After months of planning and setbacks, Brandon Hurtado, known for his barbecue pop-ups, finally opened his first brick-and-mortar location in Arlington’s new Urban Union neighborhood earlier this year. On February 22, about two hundred diners lined up outside Hurtado Barbecue to try his monster beef ribs, tender brisket, and soulful smoked beef-cheek barbacoa. Just three weeks later, though, he posted a photo on social media of the empty restaurant, closed because of the pandemic.
Fifteen miles away, in Fort Worth, another new joint, Goldee’s Barbecue, was also open for only a few weeks before the statewide shutdown went into effect March 19. “That was very soul-crushing,” recalls pitmaster Dylan Taylor, one of the restaurant’s five owners. All of them had quit their former jobs last year with the goal of opening in mid-2019, but a lengthy renovation of the building, drawn out for months because of a septic system issue and unclear permitting jurisdiction, pushed their start date into 2020. To get by, they offered barbecue courses and held Sunday pop-ups at nearby Zavala’s Barbecue, in Grand Prairie. Finally, on February 15, they held their grand opening and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Hurtado and Goldee’s were both highly anticipated restaurants led by owners who had earned great reputations as pitmasters. The two joints were expected to build on the decade-long barbecue boom in Texas and elevate the growing smoked-meat prominence of the Dallas–Fort Worth scene. They may still; neither lacks persistence. That was clear even before the pandemic hit, as they were finding their footing.
Goldee’s shut down completely on March 20 but reopened on April 11 for curbside service only. The face-masked owners—Taylor, Lane Milne, Jalen Heard, Nupohn Inthanousay, and Jonny White—became glorified carhops, taking orders from drivers through rolled-down windows and delivering everything in takeout containers. All those plastic utensils and to-go bags cut into their profit, and then in May they had to pay more for their supply of raw beef. However, they didn’t feel the need to raise menu prices. “Cooking is great, and we would like to make a decent living for ourselves one day, but we kind of got into this more for the people,” Taylor says. Still, even though they could have reopened their dining room, they felt customers could be served more safely in their own vehicles.
I hadn’t eaten at a barbecue joint in months, my longest such stretch as Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, when I set out for Goldee’s in early June. Past the sand and gravel pits, I pulled off a two-lane road into the parking lot. The old building had a bright red paint job, a new screened-in pit room, and a neon sign in the window that proclaimed, “We bake our own bread,” which Taylor says they were still doing despite the business slowdown; he was even tweaking the recipe for the joint’s pickles. That’s some real commitment to quality for items they don’t charge extra for, and the same goes for the sauce. It tastes like a mix between the sweet Salt Lick barbecue sauce and one with a mustard tang from City Market, in Luling. There are 5 quarts of honey in every 22-quart batch of sauce, and it’s got a pleasant zing of vinegar. I’m sure the pitmasters don’t want to hear it, but I could have filled up by simply dipping slice after slice of their fluffy white bread into that incredible sauce. Then again, it’s free only with an order of barbecue.
“We kind of wanted to present a very traditional and straightforward Central Texas–esque menu,” Taylor explains. Protein options consisted of brisket, spareribs, smoked turkey, and house-made sausage, while the only sides were slaw, potato salad, and pinto beans. It might sound boring, considering how experimental many new Texas barbecue spots have become, but I didn’t want for anything as I contemplated each bite of the perfect pork ribs. Taylor says the secret, besides the juicy Duroc pork, is a very thin glaze and a layer of Lawry’s seasoning (there’s also some in the brisket rub) along with the salt and pepper. As I ate the spread off the lid of my car trunk, which I had covered with butcher paper, I couldn’t help but smile with each bite. It was good to be eating at a barbecue joint again, even if it was in the blazing heat of an unshaded parking lot.
