A surprising number of people don't know what beef cheek is. Several times I've been in a fancy restaurant with "braised beef cheeks" on the menu and someone will ask, "Those are the cheeks from the rump of the cow, right?" Wrong. Beef cheek comes from the head of a cow, specifically the muscles around the jaw. All that cud chewing makes for an initially tough and sinewy cut of beef, but with the proper slow-cooking technique, it will turn fork-tender.
The idea that meat can come from the head of a cow is alien to many. But as Robb Walsh has shown, cow head is chock full of meaty, gelatin-y goodness. One of the traditional preparations of this type of meat is, of course, barbacoa de cabeza. This is the barbacoa they serve in taco truck fare. In Houston, the king of barbacoa de cabeza is Gerardo's Drive-in.
During a recent weekend visit to Gerardo's with a group of dedicated Houston food explorers, Jay Francis asked the store's very accommodating namesake, Gerardo Lopez, if we could go in the back where the barbacoa is prepared. And that's how we came to sample beef cheek plucked directly off a cow skull.
Gerardo's sells barbacoa on weekends only. We were there on a Sunday, so all the major preparation had been completed. Jay says that if you visit Gerardo's late in the week, and show up early in the morning, you can watch the cow heads being wheeled into the back of the store. After delivery, the heads are dumped into giant steel vats and cooked using a steam process. The meat becomes tender and gelatinous.
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On this Sunday afternoon, we stepped into Gerardo's walk-in freezer and beheld shelves filled with cooked cow heads with chunks of meat still attached, including the cheeks. Lopez scraped a few pieces off the skull and handed it over to us. As expected, it was fork tender with an almost creamy or buttery texture. Next time I eat at a fancy restaurant and someone asks about beef cheeks, I can't wait to tell them my story of eating beef cheek right off the cow skull at Gerardo's Drive-in.