Interview: Edward Davila of Davila’s BBQ
Owner/Pitmaster: Davila’s BBQ; Opened 1959
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Edward Davila has just hit retirement age, but he can’t imagine life without working at the barbecue joint. He’s been doing it since he was a boy, and now he’s teaching his son to follow in his footsteps.
After our interview, Davila wanted to show off his custom built pits. They have a unique design where the racks are stacked like a giant Lazy Susan for smoked meat. It’s just one of the things that sets their operation apart like smoking with mesquite wood and having their specialty lamb ribs and homemade sausage.
Edward’s father Raul developed the sausage recipe in Luling. After a short stint in Lockhart, he moved the business to Seguin and brought the beef sausage recipe with him. That’s where they’ve been ever since.
Daniel Vaughn: How did Davila’s BBQ get started?
Edward Davila: My dad Raul was working for my uncle in Luling in 1952. He worked for him for a while and that’s where he learned to make that sausage. In ’57 my dad decided to do his own thing and moved to Lockhart for a couple years. There were a few barbecue places here in Seguin that my dad was supplying sausage to. One was Mr. Little’s in this neighborhood. Mr. Little told my dad “Why don’t you just come over here. I’ve got more business than I can handle.” In Lockhart we were inside a neighborhood. We were doing fine, but not great, so my dad decided to move over here to Seguin.
DV: When he opened in Lockhart, what was the business called?
ED: Davila’s Drive-in. He had a combination restaurant and store. It was on the corner of Red River and China in Lockhart. The building is still there, but they haven’t used it since we moved out of there.
DV: Did he move here to Seguin to work for Mr. Little or to open his own place?
ED: It was to open his own place. We were caddy corner from here in an old building that used to be called the Saratoga. We had some humble beginnings. We lived in the back of the building. It was a big room where the kitchen was. My mom Geronima worked side by side with my dad.
DV: I guess it was easy to keep an eye on the pits.
ED: Oh yeah. The smokers were right there. It was a regular open pit.
DV: Was it direct heat?
ED: It was a sort of indirect heat. We had a big pit, but no firebox on the side. The fire was at the end. If he was cooking chicken, it would go over the fire. Brisket would be at the other end. We still cook more with direct heat than we do with smoke. That’s why you don’t really taste so much smoke in there.
DV: When he moved here, was it a sausage shop, or a full-blown barbecue restaurant at the beginning?
ED: It was a barbecue restaurant. We’ve always made our sausage.
DV: Where was your dad originally from?
ED: Luling. My family originally came from Spain. They came to Peru and up through Mexico to here in the early 1800’s. They were here before Texas was Texas.
DV: Did he work at the City Market there, or another one of the meat markets in town?
ED: My dad was a butcher. He worked at the Locker plant, then he helped my uncle on the weekends and at night. He worked for another place called Northside Grocery in Luling.
DV: Wasn’t Black’s BBQ originally called Northside Grocery?
ED: Yes. I remember that, but this one was in Luling.
DV: When were you born?
ED: In 1950 in Luling. My dad also had a cantina that he started there.
DV: Did you grow up in the beer joint, or the barbecue joint?
ED: My first seven years was in the beer joint, then we moved to Lockhart and I’ve been working ever since. He had me washing dishes when I was seven years old.
DV: Has it always been the barbecue life for you?
ED: It was the only thing I ever knew, but I left to work in the construction business. That was for three weeks. I came out of high school. They were building the LBJ Library in Austin. I almost killed myself a few times.
DV: Then you came back to the barbecue joint?
ED: Barbecue was hard, but not that hard. I was on top of an eight story building in August…that and my dad really needed me here. I tell everyone, barbecue is one of the hardest things to do. It’s not like a burger that’s ready in five or ten minutes. There’s so much preparation, and we do everything here. The beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. We make our own sauce. It’s all right here.
DV: The menu says “family recipe” in reference to the sides. Who’s recipes were they?
ED: They were all from my dad.
DV: What was on the menu when your dad opened here?
ED: Very basic. There was our sausage, brisket, pork ribs, and the lamb. Chicken came in afterwards.
