Barbecue lovers: You have two more Saturdays to head to Grand Prairie for some of the best food, served by some of friendliest people, the Texas BBQ Posse has come across in some time.
After that, you’ll have to wait a few months to see why Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins declared, after his first visit to Zavala’s Barbecue, “A star is born.” (That was back in May, so, no, Chris wasn’t pilfering from the sensational new movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.)
“After we ate,” Chris wrote, “I wondered out loud to dining partners and 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 opened last March in temporary quarters at The Brass Bean Coffee House & Café, at 123 W. Main Street in downtown Grand Prairie. Open only on Saturdays, it’s been drawing long lines of diners, especially since the Posse’s visit and a glowy review by D magazine’s Daniel Walker.
“It’s been amazing,” says Joe Zavala Jr., a Grand Prairie native who owns Zavala’s in partnership with a high school friend, Drew Wright.
“When we started, we just hoped a few people would want to stop by and eat our barbecue. The response has been unbelievable. We’ve had customers tell us they drove three hours to eat here. So, now, we know, the expectations are very, very high.”
Buoyed by early success, Zavala’s is getting its own brick-and-mortar home in December or January, when it will move up the street to occupy an abandoned Grand Prairie landmark, the old Weber’s Root Beer stand at 421 W. Main, built in the late 1940s.
Once they’re in the new building, they plan to start on Saturdays only (as now), adding one Friday a month. “We want it to grow organically,” Joe says.
“We had offers to move to Dallas or Fort Worth, and investors willing to help us do that,” he adds. “But we wanted to stay in our hometown. We want to be here in Grand Prairie, with our friends and our families.”
Joe is one of an emerging band of “Texican” barbecuers, mostly young cooks who blend elements of Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking into familiar barbecue dishes. It’s a style that’s finding a following across the state: at 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, and Flores Barbecue in Whitney, to name a few.
It sounds like a foolproof formula -- “Mexican and barbecue, my two favorite kinds of food,” as Chris puts it. But there’s an art to bringing the two traditions together without being gimmicky, or compromising either.
The result isn’t food that’s “halfway between” Tex-Mex and barbecue. It’s barbecue all the way. Zavala’s menu, at first glance, looks like what you’d find in 200 other joints: brisket, ribs (beef or pork), sausage, smoked turkey.
But there’s also beef cheek – barbacoa to generations of Latino Texans – and a house specialty, the Sloppy Juan, a soft taco piled with brisket and burnt ends, lightly sauced.
Platters come with warm, handmade flour tortillas – a major upgrade from the slices of white bread plopped onto trays in most joints.
Zavala’s green salsa has an intense zing that isn’t for the faint of tongue. Posse member Tom Fox likes to mix equal parts salsa and barbecue sauce. That tones down the heat, but the blend would still have many gringos reaching for the ice water.
Then there’s the “pizza pepper sausage.” The pepper part comes through loud and clear, but don’t bother searching for the pizza flavor. “Pizza pepper,” Joe explains with a laugh, is a colloquialism he learned from the late Roland Lindsey, founder of the Bodacious Bar-B-Q chain in East Texas. Pizza pepper was what the old guy called the red pepper flakes that many people like to sprinkle on their pizza.
Joe says he never intended to be part of a hot “Texican” trend. He’s just preserving the cooking traditions he learned as a youth, watching his dad, Joe Sr., barbecue on weekends.
His family’s roots are in Zavala County, southwest of San Antonio. “The food we serve is what I grew up with,” he says. “Weekends at our house meant family and friends, cold beer and barbecue, and watching the Dallas Cowboys on TV. I grew up on brisket. But it was brisket served on a tortilla, with pico de gallo on top.”
Knowing that the clock was running on the current Zavala’s, a Posse contingency visited this past Saturday: Chris; photojournalist extraordinaire David Woo; two newcomers on their first Texas barbecue adventure, Hollywood artist Diane Mastel and photographer John Kasinger; and the present author, whose fan mail from regular readers of this site typically begins: “Where’s Gary Jacobson?”
Joe served us a platter laden with ribs, sausage, turkey, brisket, beef cheek, and Sloppy Juans. (One of those Juans by itself is a healthy lunch for most folks, and all of us went home with boxes of leftovers.)
We’d come from Dallas and Plano, Fort Worth and Colleyville. Everyone agreed it was well worth the trip.
“This is amazing,” said Diane, referring, I think, to everything on the tray. “I’m never leaving Texas.”
“I cook a lot,” said John, “and this is outstanding. This brisket is insane. The ribs are sensational.”
As special as the food is at Zavala’s, the atmosphere is even better. Customers waiting in line are invited to grab a free Lone Star from an ice-filled cooler on the sidewalk. Joe Jr. is never far from the cutting table, but never too busy to say hello if an old friend stops by. Joe Sr. is often around, keeping an eye on his infant grandson, Joe III, who was born on May 25. (Christan, Joe Jr.’s wife, who runs the cash register, calls her baby son José because, she says, “there are too many Joes around here.”)
“There’s no better feeling in the world,’ Joe Jr. says, “than knowing that we’re helping people have a good time, knowing they’re enjoying the food we serve. To me, that’s the best.”
On our visit last week, one of those who stopped by for lunch was Cole Humphreys, a newly elected Grand Prairie City Council member. He says he hopes the success of Zavala’s will help spur a larger revival of Grand Prairie’s downtown district.
“When people drive by on Main Street and see this line of folks smiling and having a good time and waiting to get into a restaurant, some of them are bound to stop,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘There’s something special going on here in Grand Prairie.’”
For the next two Saturdays, you can see for yourself.
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.