Five years ago, James Jones didn’t know if he would walk again. A freak injury from lifting a generator out of his truck damaged his spinal cord. What seemed like an annoying pain at first turned to debilitating numbness a few days later. After surgery, his neurosurgeon gave him just a 10 percent chance of regaining the ability to walk, but he was determined. “It took me a year and a half to recover,” he said. After successful rehabilitation that included learning how to walk again, Jones beat the odds.
Jones’s 25-year career as a a critical care flight paramedic was over, but he turned to another passion. Barbecue competitions had been a hobby, and he’d had some success catering on the side. Once he got that second chance to get back on his feet, Jones decided in 2015 to open his own place, Big Cat BBQ. He found an empty barbecue joint in a strip center in Cedar Park that had been abandoned by a Dickey’s franchisee. He said, “They closed the doors one day and never came back,” which meant he had a cooler, freezer, and working vent hoods to inherit. Jones moved out their smoker and installed a Southern Pride rotisserie, although he’s now phasing it out in favor of steel offset smokers. Jones and a cousin turned a 1,000-gallon propane tank into a smoker he calls “Bocephus,” which they started using in October. A 500-gallon smoker is in the works.
Bocephus is reserved just for beef. “We have a lot of folks who come see us looking for halal meat,” Jones said, so they don’t mix pork and beef (Creekstone briskets and beef ribs are halal) on a smoker. It’s fueled with pecan and a little oak. Jones prefers the lighter smoke of pecan, which he grew up cooking with in Cuero. To his liking, it’s subtle on the brisket. The beef flavor is forward, enhanced by a pleasantly salty rub. Be sure to ask for fatty brisket. I wasn’t given a choice from the cutter, and instead received a few dry and over-trimmed slices from the lean side. I grabbed a few slices of fatty brisket to go and was rewarded with excellent smoked beef back in the car.
Until the other steel smoker arrives, the pork and poultry are smoked in the Southern Pride. Pre-pulled pork shoulder is sauced and held on a steam table tray. It’s adequate for sandwich filler, but if you want meat on a platter, opt for the exemplary turkey breast. It was juicy and tender with just a kiss of smoke and a complex rub. I had to stop myself to save room. I could only handle a few bites of the thin pork ribs, which were far too salty. Jones promised the beef ribs would be more satisfying if I came back on a weekend. The sausages are brought in from a couple of suppliers that Jones settled on after extensive taste testing. He nailed it on the jalapeño cheese sausage. It had a great snap and plenty of spicy bite.
There’s an extensive list of sides. I sampled just four. Jones swears by the canned green beans, but I tried the pintos instead and enjoyed the meaty, well-seasoned beans. A bland mac-and-cheese needs more of the latter. Potato salad was a classic mayo version. For something more unusual for a barbecue joint, try the buttery garlic mashed potatoes.
There’s plenty to like at Big Cat BBQ, and the dozen customers eager to get in the door at opening time shows it has plenty of loyal regulars. The brisket was the biggest change from my 2016 visit, and it was a big improvement. Bocephus must be making a difference, so here’s hoping the next pit brings Jones’s barbecue up yet another level. What he’s had to overcome just to be able to run a successful barbecue business tells me he’s up to the challenge of making it even better.
401 West Whitestone Blvd., Ste. C-100, Cedar Park, 512-986-7032. Open daily at 11 a.m. until they sell out.