DV: So it was always brisket? Not another cut of beef?
ED: Yes. It wasn’t shoulder clod or anything else. Just brisket. My uncle did use shoulder clod in Luling, but brisket was the cheapest cut of meat back then.
DV: When did the business move to this building?
ED: In 1973. My wife was pregnant with Adrian. He was born in January of 1974. I remember building all of these benches here before we were open, and I remember her coming in when she was pregnant.
DV: What was the reason for the move?
ED: A better location. The old building was just a wooden building. We couldn’t do much to it.
DV: Was this building already here?
ED: Yes. It was an all night diner called the King Bee. In Beeville they had the Queen Bee, then in 1961 they built this and called it the King Bee. The road out here was the main drag. There was no interstate. This was the road between Houston and San Antonio. The red light up there was the road to Austin.
DV: When did you take over the business?
ED: My dad retired in 1993. I have another brother, but he’s in real estate. I have a sister who lives here and another who lives in Austin.
DV: You were the one with the interest in barbecue?
ED: I didn’t have a choice. I never knew anything but work since I was a kid. I never asked questions.
DV: When did your dad start letting you cook?
ED: Until he retired he had his hands in it. You couldn’t take a brisket out of the pit without him. Not even a sausage. He had to give the OK. I pretty much took care of the front since I was in my twenties and he took care of the back. My mom was also here. She took care of waiting on people, and kept my dad and I from killing each other.
DV: Where did the sauce recipe come from?
ED: Do you remember Morton’s potato chips? We used to buy their barbecue sauce and doctor it up. When they went out of business we came up with this recipe. He never measured anything. It was always a handful of salt and some sugar to taste. Now we have it written down.
DV: Do you call the sausage here hot guts?
ED: We call it hot links or sausage. Hot guts was back in the time.
DV: What’s in the sausage?
ED: It’s all beef and the seasonings are very basic.
DV: Salt, black pepper, and cayenne?
ED: That’s it.
DV: Are these hog or beef casings?
ED: That one is a beef casing, but normally we use pork casings. The supplier sent me the wrong casings last week. I like the hog casings better. I didn’t want to throw them away, and he wouldn’t take them back.
DV: Do you know why lamb was an important part of the early menu? I don’t see much lamb on menus around Texas.
ED: I don’t know why. My mother couldn’t remember why either, but ever since we were in Lockhart and Luling we’ve had lamb. I think it’s coming around now. We’re selling a lot of lamb. People call in from Houston and Austin to make sure we have lamb. In the old days you could see the older generation eating lamb, and now you see the twenty and thirty year olds ordering it.
DV: What kind of wood do you use?
DV: So many places that smoke with mesquite get the meat too smoky. How do you control it?
ED: It’s like I said. We don’t really smoke it. We cook it more direct. We always have a pretty hot fire and it stays hot when it gets down to the coals.
DV: You mentioned how this building used to be on the main road until the interstate was built. You then built a second location out by the highway to help capture some of the business.
ED: We used to have one in New Braunfels also. This is the original, so the rent isn’t anything like the others. We were doing well on 183, so we opened the new one in New Braunfels. That’s when things starting going downhill with the economy in 2008, and the rent was too high. The one on 183 here had a high rent and was taking business from this place, so we closed it too.
DV: Your son Adrian is involved in the business. He was running the other location here in Seguin, so is here back here with you?
ED: Yes. He’ll end up taking it over so he’s got to learn. He’s very good at what he does, but he needs to learn the business side.
DV: Are you going to keep him at arm’s length like your dad did to you?
ED: He says I do, but I don’t. He’s doing more marketing right now. He’s trying out for a show called Food Fighters right now.
DV: Who is going to be your successor if he finds a career in television?
ED: Hopefully he does find a career in television, because barbecue is a lot of work. He’s in line, so we’ll have to figure that out if it happens. I’m not ready to retire right now anyway.
DV: You’re sixty-five. Isn’t that retirement age?
ED: Not for me. When I’m not working my bones ache. I’ll probably die if I retire. I’ve been working since I was seven years old, and don’t know anything else to do.