Fresh Air Bar-B-Que - Jackson, GA
Photo by Amy C Evans, SFA oral historian
February 2008

Barbecue Musings

We have completed week three and are heading into week four. We probably know what is in store for us now. We are waiting for the final plans for the septic system, we have a fairly good handle on our electrical load requirements, the roof needs to be removed and replaced with something a little more robust and waterproof and the planning for the kitchen is moving along nicely. In all this mayhem we have to step back once in a while and remind ourselves of what it is that we are doing and why. This week we took a long hard look at the barbecue portion of our menu.

Neither Josie nor myself is a pit-master with 20 years of barbecue experience, though we know what we like. We have grilled for the family for years and we think we are pretty good at it, but that is not West Texas Barbecue. We decided to look around and see what is being done around here. Frankly, it is pretty disappointing. This part of West Texas is a barbecue desert. Earlier this year we visited a few places in the Corpus Christi area, but despite some slick presentation, it was clearly mass market, pseudo barbecue. It was OK but hardly the kind of food either of us want to serve to our customers. Wet, partly cooked chicken, brisket that may have once walked past a smoker but had retained none of the flavor, boring beans and baked potato that was actually steamed in an aluminum wrap and so it was equally boring. We had made repeated visits to a barbecue chain known as Crazy Bill’s or some such name. Despite its popularity with some members of my family the brisket had a curious flavor that was reminiscent of strong disinfectant, the beans were straight out of a can, the chicken thickly covered in too sweet barbecue sauce, anyway, enough of that. I think you get the picture. We have found the barbecue scene to be either boring or absent and we need to fix that.

We have been spending a lot of time listening to barbecue enthusiasts, researching pit designs and examining cooking techniques. There is a wealth of information and misinformation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is the hard part. We could see a great deal of experimentation in our future and we had reached that point of barbecue confusion that left us spinning in circles but going nowhere. For every opinion there was a counter opinion. They can’t all be right. Frankly, it had been so long ago that I tasted good barbecue I was wondering if my memory was at fault or if any such barbecue place still existed.

La Kiva BBQ Pit
La Kiva BBQ Pit

We had to drive to Fort Davis to see the TABC people about our liquor license so we had a few hours to talk about the problems we saw. Our thirty plus year old pit was showing its age and we discussed refurbishing it versus replacing it. The state of the brickwork was such that we needed to take the whole thing apart, replace the grates, doors, fire-door and about thirty percent of the brickwork. In the end, we would have had a new BBQ pit. We agonized over how we could keep the old pit but finally, we decided that we could produce better barbecue with a totally new pit from the ground up. Nostalgia is all very well but when it gets in the way of good food it is time to get real. Having more or less decided we were getting a new pit we now had to decide on what we were going to get. Do we copy the old pit in detail because it did have some very good points or do we go with a tried and tested competition smoker? Do we go with propane or stick with wood? Indoor or outdoor? Counter-flow, baffled or straight through? The offset firebox seems to be a settled question and it is hard to find a modern barbecue that does not use an offset firebox. I kept on coming back to the same issue. What would the barbecue taste like. There are so many issues and opinions and a lot of contradiction. I wanted to know that the system we got was capable of producing exceptional barbecue night after night. I thought I knew what I wanted and what would work but so many people had other ideas, it was confusing.

Modern Smoker
Modern Smoker

As we drove to Fort Davis and just before we drove into Fort Davis Josie noticed a barbecue place. With our barbecue problem in mind, Josie and I decided to call in, on the way home, which we did. They had a really nice, portable, competition pit, wood fired with propane to get it started and it fit exactly with my image of what a barbecue pit should be like. It was a classic. It even smelled right just sitting there. It set me thinking. I try not to tax my brain but once in a while you just have to. Having found a barbecue place we just had to stop in and say hello and do a little culinary espionage. They were not serving but we halloed and hollered until, eventually, a slightly surprised Jenny Turner appeared. After just a few minutes chatting, she called up her husband Scott and the pit-master, Brian Bourbon, so the five of us visited for a while. Part way through the conversation she disappeared, so we were left chatting with Scott and Brian. It seems they only started selling barbecue last fall and they entered their first competition about that time. They placed very highly, coming in third I think. They proudly showed us the pit and explained its features. Honestly, they demonstrated their enthusiasm and knowledge in no uncertain terms. They presently only do Brisket, pulled pork and sausage along with homemade sides. Right now they are saying they are not ready with the chicken until they have it perfected but judging by the twinkle in various eyes we won’t have to wait long. I started to wonder what the Barbecue they made was really like. Was this all talk or was it real? They certainly walked the walk and talked the talk but could they deliver the goods? About that time Jenny came out bringing two brisket sandwiches. Without any reservation, that was the finest barbecue sandwich I have ever had. The flavor was beyond good. It was authentic, deep and rich and the sides were exceptional. If you are in Fort Davis then give them a try. These are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet and that is definitely a barbecue to stop and sample. They have limited opening hours but you can find out all you need from their Facebook page.

Tell them hi from La Kiva.

