Since the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Awards were announced last Wednesday, Lassis Inn in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas are booming with even more business than usual. The awards, which began in 1998, honor the nation’s treasured regional restaurants—places that have become institutions in their communities, and beyond. Previous Southern winners include such beloved establishments as The Bright Star in Bessemer, Alabama, Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi.
On Friday, weekend-only spot Vera’s opened its doors for the first time after the announcement of the award. “It’s such an honor,” says owner Mando Vera. “But when the James Beard Foundation called me, I hung up the first time because I didn’t believe them.” Vera says that he had a bigger crowd than usual for a Friday, and this weekend was his busiest yet. His parents opened Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in 1955, and Mando began working there at age 12 and took over from his parents in 1989. Vera specializes in a traditional dish from northern Mexico that’s as hard to find as it is surprising: “barbacoa de cabeza” (cow’s head barbacoa). He slow roasts the heads in fire pits lined with mesquite coals and serves up the meat by the pound to be made into simple tacos with fresh tortillas, salsa, chopped onions, and cilantro. It’s the only place in Texas where cow head cooked underground is served commercially. “Cachete,” or cheek, is the local favorite cut, and by Sunday at 11:30 a.m., Vera says it was already sold out. “Next weekend, I’ll be ready!” Vera promises.
Meanwhile, Lassis Inn in Little Rock has been jam-packed by lunchtime every day since the announcement, according to several customers who’ve visited. The small staff still fries every batch of fish to order—both catfish, available as steaks and fillets, and an Arkansas specialty, buffalo fish ribs. The restaurant has been a fixture in Little Rock since the early 20th century, when Joe and Molassis Watson started it as a sandwich shop, then pivoted to focus on their most popular menu item—fried fish. During the Civil Rights era, Daisy Bates, mentor of the nine Black students to desegregate Central Highschool in 1957, was known to meet with other activists at Lassis, where they could speak freely. Elihue Washington bought the restaurant from members of the Watson family in 1989, and still runs it today.
Lassis Inn and Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que are both known for dishes you can’t get from anyone else, anywhere else, but their importance goes beyond good eating. “[These are] places that serve great food, yeah,” said John T. Edge, a G&G contributor and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, in a video announcing Lassis Inn as a winner. “But they’re also places that matter deeply to their communities.”