Competition barbecue and commercial barbecue don’t have much in common besides the meat and the smoke. Audiences expect very different flavors, which often makes it hard for pitmasters to navigate successfully from one side to the other. Brett Boren of Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Rockdale has found a way to mix the two in a way that would please both barbecue judges and road trippers. His motto says it all: “Small Town, Big Flavor.”
I was skeptical of the peach and bourbon barbecue sauce offered with Boren’s ribs on my first visit, so I skipped it. By my second trip, he had moved on to a strawberry sauce that was syrupy sweet with chunks of strawberry, and he convinced me to give it a try. When I dipped a pork rib in, the sweet, fruity pop of flavor played well against the salt, pepper, and smoke of the rib. (It didn’t hurt that the rib was already great on its own.) Boren plans to introduce more sauce flavors, as he develops the joint from a trailer in a sparse gravel lot to an atmospheric spot with live music and gardens.
“Everyone has access to barbecue,” Boren said, meaning everyone in Central Texas. But he hopes to offer something more. “Nowhere in Central Texas can you get really good craft barbecue, bring your own beer, and listen to live music.” He just bought a 1948 Chevy pickup truck and plans to build a stage in its bed. He’s also putting in a series of cow troughs to grow jalapeños and hatch green chiles.
Boren credits his mom for his green thumb and for teaching him to appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables. His dad served in the Air Force, so she raised him, first in Brownfield, then for eight years in England. When he came back to Texas, he didn’t know much about barbecue, but he eventually learned as a hobbyist on the competition circuit. If he wanted to make money in barbecue, Boren knew he’d have to start selling it. In 2015, he reached a decision point, as he worked at Dell and started a barbecue catering business on the side. “I was taking every Friday off to cook for weddings,” he said. Making money doing his hobby became addictive. “Once I got into the catering and the money came in, I started doing pop-ups,” Boren said. In October 2018, he opened the barbecue trailer in Rockdale right along Highway 79.
Rockdale was a curious choice of location, considering Boren previously lived 45 miles away in Round Rock. The town is suffering through some hard times after the Sandow coal-fired power plant and the mine that fed it shut down last January. The local hospital closed in December after the company who owned it went bankrupt. The next best hope for Rockdale, a town enriched by Alcoa until they closed the aluminum plant in 2008, was Bittmain, a cryptocurrency operation that opened a data center in the old Alcoa property in 2018. It suddenly shuttered its operations in January. The town is in dire financial straits after losing so much of their tax base, but Boren said he’s secure in his choice. “I knew in my heart, this road was a revenue stream for me,” he said of the highway that runs through town.
The place certainly seems to be popular. It was quiet at 10:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday, which is to be expected, but I was surrounded by happy customers during an earlier visit on a Saturday. Boren said he and his overnight cook Fernando Austin have been smoking up to 90 briskets during their four open days a week. He smokes upper choice grade briskets, and gets $22/lb for them. They’re tender, juicy, and everything you’d want in a Central Texas style brisket. The seasoning is pretty basic, and not what you’d expect from a competition cook, but the cooking process—or rather, the wrapping process—is anything but simple.
Just the expense of the material required for Boren’s wrapping process makes me wince (not to mention the labor), but he swears by the method. Once the briskets have enough smoke on them and are nearly done, he wraps them in butcher paper, then wraps them again in air-tight foil wrap to rest. “You can’t have any looseness in there because then it will start to get the steam effect,” Boren said. Once they’ve rested for several hours, Boren removes the foil and pours the collected juices back over the paper-covered briskets. The paper stays and the briskets are then re-wrapped in plastic wrap and heated slowly on the pit for about an hour before they’re ready to slice and serve. “That’s really my competition background, figuring out how to make things really moist when they want to dry out,” Boren said.
There’s plenty more to enjoy on the barbecue side of the menu, like juicy smoked chicken with a crisp skin and pulled pork that packs a smoky punch. The sausages, though, play a starring role. They’re made by a friend who runs the Red & White store in Bartlett. Boren saves up all of his brisket trimmings, seasons pork butts with his sausage spices, and trucks them to Bartlett to be ground, stuffed, and cold-smoked with hickory wood. He finishes them in his oak-fueled offset smoker for service. The jalapeño cheese is the best seller, and there’s also an all-pork variety, which is unusual for a Texas barbecue joint. I loved the coarse grind of the all-beef sausage, but it was the pico de gallo variety that I can’t forget. It’s like a fatty chorizo that’s been cased and smoked. It makes a great sausage wrap that requires no adornment. (The team occasionally has other offerings, too, like a hog roast and crawfish boil on February 23.)
Boren also brings his “big flavor” mantra to the sides. The savory beans are heavily seasoned and meaty. There’s celery seed, cilantro, and bell peppers in the slaw. Both the loaded version and the classic potato salad are winners, and I couldn’t pick a favorite between the jalapeño cream corn and the creamy mac & cheese. There are also loads of pickles to choose from, like his house made ones that use Kerby cucumbers, pickled onions, pickled okra, and pickled jalapeños.
Desserts also have their own unique touches. Instead of a standard banana pudding recipe, they serve one with crushed Nutter Butter cookies as the base and a couple more on top. Rather than peach cobbler, the specialty of the house is strawberry rhubarb cobbler. I just hope you’re luckier than I was—on both of my visits, it was listed on the menu, but unavailable.
Boren might serve up the most expensive brisket in town, but the four-meat plate with two sides is easily enough for two meals at just $21. “When someone leaves, I want them to feel that weight,” Boren said, referring to the heft of his loaded to-go boxes. He wants to make sure people in this struggling small town feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. He’d like to be able to stick around Rockdale long enough to get a band in the bed of that old truck—and to watch his gardens grow.