Never has a new barbecue joint in Texas been more highly anticipated than Barbs-B-Q in Lockhart. None in the trio of Chuck Charnichart, Haley Conlin, and Alexis Tovias had run a barbecue joint before, but their faces and their story were widely known before they opened their doors for the first time in May.

I bought Garden & Gun magazine’s Best of Texas issue at an airport in January to see its feature on Barbs (the name is a play on hip-hop star Nicki Minaj’s fanbase, called the Barbz), and they were still five months from opening. If expectations weren’t high enough for first-time visitors, the New York Times led its story on Texas barbecue’s superiority with a profile of Barbs after just six days of the restaurant being open (Saturdays only for now). The pressure was on.

I stopped in with a few colleagues the first Saturday in July. The three-hour-long line that formed before the grand opening was already a thing of the past. Arriving in Lockhart at just over an hour before the 11 a.m. opening put me second in line, though by the time I went in, the line was nearly around the block (preorders are now open if you plan over a week ahead). We sat on a bench staring at the stunning Caldwell County courthouse and wondered if the wood smoke we smelled was coming from Barbs, Smitty’s Market a block away, or Black’s Barbecue a couple blocks north. Those are just two of the six other barbecue options a visitor to the Barbecue Capital of Texas has on any given Saturday.

But Barbs is different. Much has been made about the uniqueness of three women running a barbecue joint with a woman, Joanne Irizarry, as the investor, and their bold choice of opening in Lockhart, but I’m talking about the food. After a few bites, my hands shook with excitement. This trio has found ways to bring new flavors to the most basic building blocks of Texas barbecue.

The owners outside Barbs-B-Q.
The owners outside Barbs-B-Q. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Slices of smoked turkey were dredged through melted herb butter before serving, livening a cut that usually gets little attention. I don’t remember another slaw making me curse because it was so good. This one is loaded with herbs, and the dressing is bright. The charro beans were made with black beans and thin-sliced wieners in a rich broth and topped with queso fresco. And the pork spare ribs were a revelation. They’re glazed with a serrano simple syrup, then topped with generous shavings of lime zest. The heat, sweet, acid, and smoke was a unique combination on a pork rib that is sure to be copied.

Charnichart wanted the acidic flavor of lime juice in the glaze, but it faded away in every iteration she tried. Chef Aurora Rodriguez suggested using lime zest instead, and it stuck—literally. “Molotov pork ribs” were born. The Barbs-B-Q trio served them last November at the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival on the square in Lockhart. Their booth was facing what was then a random storefront but is now their restaurant. “We were staring at it the whole day, so I think we manifested it,” Charnichart said. They also served their green spaghetti, a dish that’s become a Barbs signature, and José Ralat, our taco editor, called it one of the best things he ate last year.

The green spaghetti, called “green spaghett” on the menu, comes directly from a recipe by Chanichart’s mother, Francisca Charnichart. Charnichart and Tovias both grew up in Brownsville, where green spaghetti was omnipresent at formal events and backyard barbecues, though its popularity didn’t migrate to restaurants. I expect that to change once people try this version (or the one at Vargas BBQ in Edinburg, or at Reese Bros Barbecue in San Antonio). “It’s our mac and cheese,” Tovias said. There’s cheese in there, but of the creamed variety, along with sour cream and milk. They’re puréed together with roasted poblanos, jalapeños, and cilantro, giving the sauce a radiant green color. It was so good, I sopped it up with a tortilla after the noodles were gone.

The rub on the lamb chops also had a green tint. It was heavy and coarse with thyme, rosemary, and black pepper. Lamb chops can be a challenge to smoke. Because of their small cross-section, they get overcooked by the time any sort of bark is developed, but the Barbs crew had it down. They were a perfect medium rare with a heck of a bark. They were spectacular—and had better be at $10 a piece.

