Miguel Vidal remembers the moment when he knew what he would serve at his new restaurant, even though it was still a dream.
Vidal grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and has worked in restaurants since he was 15 — refining his technique and palate, training himself to eventually open his own restaurant.
“I went home, and my dad had made a brisket. My mom had made homemade tortillas,” Vidal told CNN Travel.
“We had fresh salsa and avocado, and I’m thinking to myself, this is it,” Vidal said.
That’s how Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ was born in 2013. Currently two food trailers and four barbecue pits parked on 1.5 acres in South Austin, Vidal is developing plans to turn Valentina’s into a brick-and-mortar operation.
Mexican food is Texas food
Combining the best of Mexican cooking — which often features cooking meats and other ingredients over a grill or open flame — and barbecue comes naturally to Vidal, a fourth-generation Texan and Mexican American.
“Mexican culture has always been a part of Texas and my family,” said Vidal. “I’m really a fourth-generation Texan, and I like grabbing onto the roots of the Mexican heritage because it’s what’s in our blood.”
Vidal said he’s “very proud of being Texan” and celebrating his state’s barbecue and other food traditions.
Combing the flavors of their cultures is what Texans do “in the back yard,” he said. “It’s being done in the household, but not necessarily represented in a professional manner in the restaurant industry.”
That’s just the way his family eats.
“Food was always what brought my family together,” he said. “It’s a time for us to enjoy each other’s company, tell stories about our day, or if we haven’t seen extended family in a while, we catch up, and the food is kind of like that glue that would bring us all together.”
Vidal has a lot great memories growing up “around a barbecue pit or a fire,” eating his grandmother’s homemade tortillas and arroz con pollo and menudo at his mother’s house.
His parents weren’t convinced
College took Vidal to Austin, and soccer took him around the United States before an injury dashed his soccer dreams.
Working in Austin, Vidal had thought about elevating his restaurant concept to a more fine-dining experience, but tasting his dad’s brisket that night changed his mind.
His family wasn’t convinced at first.
“My parents were really skeptical about what I wanted to do because they felt it was this down-home cooking stuff that we just did at home,” and they wondered if everyone was going to respond to it the way Vidal believed they would.
“So Valentina’s does traditional Texas barbecue. We use offset pits. We cook fairly low and slow (using mesquite),” he said.
“We cook brisket, pork butts, spare ribs, beef ribs, sausage, chicken. During the fall we cook turkey, but we also take in influences from the Mexican culture, which would be tortillas or fresh salsas, a lot of peppers.”
The business is a family affair: Vidal, his wife, Modesty, and his brother, Elias (the head pitmaster), are business partners, but they also have two sisters and three cousins who are key employees.
The menu reflects his roots
The menu is divided into “TEX” and “MEX,” but that’s really just asking customers if they want bread or tortillas holding the meat.
The sliced brisket and pulled pork sandwiches are both served with tangy slaw and mesquite smoked, house-made barbecue sauce.
The smoked brisket tacos are served with sea salt lime guacamole and tomato serrano salsa, and the smoked carnitas tacos are served with caramelized onions, cilantro and salsa.
Charro beans, Mexican rice, smoked corn and guacamole and chips are side dishes and can be added to any order.
Like many Austin restaurants, Valentina’s also serves breakfast burritos, which can include chorizo, refried beans and tomato serrano salsa, all “hecho con amor” (made with love).
Big wigs take notice
“Texas Monthly” barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, who included Valentina’s on his list of the top 50 Texas barbecue joints, credits Vidal with launching a trend in the barbecue world with Tex Mex barbecue.
He loves Valentina’s “15-hour mesquite-smoked brisket, lush and moist, (which) is at its best when tucked into one of their heavenly homemade flour tortillas, lightly crisped on the griddle.”
Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue is legendary for its meats (and its long lines), is also impressed by that 15-hour mesquite smoke.
Franklin has called Valentina’s “really about the only place in town other than my own barbecue that I’ll actually go eat barbecue at.”
“Yeah, that’s flipping good,” Franklin told Food & Wine.
‘Everyone has a chicken and rice dish’
“Whatever you are, when you eat our food, I like to be able to say that there’s so much heart and soul that goes into it, that you feel it and it takes you back (to wherever your family is from),” Vidal said.
“Everyone has a chicken and rice dish. Everybody has some sort of bread or tortilla that they use that gets filled with something,” he said. “Everybody has a braised meat, and from the beginning of time, the most organic way of cooking was with fire, right?
“When you put these elements together, and you can really do your best to create something that is meaningful to you that you want to share with people, I think everyone can feel that, and it brings everyone together.”