BBQ City Limits: Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ
Hours: 11am-9pm Tue-Fri; 8am-9pm Sat-Sun; closed Mon
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.06.13
It was raining the first time I went to Valentina’s, and I wondered whether the trailer behind the Star Bar on West Sixth would even bother to open. But I could smell the smoke as soon as I got out of the car four blocks away. No other wood smells like mesquite when it burns, a green and grassy smolder that hangs like a reedy Southern drawl in the air.
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ carries not just the name of its owners’ 3-year-old daughter, but their collective restaurant experience. For eight years, Miguel Vidal was a manager at Ranch 616, the freewheeling Western-style restaurant just a few doors away on Nueces Street, the same group who helped him land the Star Bar spot and with whom he’s still on the best terms. He smokes through the mornings, driven by a long-simmering desire to make and sell the food he grew up with in San Antonio.
“There’s a certain type of flavor that San Antonio brings to Tex-Mex,” Vidal said. “I can walk into almost any Tex-Mex restaurant in San Antonio, and I can get that certain smell and flavor you get from the beans, from the rice, from the homemade tortillas, from the meat cooking. For some reason, I felt like I couldn’t get that flavor here. I’ve always wanted to bring my family’s style of cooking here. When I visited my parents and my Dad was barbecuing brisket all day long and then my Mom was making rice and beans and homemade tortillas. I wanted to share that with people.”
Even before Valentina’s happened, Vidal’s mother-in-law put a twist on the dream by giving him a toy taco truck for Christmas. I have a mother-in-law, and I can see where that kind of gift might be just the right amount of salt to show I could really do it. Vidal’s kids still play with the truck.
Where Miguel Vidal’s experience at Ranch 616 gave him a certain gunslinger’s outlook, his wife’s restaurant career was shaped at a corporate chain. Modesty Vidal said it gave her a sense of structure, the business sense to make the art behind it work. Together with partner Michael Lerner, they opened Valentina’s in February, settled comfortably behind Star Bar, where Hat Creek Burgers and the Peached Tortilla once held residencies. You’ll also see Miguel Vidal’s brother, Elias, in the window.
It might seem like a tenuous angle, putting the same smoked meats in buns or tortillas and trying to build distinct Tex and Mex identities behind that simple sleight of hand. I can still recognize Clark Kent in his SuperHombre cape, even without the glasses.
Take the brisket, for example. As a sandwich on a bun ($8), it’s piled high in thick blocks like the oversized Jenga tower the inebriates are deconstructing next door at the Star Bar. Those slices respect the fatcap. The bark is a salty rub, but the star player is the smoke ring, which burrows a full inch deep into the meat with mesquite’s tannic low-country twang. The sandwich construction is strictly a polite concession to handheld portability, because the slaw and white picnic bun can’t really add anything to meat with this kind of character. When it’s chopped and dropped into a fresh flour tortilla ($4.75), this brisket makes a taco with few equals, dressed simply with guacamole and a side of tomato salsa with a low-key pepper bite. No matter which starchy vehicle carries it to your mouth, what you’re likely to taste is the common language of well-executed barbecue.
It’s a different story for pulled pork ($4 taco/$7 sandwich), which is a full degree better as a taco. On a grilled flour tortilla with caramelized onions, the lean fibers of pork and the mesquite-infused fat that holds them together break through in full bloom, a desert flower made even brighter by fresh tomatillo salsa with the clean and lingering burn of habanero. Tortillas are made at the trailer, where a press jostles for space among the smokers.
The sandwich bun, on the other hand, seems to make its starch-to-sugar transformation in midbite, and a sprinkle of cabbage can’t bring it back into balance. Neither can the sauce Valentina’s makes especially for the pork, a sauce that leans hard on the brown sugar accelerator when most pork sauces go the other way, letting vinegar take the wheel. Some acidic overcorrection wouldn’t be out of line here.
Chicken is the barnyard’s picked-on little brother of the barbecue pit ($4 taco/$7 sandwich), and even at Valentina’s, it’s in for a whupping at the hands of its boarish and bullish big brothers. It’s tender and juicy, pulled into clean, fresh-tasting ribbons and bows. But without skin and bones, chicken just can’t bring the same barbecue game, and it’s equally passive in sandwich and taco form, the thing you order for the person who didn’t really feel like barbecue that night. But we don’t hang out with those people very often, and the rest of us will have a brisket taco and a beer on the Star Bar’s covered patio.
On Wednesdays, the Vidals make room on the smoker for pork ribs. For $9.50, the rib plate was dressed with a side of roasted corn, tortilla, coleslaw and a nice surprise: smoked sausage with a thick tomato salsa. Mesquite does something to pork ribs no other wood can do. That same squirrelly gremlin molecule that makes your lungs itch in a cloud of mesquite smoke matches the pig's personality, weaving in and out of the fat, lean and popsicle-stick cartilage. The Vidals counter that backwoods burl with a bark that sparks with equal parts sweet and spice. Brown sugar, pepper, wizard's powder. Whatever, it's the candy-coating for meat with the right give-and-take on the bone, and it made me wish Val's had the pit space to put ribs on the everyday menu.
(ABOVE, from left: Sliced brisket sandwich; Modesty Vidal with two of her cake-pop creations; smoked corn with crema and housemade chile salt.)
On the side: Bless Tex-Mex for bringing us roasted corn. Valentina’s smokes it on the cob, shears off the kernels and puts the kettle back in the smoke. Finished with home-blended chile salt, Mexican crema and lime, it’s an event as much as a side dish. Sweet, smoky, funky, citric. The trailer’s Tex identity is represented by firm, chunky, skin-on red potato salad. True to Miguel Vidal’s San Antonio experience, rice and beans round out the list. ($1.50 small/$4.25 regular)
Sauce: Valentina’s makes its own thick, sweet black-pepper red. An accent when you need something to break outside the bun. But when it’s taco time, and even when it’s not, the red and green salsas might be what barbecue’s been looking for all along.
Dessert: Modesty Vidal’s alter-ego is Mo, as in MoCakes, and Mo makes cake pops. For $3 apiece, they combine the richness of dense batter and a sweet icing glaze with the convenience of a stick. She even dressed them up for Halloween.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP, clockwise from top left: Chopped brisket taco, sliced brisket sandwich, pork sauce, house barbecue sauce, carnitas taco, pulled pork sandwich, chicken sandwich, chicken taco, red salsa, tomatillo salsa, smoked corn and red potato salad. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)