‘Mollejas’ is the Spanish word for sweetbreads. Yes, y’all. We’re talking offal here. In this case, it’s usually the thymus glands or pancreas from a cow.
Mollejas are a popular ingredient throughout Mexican cuisine. In Texas — south Texas in particular — you’ll find them at taquerias. [To read more about the Mexican influence of south Texas, read our blog post about its history.]
Our crew hadn’t heard of mollejas at a barbecue joint before Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn gave us the scoop. He was still researching his feature, “The Smoked Mollejas of Duval and Jim Hogg Counties,” and thought he’d throw us a hot tip. But as noted in our most recent conversation, it sounds like he didn’t think we’d be crazy enough to fly down to the Mexico-U.S. border and drive a couple hours into rural Texas to find this elusive treat at J&S Pit Stop. Thankfully for everyone, he was wrong.
Here’s what Vaughn had to tell us about the difference between mollejas tacos and smoked mollejas, and the barbecue joints that serve them.
"Mollejas, or beef sweetbreads, are a common menu item at Mexican restaurants in Texas, especially in south Texas. It's just that they're usually braised or simmered, then pan-fried. I'd never seen them at a barbecue joint until I went to J&S Pit Stop in San Diego, Texas. They cook theirs in the smoker, and serve them on a barbecue platter or in a taco. I loved them, and thought I'd stumbled upon a really unique dish. Then I found another smoked version later that day at Gonzalitoz just south of San Diego, and again a few months later at Avila's BBQ and La Estacion Bar-B-Q, both in Hebbronville. They were all amazing, but smoked or barbecued mollejas are pretty much unknown outside of that small area in Texas.
You've got to understand that all these places are in the vast region of Texas between San Antonio and the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV). It's an area that most travelers don't linger in. They either drive through it as quickly as possible, or fly over it on their way to Brownsville or McAllen. That's why I didn't think the producers of the show would bother making the trip. The suggestion I made was really a challenge, and y'all responded admirably."
– Daniel Vaughn