Newly-opened Zavala’s Barbecue had been on the Posse’s radar for the past couple of weeks, so we headed south to old downtown Grand Prairie last Saturday. The sky was deep blue and it was 70-degrees. It also just happened to be Cinco de Mayo, the making of a perfect BBQ day.
Zavala’s had been open on Main Street for eight Saturdays when we visited, growing from a small catering outfit to a pop-up and eventually to a BBQ joint that’s open one day a week. The partnership of Joe Zavala Jr. and high school friend Drew Wright is already producing some of the best barbecue we’ve had in the DFW area.
After we ate, I wondered out loud to dining partners & Posse members Tom Fox, Michael Ainsworth and Marshall Cooper, “Is it possible one of the best BBQ joints in DFW has only been open eight weeks?” We agreed, Zavala’s is that good.
Zavala’s is a family affair. Joe Jr. was inspired by his Dad’s cooking growing up. His dream was to one day open a taco shop with his Dad. When Joe Sr. suggested they call their future venture “Three Tacos and a Beer,” his son countered with the suggestion they open a BBQ business. Thus Zavala’s Barbecue was born.
Thanks to a blog post by D Magazine’s Daniel Walker, we got a heads up that something special was happening in Grand Prairie. Daniel wrote, “A three-hour drive to central Texas is no longer necessary to find an ethereal slice of brisket. And now, the barbecue gods are smiling down upon Grand Prairie in the form of Zavala’s Barbecue.”
On the day we visited, a huge Cinco de Mayo parade was marching several miles down Main Street, right past Zavala’s front gate. Not deterred by the crowds, we walked in from several blocks away to find a pleasantly short line as they opened at 11 a.m. We met Joe Sr. as we approached, he offered burnt ends to whet our appetites, then a cold Lone Star to chase it down. This is how a perfect barbecue day begins.
Zavala’s was originally located in an open space next to The Brass Bean Coffee House & Cafe, at 123 W. Main in downtown Grand Prairie (they have since moved to a permanent location at 241 W. Main.) Their narrow space between two buildings contained the cutting board & warmer, a cash register worked by Joe’s wife Christan, and two long picnic tables. They also have a brisk pre-order business, you can pick up your order at 10:30 a.m before they open.
Joe credits Brass Bean owner Jonathan Dodd for helping with their accomplishments so far, offering them a permanent location along with support and advice. There’s a great vibe when you sit down to dine in the space, it’s somewhat family style as you eat and visit with your picnic table neighbors, talking mostly BBQ of course.
Tom Fox summed up his first impression, “Zavala's reminds me of my first visit to Valentina's in Austin. There's something about a fresh, hand-made tortilla and BBQ.”
I was reminded of the Posse’s visits to 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, one of our favorite places in the state. Restaurants like 2M Smokehouse, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ and now Zavala’s have the potential to change the landscape of Texas barbecue. Places where classically-cooked meats, done low & slow the Texas way, meet up with Hispanic tastes and traditions to form an exciting new trend on our barbecue landscape.
We ordered a huge platter of meat, centered around a pound of sliced brisket, a 50/50 mix between fatty and lean, a half pound of chopped brisket, joined by four pork ribs, a couple of homemade sausage links and two sides, freshly-made potato salad and cole slaw, along with fresh tortillas. And then the star of the show, a half pound of barbacoa, aka: beef cheeks.
While beef cheeks are a long-time staple of Hispanic dining, we’ve only seen them regularly at one other barbecue joint, LeRoy & Lewis in Austin. As soon as we sat down, I dove in placing an ample serving of barbacoa on a fresh tortilla, topped by green salsa. The bold flavor explosion began there.
Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper sums up his first meal at Zavala’s, “All meats are cooked on their 1,000-gallon stick burner to absolute perfection. Clean smoke, fat was rendered perfectly on the brisket, the brisket rub was right on the money making the flavors pop with the pecan and post oak wood. I would of liked to have a spare rib cooked by these guys even though the loin backs were cooked absolutely perfectly.”
Tom Fox experimented with mixing the BBQ sauce and salsa together. “I made a tasty breakfast taco from chopped brisket, lightly drizzled with BBQ sauce and homemade salsa," he said. "A 1-1 ratio had some kick to it, which I like. Otherwise a 2-1 ratio for the not-so-spicy crowd. Makes my mouth water.”
Don’t miss the Sloppy Juan, an enormous taco made from whatever burnt ends were on the cutting board at the time, mixed in with brisket and lightly sauced, then placed on a homemade soft tortilla. It’s served with the red and green salsas on the side. Order a couple of those along with a side of the amazing coleslaw. It will be a lunch to remember.
The core group behind the early success of the business consists of four friends from Grand Prairie High School. Joe Jr., 32, and wife, Christan, have been together since those days. They are expecting their first child later in May. Partner Drew Wright, 33, and Joe played high school football together. Rounding out the team is C.J. Ramirez, who handles social media and marketing for Zavala’s.
Joe smiles as he talks about the success they’ve had so far, “We’re growing and everyone has been so supportive.” He went out of his way to to thank pitmaster/owners Jordan Jackson of Bodacious BBQ in Longview and Reid Guess of Guess Family Barbecue in Waco as two people who went above and beyond to help Zavala’s get off the ground.
We also learned that Zavala’s had just signed the papers for a permanent location the day before we visited. They plan to move a couple of blocks west on Main Street, to the historic location at 421 W. Main St., built in 1946 to house a then new restaurant chain, Weber’s Root Beer stand. The distinctive building is a landmark to Grand Prairie citizens but needs some renovation and work.
Team Zavala plans to open in the new location by January 2019, once they close on the property and improvements are made. They plan to stick to their current schedule of being open on Saturdays only, at least for the time being. Joe, Drew and C.J. all have good 9-5 jobs during the week and aren’t quite ready to jump off the cliff yet.
Drew summed up their journey so far: “This is only our eighth week, but it’s been a fun ride so far.” Their goal is to eventually be open three days a week, Thursday through Saturday.
I mentioned that another BBQ joint we know of, located in the sleepy little town of Lexington, is also open only one day a week and was named, once again, as best in the state by Texas Monthly. Maybe there’s a certain karma to that schedule if you make great barbecue.
Zavala’s Barbecue, 421 W. Main St., Grand Prairie, 214-564-2799. Open Saturdays 11am-until the meat runs out. Internet pre-orders can be picked up from 10-10:30am.