Barbecue, sliced beef and bread
Ribs and sausage and a cold big red
Barbecue makes old ones feel young
Barbecue makes everybody someone
If you’re feelin’ puny, you don’t know what to do
Treat yourself to some meat, eat some barbecue.
– Robert Earl Keen
Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen and I have several things in common: our first names, our birth city of Houston, and our love of authentic pit-smoked barbecue. For Robert, eating barbecue is, well, therapeutic. For me, enjoying real Texas-style barbecue in a smoke-tinged barbecue joint ranks up there with the greatest of culinary and sensory indulgences.
However, finding true wood-smoked pit ‘cue has proven a challenge for this Texas transplant living in Southern New Mexico, having enjoyed succulent brisket, tender pork ribs, and smoked sausage for more than half a century while residing mostly in Central Texas, including Lockhart, the “Barbecue Capital of Texas.”
Here in the Land of Enchantment, delicious green-chile-inspired Mexican and New Mexican fare dominates menus from Las Cruces to Taos. Tracking down pit-smoked meats, however, is another story. Often what some New Mexico restaurants advertise as barbecue is a pale imitation of the real thing — meats cooked in gas-fired ovens and slathered with thick, gooey barbecue sauce or meats that spend only a brief time in a smoker.
True BBQ pitmasters employ the “low and slow” method using pecan, oak, hickory, mesquite, or a combination of woods and cooking for roughly 10 to 13 hours at 200 to 250 degrees to tenderize the beef brisket or pork shoulder (butt) and impart just the right amount of smokiness. Like a 21st-century Don Quixote, I set out on a quest to find pitmasters in Las Cruces and other parts of Southern New Mexico using traditional barbecuing methods that trace their roots back centuries.
The word “barbecue” is believed to have first surfaced in Texas in the early 1800s and came from the Haitian word barbacot, which referred to a framework of sticks for roasting or smoking meats. James Beard Award-winning food writer and author Robb Walsh posited in the Texas Historical Commission’s Medallion that Texas barbecue has its roots in the South Texas vaqueros’ method of cooking barbacoa in which meat is wrapped in banana or other leaves and cooked over hot coals in an open pit in the earth.
He goes on to say that the Caddo Indians in East Texas were likely the earliest Texans to roast game over an open fire thousands of years ago. Robb cites African American barbecuing customs developed in the South on pre-Civil War plantations and German, Czech, and Polish meat markets as the primary influences on modern Texas barbecue.
Today, barbecue has gone mainstream with top ‘cue chefs like Bobby Flay, Aaron Franklin, and Myron Mixon hosting or competing in BBQ cookoff shows such as BBQ Brawl, Barbecue Pit Masters, and BBQ Pit Wars on The Food Network, Discovery Channel, PBS, and Netflix. In East Austin, Aaron, 44, presides over a renowned BBQ joint where barbecue brethren wait in line for hours to wrap their jaws around juicy brisket, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and other smoked delights.
Although I have eaten barbecue in iconic BBQ joints in Fort Worth and Houston, my ‘cue cravings were honed in famous Central Texas barbecue emporiums such as Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q in Llano, the Luling Meat Market, and sainted Lockhart barbecue joints Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market. At Kreuz Market, pitmasters smoke meat indirectly using post oak the same way today as they did a century ago when the family first opened a grocery store and butcher shop to serve cotton pickers. Seasonings were simple and the meat was served sans sauce to hungry hordes that ate it off butcher paper with their hands.
Central Texas barbecue represents one of four styles of BBQ smoked in the state. East Texas, South Texas, and West Texas have their own methods of cooking barbecue and a variety of sauces. Meats in the heart of the state are cooked indirectly with hot wood coals and typically consist of brisket, beef, pork ribs, sausage, and chicken.
Many Southern New Mexico BBQ joints have added pulled pork and turkey to their repertoire. Sides, often eschewed in old-fashioned meat markets, usually consist of potato salad, coleslaw, beans, corn, baked potato, and, oddly enough, macaroni and cheese. I lean toward coleslaw, potato salad, and beans to go with the preferred holy trinity of smoked meats — sliced brisket, pork ribs, and sausage.
Spicy beans with chunks of brisket set the bar for sides at Jim Bob’s BBQ and Rudy’s BBQ in Las Cruces and Rollin’ Smoke BBQ in Anthony, Texas. As was the case in all the BBQ joints I visited, the restaurants smoke their brisket “low and slow” to give meat that sweet, smoky flavor and impart a reddish smoke ring beneath a slightly charred crust that BBQ purists crave. Woods used are pecan (Jim Bob’s), white oak (Rudy’s), and hickory (Rollin’ Smoke).
Authentic pit-smoked barbecue isn’t cheap. Some places sell meats by the quarter, half, or full pound. One, two, and three-meat plates with sides and barbecue sandwiches are common. Expect to pay roughly $10 for a sandwich and $20 and up for a plate with sides. In contrast with old times, most, if not all, of today’s BBQ restaurants offer sauce. Jim Bob’s proprietor Jim Leon goes whole hog, serving each meal with a tray of more than half a dozen sauces, including several showcasing the tastes of Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, and other noted BBQ regions. Most offer a house sauce.
As Rollin’ Smoke’s owner and pitmaster Jesus Carrasco explains, “We drizzle our sauce lightly on finished meats before they’re served. We don’t drown it like some places, so you get the full flavor.” Amen to that!
