When it comes to food, the small border town of Rio Grande City is best known for its historic Tex-Mex joint, Caro’s Restaurant. The 84-year-old family-owned eatery is renowned for its excellent puffy tacos. But there is another outstanding restaurant worth seeking out in Rio Grande City. That restaurant is Starr Barbecue, where Santa Isabel Gonzalez (who co-owns the place with her husband, Mario) runs the show. With a brightly colored exterior and an interior packed with memorabilia from bygone eras—check out the wall of old radios—Starr Barbecue has all the makings of a classic Texas ’cue joint. Its location on the border, though, means that this is more than a run-of-the-mill smoke shack. Here you can find wedges of pan de campo—a cakelike cowboy bread baked in a Dutch oven—served with a heart-stopping mound of butter. And the barbecue comes wrapped in tortillas just as often as it’s served on a tray. It’s with these tacos that Starr truly shines.
The Gonzalezes took over Starr Barbecue from its first owner in 2009. Previously, Mario was unemployed (he now works for the county) and Santa was a home health-care aide whose patient had recently died. The loss was so difficult, she swore to never again be in that position. Neither Santa nor Mario had restaurant experience. But through family connections, they came to meet the original owner and purchase the place. Back then, it was a one-room, four-table joint. The Gonzalezes wisely doubled their space by expanding into the former medical equipment shop next door. You can stop by their other business, the adjacent Starr Thrift Store, to browse quirky vintage clothes and housewares. The restaurant is now regularly packed with locals, some of whom come for the popular fried chicken with a rippling golden-brown exterior. Others come for the beef barbecue, and a third loyal faction comes for the tacos. And in the Rio Grande Valley, diners are discerning about their tacos.
Santa Gonzalez oversees it all and has a hand in everything. In addition to management duties, she occasionally works the oak-burning pits full of briskets, sausage, and fajitas. Her husband was the first pitmaster before they delegated the work to a series of family members, including Santa’s sister. Then Santa herself ran the pits for three years. Now she’s hired more help, but that doesn’t mean she’s stepped back much. “I’m everywhere,” she says. “I’m the one making the plates because I like to see that they’re clean, organized, and well presented. I work the pits every three days or so.”
My traveling companion and I ordered enough that Gonzalez was slightly taken aback. “With the amount of food you ordered, I thought it was for four or five guys,” she exclaimed with a chuckle as she sat down to chat with us. The smoked meats, served with white bread, were good. The pork ribs were tender, with a shimmering and sweet veneer; the brisket was brown throughout, with a fine bark; and the sliced sausage was decent. Too bad the thinly sliced fajita was tough with only hints of the life and flavor it once had. As is de rigueur in the Valley, everything has a kick of spice (although in this case it’s mild).
Starr Barbecue excels when it focuses on its border roots, using fresh ingredients and beloved brands. Gonzales says that’s what distinguishes her from other restaurants: “I don’t use any generic stuff.” The mac and cheese is made with Velveeta. Some snobby gourmets might turn up their noses at that, but Texans know that the traditional, comforting queso con chile dip requires Velveeta. Moreover, the product has a long, complicated history in the U.S., especially when it comes to standing in as a commodity food. Invented in 1918 by a Swiss American cheesemaker and initially advertised as a healthful food, Velveeta has become a ubiquitous, affordable product accessible to everyone, including the 30 to 40 percent of Rio Grande Valley residents living below the poverty line. Gonzalez also doesn’t like freezers. When the food is sold out for the day, as was the customer-favorite chicken when we visited on a Friday afternoon, it’s gone. We were lucky enough to get the last of the pan de campo, which Starr offers in place of the typical chips and salsa. The wedge of pan de campo and the Velveeta mac and cheese are a deliriously pleasing throwback.
Unsurprisingly, Starr Barbecue also serves cheesy birria de res tacos. “Everyone loves it,” Gonzalez says. She stews brisket in a birria broth punctuated with ancho, pasilla, and guajillo chiles. Small cups of the strong-flavored consommé and a salsa roja whose spice flares up in the back of the throat are served alongside four tacos in a basket lined with red-and-white checkered paper. The tacos are fragrant, juicy, and oozing with mozzarella cheese, a common Mexican American substitute for expensive Oaxacan quesillo. Also, Gonzalez knows that traditional birria is made with goat. Goat is popular in the Valley, as butterflied, spit-roasted cabrito al pastor, but Gonzalez insists that because Starr is a barbecue joint that smokes brisket, brisket is what should be in her birria. I also liked the chewy, heartwarming charro beans served in a small styrofoam cup.
The saucy smoked brisket tacos, nestled in house-made flour tortillas, are even better than the birria. The meat is juicy, while the sauce balances sweet and spice. Best of all is the flattened, rectangular burrito. Dark-spotted with swooshes of brown created from time on the flattop, the behemoth fits tightly into a 8¼-by-5¾-inch foil-lined styrofoam meat tray. Cut into quadrants, the exposed interior shows the same saucy chopped brisket mixed with refried beans and mozzarella. The components work harmoniously in every bite. I wanted to finish the whole burrito, but it’s so big I was physically unable to. It might just be the best burrito I’ve ever had.