THE PITMASTER SERIES: Miguel Vidal of Valentina's TexMex BBQ in Austin, TX
Miguel Vidal takes the best of the Tex and the best of the Mex to make some of the best food in Austin, Texas.
Miguel Vidal first had the idea to open a 20 person restaurant to compete with the downtown Austin favorite, Lambert’s. The idea was to take Texas BBQ and much-loved Mexican staples, and fancify them for an upscale restaurant setting by combining his decades of experience in the culinary world with the food he grew up eating. Vidal had dozens of complex dishes and recipes spinning around in his head, but every night when he came home to his family for dinner, it was usually to his dad’s simple, yet impeccably delicious home cooking. Vidal decided to change direction with his restaurant, and offer up a menu stripped down to the essence of what truly good food is. So what's Valentina's all about?
It’s about family. For Vidal, truly good food is about simplicity and fresh, true ingredients, but it’s also very much about family. “Every family occasion, it was barbecue — weddings, christenings, quinciñeras; coming home to my parents house, I was always eating brisket, grabbing a tortilla to go with it — it’s what Texans do,” says Vidal. “It’s what families in Texas do. Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, these people who are not-quite-Mexican, not-quite-American.” That subculture of “not-quite-Mexican” and “not-quite-American” is a very specific, very Texan culture and cuisine that Vidal wanted to, and successfully does, embody in his food.
It’s about simplicity .“What’s the best part about barbecue? Simplicity,” says Vidal in his lecture-like way, coming off so only because he so obviously, so completely knows what he’s talking about. “In every cuisine, everyone has the same version of every dish. They all have the simple elements.” They had to go back to basics, says Vidal, and when he started to overthink things, asked his wife — “What do you think I’m best at?” “Meat,” she replied. So, Vidal started with salt, pepper, and garlic. “What can I do with it?” he asked himself.
It’s about the fire. “The key is the consistency of the fire,” Vidal explains about smoking barbecue. “You gotta keep looking at it and ask yourself, ‘what color is the smoke? Is it blue, is it black?'” Every little thing counts, from the temperature to the time, to the type of wood (Vidal uses mesquite). “But you also have to have the patience to not overthink it; you have to let it do its thing,” he concludes.
"My grandfather was a janitor, my dad had three jobs. We didn't have money to go out and eat, so you made your own good food."
It’s about Texas. “We wanted to make barbecue that could stand up to the best Texas barbecue in Texas,” Vidal states. “That’s why we came to Austin. All the best is right here.” And what is king in Texas BBQ if not brisket? Vidal and his family set out to eat at all the top barbecue spots in Austin, aiming for the highest caliber, knowing full well that if they perfected their brisket, “everything else will follow through.” As far as the Mex part of his Tex Mex cuisine— “Tortillas, rice, beans, salsa—we had to be able to stand up to the best Tex Mex anywhere, or to the food of someone’s grandmother,” says Vidal.
It’s about food. Vidal’s skill with food is undeniable on any given menu he makes, but it is especially emphasized under pressure, when need begets time-crunching innovation. Describing their very first opening back in 2013, when they crazily decided to open right at SXSW, Vidal says, “We were running out of food, so we started doing spitfire dishes, started using the pits as ovens, came up with — voila, [an impromptu] late night menu.” He credits his ability to fashion great food on the spot to his childhood. “My grandfather was a janitor, my dad had three jobs,” he explains. “We didn’t have money to go out and eat, so you made your own good food.” He recalls being home, parents at work, and, left to feed himself, he would take hot dogs, hold it over the open stove fire, do the same with a tortilla, and he’d have a delicious meal, all without using a single cooking pan. This creativity and resourcefulness of his youth came in handy that same opening week in 2013, when, again running out of food, he told his staff to “go to H.E.B. and buy all the Hebrew Nationals.” He took the hot dogs, whipped up some homemade mustard and pico de gallo, served it in fresh homemade tortillas, and sold 800 dollars worth of hot dogs that night.
It’s about families. After a successful few years downtown, Valentina’s has finally found a permanent home in South Austin. Downtown was obviously busy and lucrative, and they were getting a lot of travelers eating their food, “but we weren’t getting the families that I wanted down there,” says Vidal, something obviously very important to him. “Everyone said we were stupid for moving out here, that no one’s gonna come,”says Vidal, “but it was the best move for us.” Now, families come in and order barbecue by the pound, and parking is hard to come by, with patrons parking all up and down the neighborhood. “It was always the goal to be a restaurant, not a temporary food truck; it wasn’t just because we outgrew ourselves,” says Vidal. Now, they’re near where their kids practice, and when families need somewhere to eat, Valentina’s is right there.