The sliced brisket and beef rib waited patiently as we got to everything else first, but both quickly grabbed our attention after a few bites. The brisket is already in contention for the best in town—or maybe the state. The lean brisket was pull-apart tender and incredibly juicy, and the fatty side was perfectly rendered. I pulled strands of fatty beef rib meat from the bone, and dunked a few shreds into the house-made salsa verde, available in half-pint containers for $4. Along with the salsa casera, they represent Tovias’s past side hustle of selling salsa. Before opening Barbs, she also had a daily ritual to make fresh corn tortillas for breakfast so she could perfect the process for the restaurant. She now uses masa from Austin’s Nixta Taqueria instead of Maseca for far superior tortillas (four for $5).

Rather than cheap white bread, they bake their own spelt bread swirled with cinnamon. The flavor works surprisingly well with smoked meats. The conchas that provide the base for the rich bread pudding dessert are from various bakeries in the area. We also loved the spiced chocolate pudding topped with a salty cookie crumble.

It’s hard to single out the role of each person in the trio. “We all know how to do everything,” Charnichart said. They all work the counter together building trays for the long line of customers, and all have notable Texas barbecue experience. The three of them worked together at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Charnichart went overseas to work at Way Down South in Oslo, Norway, and did some barbecue consulting work in Egypt before settling in at Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth.

When Lane Milne left Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin to open Goldee’s, Conlin took over his shift on the smokers. In August 2021, she announced her indefinite departure from the barbecue business on social media, noting misogyny in the industry. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later, but after two years of treatment is thankfully cancer-free. “I’m very happy and I’m enjoying life again,” she said, referring both to her physical health and her position at Barbs-B-Q.

Tovias’s path after leaving Franklin was a winding one. She went vegan in 2020 and started selling homemade salsa. When Charnichart asked her to be part of the team, she relented. “I’ll eat the meat again, and I’ll smoke it, and I’ll learn everything,” Tovias told Charnichart. “I’m very lucky to be in this position to learn from Haley and Chuck,” she said, noting the challenges she has already faced in life. “It feels like a huge dream come true having been born in Mexico, and having been brought here at seven years old and having to learn a new language, knowing that my opportunities will be different, and not knowing what my life would amount to,” Tovias said.

Tovias, who is transgender, talked about the negatives that came along with all the positive early coverage of the restaurant. “As much love as we received, I feel like we have received the doubts and not-so-positive comments, so we still have all these people to prove wrong,” she said. Looking through comments left on Facebook posts of their early press coverage, the worst are directed at Tovias specifically. “I’m very honest about my identity and who I am and where I come from,” she said. The vitriol does make her more aware of her surroundings when working at the restaurant alone. Tovias quickly added that she gets “messages that are beautiful, too,” from people who call her an inspiration in the trans community.

“Every week I’m so surprised by how all types of people come out here, especially a lot of lesbian couples and gay couples,” Charnichart said. Tovias then adds, “And all my trans friends that show up every week.” Creating a barbecue joint where everyone feels welcome was part of their goal, and at first that sounded silly to me. I’ve never felt uncomfortable at a Lockhart barbecue joint (except that first visit to Kreuz Market after we left it out of the Top 50), and I’ve never witnessed any sort of discrimination from staff at any of the joints there. But then again, I’m a white male, and one who writes about barbecue. I can’t pretend to know the experiences of others.

As for the locals in Lockhart, the trio said they’re happy to see so many stopping in every Saturday. “We thought it would be more of a destination spot,” Charnichart said. There are plenty of visitors from the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin, but the locals have been the lifeblood for Barbs. An employee from Smitty’s Market came in wearing their uniform and looking for brisket, and they’ve gotten a visit from Mike and Mark Black from Terry Black’s Barbecue.

That’s fitting, since Terry Black’s and Barbs have both brought a whole new energy to Lockhart’s barbecue options that will ignite an interest in visiting the barbecue capital for a whole new generation. I know the praise here will only add to the high expectations this brand-new restaurant is already burdened with, but Conlin said the Barbs trio is ready for it. ”It’s a very high bar, but we want to do our best to exceed it every week,” she said. They’re looking forward to seeing you on Saturday morning.

102 E. Market, Lockhart
Hours: Saturday 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Pitmasters: Chuck Charnichart, Haley Conlin, and Alexis Tovias
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2023