Where To Find Texas-style Barbecue in Southern New Mexico
Some BBQ joints operate seven days a week but most take a day or two off, so be sure to call ahead to make sure a restaurant is open before going.
Rollin’ Smoke, 200 S. Main, 915-886-8636
Okay, so it’s not actually in New Mexico, but darn close. This BBQ business advertises itself as “the first and last stop in Texas for barbecue, Exit 0” because it sits just two blocks south of the state line. Jesus, who lives in nearby Berino, New Mexico, still smokes turkey legs as he did at bazaars before opening his storefront business across from McDonald’s. He has expanded the menu to include a variety of meats expertly smoked in converted propane tanks perched atop a flatbed in front of the former auto parts store/garage. Hungry patrons can eat indoors beneath neon lights and beer signs or dine al fresco. Texas Twinkies, large jalapeños stuffed with pulled pork, are a meal unto themselves.
While I haven’t had a chance to visit these three restaurants myself, a reliable source vouches for their authenticity and quality.
Danny’s Place, 902 S. Canal, 575-885-8739
Danny’s started as Dairy Queen, but corporate didn’t approve of Danny Gaulden serving BBQ, so Danny tore up his contract and kept serving his popular Texas- and Southern-style BBQ. Potato salad and coleslaw are made in-house daily and meat is pecan smoked. The sauce most popular with patrons is the vinegar-based southern-style Old Sauce.
My Daddy’s Bar-B-Que, 704 W. Pierce, 575-628-0196
The owners are originally from South Carolina and have been operating their restaurant for 22 years. Sauces reflect South Carolina barbecue heritage and include a spicy mustard concoction along with their original and spicy sauces.
Red Chimney Pit Bar-B-Que, 817 N. Canal, 575-885-8744
The third generation of Fowlers takes “pride in cooking simple, authentic, quality barbecue” — Southern style. Red Chimney opened in 1954 and specializes in entrées by the plate featuring brisket, jalapeño sausage, ham, chicken, and St. Louis-style pork ribs.
Brother-N-Law BBQ, 209 James Canyon Highway, 215-858-0400
Owner Steve Birdsell and his brother-in-law launched this barbecue venture in late 2020 just down the road from Mad Jack’s in a building that once housed Texas Pit BBQ. Steve uses pecan to smoke brisket, pork, turkey, baby backs, and occasionally beef ribs in his Southern Pride commercial smoker. “We are family friendly and put our customers first.”
Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, 105 James Canyon Highway, 575-682-7577
The barbecue and atmosphere in this two-story wood-frame structure, which once housed a mercantile, are as reminiscent of an old-fashioned Central Texas BBQ joint as you’ll find in New Mexico. Superbly smoked brisket, pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, and sausage imported from Kreuz Market in Lockhart are served on butcher paper. BBQ diehards line up mid-morning to be sure to get the highly touted ‘cue that has won the praises of Texas Monthly magazine’s barbecue editor. A pavilion under construction will add serving space, seating, and a music stage.
Dickey’s Barbeque Pit, 1695 Gold Ave., 575-544-7724
Dickey’s originated in Dallas in 1941, and this location is one of 500 franchise locations in the United States. Dickey’s serves typical smoked meats, but a Cuban sandwich pairs citrus pulled pork and jalapeño cheddar kielbasa on a toasted hoagie. Unusual sides include Asiago cheese creamed spinach, fried okra, and Caesar salad.
Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & Espresso 115 Franklin St., 575-267-4222
After COVID-19 knocked brisket from the menu, owner Teako Nunn recently reintroduced pecan- and red-oak-smoked brisket to Sparky’s offerings, complementing the delectable pulled pork and spicy sausage bites. Teako smokes his briskets and pork butts, coated in his dad’s homemade dry rub, in disposable tin containers that catch drippings to keep the meat moist and flavorful. Pineapple coleslaw takes center stage among sides. Their funky old downtown building is a must-see full of vintage metal signs, antiques, and quirky collectibles.
Jim Bob’s BBQ, 2825 W. Picacho Ave. at Ice Box Brewing, 575-526-7129, and inside the Las Cruces International Airport terminal
Sweet pecan smoke permeates the meats cooked here on a six-foot-long “pig roaster.” Pulled pork and brisket are customer favorites, as is the sausage ground locally at Mac’s Meats. The jalapeño baked beans provide a spicy kick and come with sausage chunks.
Rudy’s Country Store & Barbecue,1020 N. Telshor Blvd., 575-205-5526
A huge commercial Oyler BBQ oven fueled with white oak and kept burning 24/7 churns out dozens of briskets daily for sliced and chopped beef, as well as pork loin, chicken, turkey, sausage, and pork ribs. This franchise restaurant, which opened in Las Cruces five years ago, is one of 45 U.S. locations. The most recent Rudy’s opened this May in Santa Fe. Sides, which include green chile stew, are offered a la carte.
Iron Door BBQ & Grill, 1123 N. Pope St., 575-590-1495
If you’re a visitor to Silver, you likely wouldn’t readily spot this unassuming food trailer on a corner lot across from Gough Park that serves some mighty fine ‘cue. Owner Cruz Townsend feeds glowing pecan and mesquite coals into the large metal smoking box on the back of the lot. Ribs are offered only on the weekend and sell out quickly. The subtly smoky pulled pork was a top seller on my visit, and I can see why. Sebastian the cowdog makes the rounds of the picnic tables, hoping to score a tidbit or two.
Story and photography by Rob McCorkle
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2022
Posted by LasCruces.com