Black Board Bar-B-Q in Sisterdale, north of San Antonio, has not gone without accolades from Texas Monthly. We named them one of the best new barbecue joints in 2019. Owner Jake Gandolfo had given the building new life after the departure of Maywald’s Sisterdale Smokehouse. It also got an honorable mention in the 2021 Top 50 list, but Gandolfo sought a homesteader’s life in rural Idaho and put the place up for sale last year. Joe Rodriguez and Melissa Garza took over in September. This time, the name, the decor, and even the menu stayed the same, but the barbecue has never been better.
Rodriguez and Garza had settled into a life in the remote West Texas town of Marathon. He ran the kitchen at the Gage Hotel’s 12 Gage Restaurant, and she worked at the hotel’s spa and White Buffalo Bar. Garza received a phone call late last year from her father in San Antonio, where she’s from, telling her about a restaurant for sale close to home. “When we moved west, we took his grandbaby with us,” she said, so her father was looking for a way to get the family together. Two months later, the couple left Marathon to take over Black Board Bar-B-Q. Rodriguez said he had a couple of days to work with Gandolfo and meet the staff, then it was theirs to run.
“Initially, we were really scared to lose what was already there,” Garza said, so they were both hesitant to make their own mark on the place at first. Most of the staff remained, and they didn’t want to upset the regulars, so the menu stayed the same right down to the fried quail knots known as Luckenbach Lollipops. “We wanted to respect people’s threshold for change,” Garza said.
Walking into the place recently, I honestly wondered if anything would be different from my last few meals at Black Board, where a dirty smoke flavor from the old rotisserie smoker was pervasive across the cuts. Thankfully, Rodriguez has tamed the beast.
I had nine slices of brisket to choose from on my tray due to the half-pound minimum order for all meats and a heavy-handed slicer. The lean had a generous but well-rendered fat cap, and the fatty side was pure beefy decadence with plenty of black pepper bite. The slices sparkled from the sunlight pouring onto the patio, and none of that dirty smoke was there to cloud the picture-perfect tray. Next to it was a link of the garlic confit sausage, a weekly special Rodriguez said will become a permanent fixture. It’s a classic beef sausage with good snap and plenty of juice. Anytime you see a sausage on the menu, it is made in-house. “The first phase of making it our own was to focus on the food, improving on what was already there,” Garza said. It shows in the barbecue basics. I would have tried more, but with just two meats, I already had a pound of barbecue. Rodriguez said he’ll consider adding a sampler platter for those seeking variety.
Rodriguez smokes the sausages on a five-hundred-gallon offset he borrowed from a family member. He’s building a new pit room to house the new Mill Scale smoker that should arrive any day now, and will relieve the Oyler rotisserie.
The deep fryer still gets a workout with the Luckenbach Lollipops. Garza said they use semi-boneless quail instead of the chicken that was being used before, and a thicker batter to get a good bit of crunch. A tiny quail leg remains as a handle for these three-bite treats, which come four to an order. A new addition loved by regulars is the poblano brisket cheeseburger. But let’s move on to the stunner hiding in plain sight.
I’ve never had better mac and cheese at a barbecue joint than Rodriguez’s version here. It begins with heavy-gauge macaroni coated in a warm bath of rich cheese sauce. It’s thick enough that the dish isn’t soupy, and cheesy enough to not get lost beneath the blanket of toppings. Rodriguez toasts heels of white bread to make buttery bread crumbs, which are layered atop each order. Then comes the shredded parmesan—and not the waxy pre-shredded batons found in a plastic tub, but ribbons of cheese fresh off the grater. The finishing touch is enough cracked black pepper to make it reminiscent of cacio e pepe. If anything here is required to come in massive portions, it should be this mac and cheese. If they sold it by the pan, it would ensure a repeat invitation to anyone bringing it to a pot luck.
“I’m trying to find different ways to use the techniques that I know,” Rodriguez said when I joked about all the garnishes. He is a trained chef, after all. The El Paso native moved to Boerne after culinary school in Austin for a job at Cypress Grille, where he worked for a decade. (It’s also where he met Garza.) He had worked his way up to chef de cuisine by the time they left for Marathon, but he hadn’t gotten much barbecue experience. “The first time I ever cooked a brisket was right out of culinary school,” he said, but while in Marathon he happily helped in the early days of Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue across the street.
“We’re kinda like the new kids in the class,” Garza said about their sudden move to a tiny town. The couple lives in a house next to the restaurant and have done what they can to welcome the locals. They just launched Sisterdale Supper Club, where they’ll serve a set three-course meal on a Thursday evening at the barbecue joint every month. The first one on April 20 will feature a roasted beet salad, smoked lamb, and a strawberry tart. Garza loves barbecue, but she’s also ready to try some of the new stuff her husband has to offer. “I’ve worked for a lot of chefs,” she said of her decades-long career in the restaurant business, “and I married the best one I ever worked with.”
Black Board Bar-B-Q
1123 Sisterdale Road, Sisterdale
Hours: Friday–Saturday, 11–7; Sunday, 11-4
Pitmaster: Joe Rodriguez
Method: Oak in a wood-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 2017