When you get to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas, don’t expect a fancy building…yet. Even so, Miguel and Modesty Vidal have already built one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in town: It’s three trailers (one where they serve the food, two where they prep and cook), several outdoor smokers, plus a covered patio and an open barn with picnic tables.
“I don’t need Valentina’s to be some huge, crazy operation,” Miguel says. What they both wanted when they started out in 2013 was to create a relaxed, comfortable place that feels like the backyard gatherings Miguel grew up with in a Mexican American family in San Antonio. There was the barbecue his father cooked, matched with the Mexican elements his mother made—fresh tortillas, salsas, guacamole. The menu at Valentina’s is divided between the two: Tex (classic brisket and pulled pork sandwiches) and Mex (brisket and carnitas tacos, cerveza beef fajitas), along with meat by the pound, killer barbecue breakfast tacos, and plenty of daily specials.
“The idea for Valentina’s is definitely centered around family and a home kind of feeling,” Miguel says. The Valentina’s crew includes his brother, Elias, also a partner in the business, and sister Adriana, along with Miguel and Modesty’s three children—Violet, four; Valentina, eight (the restaurant’s namesake); and Isaiah, twelve—who are often helping out or just hanging around. We caught up with the couple to talk about their perspective on Texas barbecue and the barbecue life.
Miguel, you have strong ties to the Mexican American culture of San Antonio. Modesty, where did you grow up?
Modesty: I’m from Dallas. I’ve got no ties to anything. I moved to Austin basically to have fun. And then I met Miguel. He made me breakfast tacos with homemade flour tortillas and brisket and I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll marry you.” My family said, “Thank God you married someone who can cook because you’d be dead or starving.” It’s common knowledge in my family that I can’t cook.
Q. Miguel, tell me about your average day. How much meat do you cook?
Miguel: We average about 4,000 pounds of raw-weight brisket a week. Brisket is pushing 70, 80 percent of our sales. We’re cooking 24/7. My day has no set schedule. There are times I’ll go and cook overnight with the pit crew. Six guys work the pit, and I have a prep crew and service crew. I’ll spend a few days working overnight, and I’ll spend a few days going in at 6:00 a.m. for three or four hours and go back in the evening. And sometimes I’ll be there for sixteen hours, waking up around 3:00, 3:30 in the morning and heading down there.
Modesty, since you don’t cook, what’s your role ?
Modesty: I pretty much do everything else. All the back-end stuff, the business portion, catering. We go out and set up the serving line and flowers and signs. That’s my favorite part, the events. My dream is to have a venue along with the food. I love organizing. Bossing people around is pretty much my forte.
How about the kids? Are they barbecue lovers yet?
Modesty: Oh, yeah. Isaiah is learning to trim brisket, and he’s always out there with Miguel, clearing tables, working. Valentina says she wants to work, but she just goes up there to hang out. The four-year-old, she’s bossy like me.
Texas barbecue culture is spreading. What changes when people outside Texas try to get it right?
Miguel: It’s a little difficult. Like, the wood you’re using [he prefers mesquite]. And when people try to replicate Texas, unless they’re going to put in the 24/7 work and stick-burning offset wood cookers, they’re not going to get it right. They’re not going to get the flavors. There are places that are doing it right, but some places try to take shortcuts. Mostly, it’s time—that’s the difference.
What part of Texas barbecue is changing the most? Is it the food being made or the people making it?
Miguel: It’s a little of both. People are trying to draw from their own experiences and heritage, German or Spanish or whatever it might be. They’re drawing from those and adding that flair to traditional Texas barbecue. I do think it’s becoming a younger game, where people see you might not have the most experience in culinary or restaurant work, but if you’re willing to put in the hard work and the dedication and time, you can produce something. And people are willing to seek it out and drive to it. In the past ten years, we’re seeing barbecue slowly build momentum. When we first opened Valentina’s, I didn’t have aspirations to be the next big barbecue place. I didn’t think about it that way. I felt like Tex-Mex had gotten watered down and very commercial, and I wanted to showcase what has been done in the homes.
What’s it like to be a barbecuer in the same town as Aaron Franklin?
Modesty: We love Aaron! Aaron is our boy!
Miguel: I’ve always been someone who embraces competition. I thrive on that. When you’re around people who are the best at what they do, it pushes you to become the same way. I love Austin, the way it embraces small businesses and creativity. To be around these people who are pushing the envelope and dedicating themselves to food and the craft, it felt natural to me. There’s room for everybody.
If I’m visiting your restaurant for the first time, what do I have to order?
Miguel: The first thing would be the Real Deal Holyfield for breakfast [a fried egg, potatoes, refried beans, bacon, and smoked brisket in a homemade flour tortilla with salsa]. That was based on huevos rancheros at my father’s favorite breakfast place. We make fresh prime brisket burgers that are stuffed with the ingredient of the day. I try to take different elements of Mexican cooking, whether it’s northern Sonoran or central, and add the elements of barbecue. Like a smoked picadillo, where I’ll smoke the ground beef. Or al pastor. Instead of putting it on the spit, we’ll braise the pork, and it’ll take on smoke for six to eight hours.
Modesty: With meat by the pound, people will add salsas, guac, and flour tortillas. We offer bread, but most people get the tortillas.
If you could take three pit masters out to eat, whom would you take and where would you go?
Miguel: I would take my friends: Aaron [Franklin], Billy Durney [of Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn], and Elliott Moss [of Buxton Hall in Asheville, North Carolina]. And I would take them to eat at my parents’ house.