It wasn’t any cooler a day later at Hurtado, but they were running their operation differently. The dining room reopened May 1, the day Governor Abbott eased restrictions. My jaw clenched as I walked in—it was my first time stepping inside a restaurant since the shutdown. Although it had sanitation stations, none of the staff or any of the dozen or more customers in line in front of me were wearing masks. (The joint now requires everyone to wear masks, and the staff changes shifts more frequently to prevent overheating, which is why the employees weren’t wearing them originally.) I placed my order for nearly the entire menu, which is expansive, as quickly as possible. It was a relief to retreat out the side door with my hulking tray of barbecue to find several properly distanced picnic tables. Because of the oppressive heat, they were all empty.
I had eaten Hurtado’s barbecue last year, when he and his fiancée, Hannah Hernandez, operated a Friday and Saturday pop-up from the front yard of their current building. They served their menu (which now features additional Tex-Mex offerings) while waiting to complete the renovations on the historic structure, which dates from about 1900, and Hurtado was eager to show off his new smokers. A pair of thousand-gallon reverse-flow smokers had recently arrived from the welding shop of Arnis Robbins, who owns Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque, in Wolfforth. Hurtado had requested a finish that was “raw,” meaning the reclaimed tanks that made up the smoking chambers had not been painted. “Anhydrous Ammonia” could still be seen on their exteriors.
Less than a month before opening the restaurant, Hurtado had to return his brand-new toys. The health inspector wouldn’t allow a decommissioned tank that once held a chemical fertilizer to be used for cooking equipment. Robbins allowed him to return the barely used smokers. Hurtado reached out to Primitive Pits, in Georgia, desperate for a quick turnaround, and a week later the company miraculously overnighted two smokers (which, as with most smokers made from reclaimed tanks, utilized tanks that had previously stored propane). “We had two weeks to get used to them before our grand opening,” Hurtado says.
When Hurtado Barbecue officially opened in February, Hurtado thought the big hurdles were mostly behind him. Then, of course, came the shutdown. It could have been worse, though: he already had a preorder system in place and had learned to be flexible during his pop-up days, so the pivot to takeout was easier than it was for other restaurants. Orders continued coming in, and the layoffs and cut hours that he feared would be imminent weren’t necessary. “I have employees that gave up everything and quit their regular day jobs to help pursue this dream,” he says of his co-pitmasters, Manny Zarate and Chris Leffel. They continued filling those smokers and selling out of barbecue; they even hired four new staffers. Then, as meat shortages hit the country, his meat supplier ran out of brisket. “I went to, like, fourteen different Krogers across the Metroplex and was begging them, basically, to sell me brisket,” Hurtado says. He also missed face-to-face interaction. “I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to put a beautiful tray of barbecue together and just shove it inside a foil [takeout] pan,” he says.
Those big, beautiful trays of barbecue were again the norm when I visited. Spiced-up half chickens, smoked quail, and ridiculously juicy turkey breast came alongside thick slices of decadent brisket and sweet-glazed spareribs. Taking a bite of the smoked barbacoa tostada was an adventure in flavor combinations and texture variation. The staff fries the tostada to order, then tops it with a layer of beans that have been refried in brisket tallow. Atop the base go smoked beef cheeks, braised in Big Red, with salsa verde, Valentina hot sauce, cotija cheese, cilantro, and raw white onions. Hurtado describes his place as a “Tex-Mex-inspired Central Texas barbecue restaurant,” and this tostada might be considered the mascot.
Hurtado came out to my picnic table during the meal to check on the massive barbecue tray he had just built. We talked about the challenges he had faced, and I asked if he’d ever considered closing, at least temporarily. “No,” he said. “We have to survive. We don’t have another choice.” It’s not just an attitude. The prospect of survival is tenuous for so many other independent restaurateurs, including the folks at Goldee’s. “We were too early on in the game to give up,” Taylor says. Time will tell how many of our beloved restaurants outlive this monumental crisis. Thanks to some great barbecue—and to having no other option but optimism—Hurtado Barbecue and Goldee’s stand a fighting chance. When the pandemic subsides and barbecue road trips are again a normal weekend activity, these two spots should be a fixture on many itineraries. At that point, I think they’ll each deserve another grand opening party.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Just Opened at the Worst Time.” Subscribe today.