Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville, owns the first smoker ever built by the father-and-son team behind Austin Smoke Works. Now he’s putting it to use on a screened-in trailer behind 1848 BBQ, situated in the heart of Brownsville’s Mitte Cultural District.
Martinez went into the barbecue business in 2016 with Abraham Avila. Before then, Avila was best known in barbecue circles as the pitmaster for Wild Blue BBQ in Los Fresnos, which made Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list in 2008. After seven years in business, it closed in 2012 when Avila split with his wife and business partner. He was a bit aimless after the divorce and the closing. “It was a rough patch altogether,” he says. Eventually, he wound up working the meat counter at a H.E.B. in Brownsville. Avila says the manager told him, “We can teach you how to cut and you educate the customers.” He used his background as a chef to teach others and learned quite a bit about meat cutting along the way. After four years, he got the itch to return to the restaurant business. He thought to himself, “I’ve gotta go back and prove I can do it.”
When Avila and Martinez became business partners, Avila already had a great smoker to work with. He practiced smoking different grades of brisket before they opened and eventually settled on Prime grade beef. In November of 2016 he started serving brisket, potato salad, and beans under a tent on the current property, and the business and the menu grew from there. A year ago, he built a small enclosure for a dining area before renovating the former H&R Block office on the site. Since then, it’s become busy: On a recent visit, just after noon, the new dining room was packed, and a line to the door had formed by the time I polished off a dish of warm cobbler made with fresh peaches and blackberries.
Avila’s chef training shows through in the sides. A tart and sweet broccoli salad is studded with dried cranberries and diced red onion, with cashews on the side so they don’t get soggy in the already dressed salad. Crisp slaw is spiced with cumin and black pepper. The potato salad—rich, with about an egg and a half for every potato—tastes like a scoop of deviled eggs. The corn pudding was revelatory; I expected to get a dish meant to be eaten with a spoon, but it came as a plump cube. It was like an airy cornbread glossed with butter, sweet enough to be cake. In fact, at least one customer ordered a full pan and placed birthday candles in it for a barbecue birthday celebration in the restaurant.
The first bite of barbecue came right off the block. Avila handed me a slice of lean and asked, “Is it better than Wild Blue?” He recognized me from my visit there six years ago, and the answer was easy. “Yes,” I told him while ordering the rest of the meats. Sliced turkey breast was juicy and salty without much smoke. Baby back ribs are smoked to the proper tenderness, and had a pleasantly simple rub with a hint of sweetness. The sausage from Slovacek’s had a good snap, but the brisket is the prize here.
Thick slices of fatty brisket were easily torn apart. The well-rendered fat dripped from each juicy morsel, carrying the seasoning with it. A jet black bark was stout, offering the bold flavors of live oak and mesquite smoke. Avila prefers to mix fuels. “We don’t get post oak out here,” he says, noting the difference between South and Central Texas. He says the live oak burns 15 to 20 degrees hotter, and explains how to tame the more pungent mesquite wood: “If it’s split and seasoned, it doesn’t have as strong of a flavor.” None of the meats suffered from the heavy smoke that can come with mesquite, so it seems Avila has found the right balance.
The Phat Pat sandwich comes heaping full of sausage, chopped brisket, and pulled pork. The combination works here, even if the sandwich is unwieldy. Working my way through the mass of barbecue, I asked Avila if he had proved himself: After two years back in the barbecue business, was he confident in his abilities as a pitmaster? “When my customers leave happy and tell me how good it is, that’s the gratification that I get,” he says. I wondered if he regretted leaving a solid job with good benefits at H.E.B. so he could work fires all night. He appreciates his former employer, but the restaurant business is where he feels most at home. “Deep inside, I’m a cook,” he says.