarded parts of the animal.

The smokehouse is behind the café. It's dominated by a brick-lined pit seven feet long filled with triangular, foil-wrapped cow heads.

"This is where the magic happens," says owner Armando Vera, son of the founders Alberto and Carmen Vera. He's stout, wearing a hunting cap and a black COVID-19 mask. The family started selling barbacoa from the front of the house when they lived in the back. The cooking tradition goes back centuries. Barbacoa—which is where the word "barbecue" comes from—has been traced back to the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean, and refers to meat smoked on a raised wooden grate.

In South Texas, however, the cooking style came from south of the border.

"Barbacoa is actually something that was originally done in ranches in Mexico," Vera says. "You dug a hole and put a beef head in the ground and cooked it overnight about 10 to 12 hours."

A kitchen employee hauls another beef head from the pit. Vera's is believed to be the last restaurant in Texas that cooks <em>barbacoa de pozo </em>the traditional way — underground.
John Burnett / NPR
A kitchen employee hauls another beef head from the pit. Vera's is believed to be the last restaurant in Texas that cooks barbacoa de pozo the traditional way — underground.

And that doesn't include burning mesquite wood down to coals—which adds another eight hours to the process.

"It's a lot of work," he says. "The prep is three to four days. Just making my salsa is about a day and a half."

Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que is believed to be the last restaurant in Texas to cook barbacoa the old-fashioned way, in a subterranean pit. You can find barbacoa on the menus of some Mexican restaurants, but the heads are usually cooked in big kettles on a stovetop, not underground. The original tradition is now kept alive mostly by backyard cooks who dig the holes themselves.

"My dad and mother used to make this barbacoa de pozo," says Medrano, the food writer. "It's iconic to our culture, the Mexican American culture of South Texas and northeastern Mexico. It takes me back."

He adds, "So long as there are people who are passionate about this, it will not end."

But chomping on a taco wasn't always so trendy. Javier Salinas, assistant director of enrollment communications at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, thinks back to school lunch periods when he was growing up in the South Texas town of Pearsall.

"The other kids would have a baloney sandwich, and, to a certain extent, you were kind of embarrassed to show that you had a taco," he remembers. "But that's the beauty of eating tacos now. I mean, we've definitely arrived."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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