A trip to two trailers that take inspiration from Mexico to put a spin on American classics.
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
The name Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ might seem a bit unwieldy, the kind of gimmicky hybridization used to stand out in a crowd of food trailers in a city full of Tex-Mex and barbecue offerings.
But for trailer owner Miguel Vidal, the name nods to culinary and cultural traditions that represent his native San Antonio. The fifth-generation Texan, who opened the trailer in February 2013, grew up bonding with family over his grandfather and father’s backyard barbecue. The smoked meat was served with the accouterments traditionally found in Mexican restaurants: salsa, lime, avocado. And, of course, homemade tortillas.
“If you don’t have homemade tortillas, nobody will go there,” Vidal said of Mexican restaurants in San Antonio. “It’s a good way to get slapped.”
The Tex-Mex BBQ isn’t a marketing angle; it’s a way of life. It’s the name Vidal, who with the help of his wife and brother runs the trailer named after his daughter, gave to what he calls “South Texas comfort food.”
Vidal follows San Antonio’s lead, pressing his own flour tortillas in a San Antonio Spurs-black trailer behind the Star Bar. The trailer is located just a tortilla-toss away from Ranch 616, the restaurant where Vidal served as general manager for nine years, after working his way up the ranks.
Valentina’s has two pits that are seemingly in perpetual use, smoking brisket over mesquite for 15 to 18 hours. That tender beef arrives in a sandwich ($8.50) of thick slabs brandished with an impressive ruby smoke ring and stacked tall, a toupee of cabbage slaw providing crunch between the meat and top bun. The moist beef packs enough time-earned flavor that you won’t want to adorn it with the sweet homemade sauce.
It’s one of the best sliced brisket sandwiches in town, but when the Mexican accent gets added to the dish, it ascends to a category all its own. The beef is chopped and loaded onto one of the homemade flour tortillas — a bubbled bed balancing fluff and crunch — and dressed with a serrano-tinged red salsa and a smooth dollop of guacamole ($5).
You can order the trio of smoked meats — pork, chicken and beef — as tacos or sandwiches, but, outside of the sliced brisket sandwich, tacos are the way to go. Mesquite smoke works its way through tender strands of chicken ($4) that get a kick from a heaping of bright tomatillo salsa, while the carnitas ($4) plays a high-low game with floral cilantro and rich caramelized onions, the vegetal snap of grilled red peppers serving as the dividing line. Valentina’s runs a pig-centric special that adds snap-casing coarse grind beef-and-pork sausage to the top of the carnitas, forming the culinary epicenter of Vidal’s Tex-Mex BBQ concept.
(Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; noon to 2 a.m. Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Information: 600 W. Sixth St. 512-221-4248, valentinastexmexbbq.com.)
T-Loc’s Sonora Hot Dogs
I’ve seen Phoenix pop up on those lists of cities with the most obese populations. I don’t remember seeing Tucson on there, but it wouldn’t surprise me given one of the town’s most popular culinary creations.
The Sonoran hot dog takes an American classic, wraps it in bacon and laces it with Mexican-inspired ingredients. The twisted treat apparently originated in the northern Mexico state of Sonora, where food carts selling variations on the bacon-wrapped hot dog ring a plaza in the capital of Hermosillo. The messy one-hander eventually made its way to Tucson, where T-Loc’s Sonoran Dog owner Miguel Kaiser lived for 25 years.
Kaiser, who has lived in Mississippi, Iran and Mexico and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, wanted to export the Tucson specialty, so he and his Hounduran wife, Zulma Nataren, jumped on the Internet to explore possibilities. They discovered that Austin was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and one with a sad shortage of bacon-wrapped dogs.
They moved here a couple of years ago “with nothing,” took jobs in the hospitality industry at hotels, and six months ago opened T-Loc’s Sonora Hot Dogs on Burnet Road in front of the H-E-B. The bright blue trailer has since crossed the street and sits next to a car wash and ice manufacturer.
Kaiser wraps Hebrew National franks ($6) with broad slices of bacon and cooks the frankenweenie on the flat top, the hot grill giving the bacon a crunchy edge. He places the dog inside a steamed bun lined with pinto beans, tops it with finely diced onions and tomatoes, and drizzles it with mustard, mayonnaise and a piquant jalapeno sauce. The result somehow allows for expression of each of the tangy, tart, crunchy, spicy and fatty ingredients. The dog comes in a boat with a translucent roasted Caribbean pepper that looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. My only quibble came with the steamed bun that quickly wilted under the wet weight of its ingredients, but one mustn’t mess with tradition, I assume.
Speaking of tradition, T-Loc’s also serves a nice carne asada burrito ($7.50), packed with pico de gallo, citrusy homemade guacamole and steak seared to a rosy medium-rare.
Kaiser, who is probably the only person running a hot dog trailer who ever served an externship at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City, has an eye on an eventual expansion but for now says he and his wife are enjoying “living the dream.”
“Sometimes we pinch each other,” Kaiser said.
(Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Information: 5715 Burnet Road. 512-994-8982, tlocs.com)