The great thing about all this is that we have now confirmed how we will get the flavor we want in the barbecue. The style of barbecue pit we want will do the job and they have proved that to us in no uncertain terms. What our instincts were telling us all along as being the right way has been backed up by the real life experience of the folks at Come-and-Take-It-BBQ.

So why would I be talking up the competition? It’s simple. They are far enough away so we will not be competing, so we can be friends and swap techniques and tips without hurting each others business. In addition, I would love to have these folk just down the street. It would be good for tourism and we would all benefit from that and they are good folk. Scott even spent many years in Terlingua and knows La Kiva well.

At his point I can see a huge controversy developing about the dry rub we should use.  What is your favorite dry rub for barbecue?  By that, I mean low and slow as opposed to grilling.

Photo of the modern smoker used in this post is used under the Creative Commons License as listed below. Robert Nunnally , BBQ grill, Camden Arkansas, Daffodil festival, 2010

13 thoughts on “Barbecue Musings”

  1. Check out the Salt Lick outside of Austin in Drift Wood. They have the best and have been soing it the longest in Texas. See their pit and ovens before doing anything.

  2. Try John Henry’s pecan rub. Your can buy it by the pound on line.
    It is great on everything. A favorite with my family is grilled south Texas pork rib eyes with the rub. HEBs around San Antonio carry them but a good purveyor should be able to supply them. We are looking forward to the reopening. Hope you are ready by Al Barlow’ s Terlingua Music Bash 3rd weekend in October.
    Smiling thoughts! Mark and Cindy Peyton

  3. What a wonderful story and so existential that you all met Scott & Jenny and The Pit Master Brian Bourbon! They are all a wealth of knowledge. My first forays into West Texas were definitely a learning experience especially when I was invited to my first “BBQ”. Was I ever shocked! BBQ out there is moo not oink! Being born & raised in the Mississippi Delta and less than an hour from Memphis, one learns how to cook at a very early age. Low & slooow with a dry rub is the ONLY way to go. If you need further instruction go to Memphis down the alley from The Peabody Hotel to the best BBQ place in the US—The Rendezvous. Scott however is much closer! Good luck and remember BBQ is OINK! Not moo!

  4. John & Josie, Congratulations on your new adventure and on carrying the La Kiva torch forward. I fell in love with Terlingua 4 years ago and have been returning every year since. I am a native Texan, born and raised, and my soon-to-be wife and I have a Central Texas style barbecue business in Richmond, VA that is very successful. I care deeply about Texas BBQ and would love the opportunity to meet with you to share my opinions and knowledge of the craft. To start, the most important things I can impart to you are in the attached article written about our BBQ business and my love of Texas Q Bottom line though is that I care deeply about Glenn’s smoker and the bbq legacy he was building. Alex and I will be in Terlingua on or about Oct 1 and will be staying with my good friend David Sines. PS- you might also ask Gumby how to get a hold of Doug Christian. Doug did a great job of running the pit at La Kiva and is as passionate about BBQ as I am. Peace.

  5. If you really want to check out BBQ you need to plan a trip to the Austin area. Salt Lick as someone already mentioned. Lockheart has several well known places. If you are in El Paso check out the Cattlemans restaurant ( really out of Fabens). Have Great Steaks, of course, but the beans and coleslaw are fabulous. I’d drive out there just for the sides.
    Good luck with your new venture.

  6. My brother-in-law in Teague TX uses mesquite wood with pecan or apple wood. 80 percent mesquite, 20 percent apple or pecan. However, 100 percent mesquite ain’t bad!!!

  7. My brother in law in Teague Tx uses mesquite with a little pecan wood thrown on top. Dry rub works for him as well. He does apply the dry rub at least 12 hours beforehand and refrigerates the meat for 12hours before smoking at least six hours at 225 degrees. He has a temperature gauge on his smoker.

  8. We have been going to TICC for around 20 years. Glad you bought La Kiva, we also do BBQ cook offs. We will be doing the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo BBQ September 26th & 27th. Would be great if you could come and be a judge. Our cooking spot is #143. Our team name is “Chili Cook Gone Wild” if you think you can be a judge let me know, and I will talk to the BBQ committee.

  9. Its good that you’re investigating pits and recipes for your future operation. There are as many opinions about ‘que as there are individuals. I suggest keeping things simple. Indirect smoking works well for oak or hickory (pecan) but if you’re using mesquite you’ll have to cook over coals as mesquite smoke from raw wood will render the meat bitter. Cooper’s in Llano is an example of a mesquite operation. Any wood supply will have to be brought in, regardless. As for dry rubs the better Austin places use salt and pepper. Vary the ratio to your taste, of course, but I like 9 pepper to 1 salt. Meat quality is the next option but I expect you’ll be limited by your supplier. You’ll have somewhat of a captive audience so its unlikely they’ll be expecting Angus prime or be willing to pay for it. You can still make decent to excellent brisket using choice or lesser quality. You might have to wrap a bit longer to make it tender. Good luck. Am looking forward to the new Kiva. Avik would be kiva backwards, JIC you need a name suggestion. Sounds somewhat Alaskan, which might ping the irony meter a bit. Take care.

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