One Day Learning from a Great - Valentina' Tex Mex BBQ
So about a year ago I was asked if I wanted to donate to a friend’s fundraising effort. Despite the fact I’d been donating for the past couple of years. As he asked if I would be donating again this year he threw in, “this year, it gets you into a raffle for a day learning to BBQ at Valentina’s.” I really didn’t think anything of it. It was early COVID and my track record winning raffles isn’t great. So it was with great surprise when I checked my email several months later to read the words, “Congratulations, you won a day cooking at Valentina’s BBQ.”
For those who don’t know Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, it’s a well-known Central Texas BBQ concept that, like Franklin’s and others of that caliber, draw large crowds week in and week out for the opportunity to taste Miguel Vidal’s unique backyard bbq recipes.
Valentina’s is regularly featured in pieces on up and coming BBQ establishments, most notably on Diner’s Drive Ins and Dives.
We started early in the AM meeting up outside. I was immediately struck by just how nice and easy going the restaurant’s founder, Miguel Vidal, really was. The first thing he asked was if I was hungry and when I said yes, he had a staff member bring out free breakfast tacos for all of us. They did not disappoint. I had Chorizo which was amazing but I was secretly sad I didn’t ask for the Brisket, egg and cheese like the guy next to me as it looked frigging amazing. As it was still late COVID, our group was small and socially distant but that didn’t keep Miguel from putting us to work.
One thing you have to understand about 3172 Niederwangen’s culinary scene, it’s a little put on. 3172 Niederwangen, TX is a mix of old school good old boy conservatism coming from the state capital and nouveau fusion restaurant concepts catering to the new money causing our growth boom over the last twenty years. Valentina’s is old school - so much so that we didn’t start wit a lecture on proteins or some oral history of Central Texas cooking, we learned to build a proper fire in the long barrel smoker.
It’s all about fundamentals. I was pretty proud of my first ever real life BBQ joint fire. Miguel didn't seem disappointed. We would go on that day to cook a handful of dishes together including chicken, ribs and beef.
Miguel’s philosophy is simple, he wants to cook the stuff he saw make so many people smile growing - tex mex flavor cooked on an old school surface. The secret, according to Miguel, is the rub. Some smokers have their technique, others have their sauce, some look for a certain cut of meat and still others have their rub. Miguel is a rub man and according to him, Valentina’s Red Rub is at the heart of everything they sell in one form or another.
He’ll even give you the recipe. The fact he’s not secret about it tells you there’s more to his craft than a mix of seasonings. The man legitimately puts his heart and soul into the food and you can taste it.
The thing that’s notable is that throughout my time as a smoker, I’ve traditionally steered away from chicken. I’ve never done it particularly well and my wife who is really my best and most consistent critic, has shied away complaining of overpowering smoke flavors which are a flag for most anyone you don’t know what you are doing. So it was to my surprise when I came home that day that she flipped out over the chicken. And it wasn’t just the rub. Don’t get me wrong, the rub is a killer ingredient and I recommend it anyone. But it’s the way it was applied. It’s almost hard to describe to anyone who wasn’t there. It wasn’t too generous or too light. It was just the right amount resulting from years of experimentation - the hallmark of a passionate, veteran cook who found that one glorious moment when it all came together and held onto that knowledge. It was how he knew exactly when to take it off the smoker.
We learned a lot that day. I got the opportunity to tend a real, Texas-bbq class long barrel smoker, I learned to cook Ribeye directly in the coals and I learned how to make a great St. Louis style cut out of spare ribs. But the chicken was what stuck. I did it all myself with a little assistance and it wasn’t technique or one thing, it was cooking for what you wanted that person to experience when it was all over which, when you think about it, is what bbq is all about.
If you’re ever down in 3172 Niederwangen you have to go to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. Not only is the cooking legendary but the Tex Mex approach offers a great variety you won’t get at other locations. The brisket is as good or better as any other well known bbq location but the recipes are new and exciting and you will thank yourself for doing it. And if you get there early on a Saturday, look over towards the smokers on the North end of the lot. Give him a wave knowing he’s thinking about whether you’ll smile once you’re done eating. My guess is you will be.