Andrew Soto grew up in Mathis eating barbecue-stuffed potatoes from the local stalwart Smolik’s Smokehouse. Now he runs the newest barbecue joint in town, Butter’s BBQ, right up the street from the original Smolik’s. When Soto was born a month early, premature at ten pounds, his family called him Butterball, so when he opened his restaurant in late 2017, he named it after a shortened version of his family nickname. Ironically, now he’s having a hard time getting his turkey to catch on.
The juicy, smoked turkey coated in black pepper is great, but the prize here is the spectacular brisket. Soto learned to cook it from his father. “Some of my fondest memories are wrapping briskets and smoking with mesquite,” he said. Now he mostly uses post oak. “I went to Franklin’s for the first time ever and got my hands on that brisket. I was like, ‘I want to try this.'” He came back home and set about making his own style of barbecue, but he didn’t forget his father’s advice. Soto remembers, “He always taught me that you couldn’t make good barbecue without a good fire.”
At the beginning, Soto, who had a day job making jet fuel at a plant in Corpus Christi, decided to enlist help keeping the fires steady. But he faced difficulties when others manned the pits. “They were cutting the brisket wrong. The pit was getting cold on them,” said Soto, who was running out of vacation time trying to manage the place. “I put in my notice after that.”
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Soto questioned his decision in December 2017, a year before my visit. He wasn’t selling much barbecue. “We were down to pennies,” Soto said, and he was about to give up on his barbecue dream. He checked in with his old boss, who offered a job if and when he needed it. Luckily, he never did. “We kept making rent one way or the other,” he said, laughing. December 2018 treated him a lot better. He sells out most days and pretty much every weekend. The beef rib special is a hit on Sundays, and the smoked barbacoa brings in customers on Saturdays and Sundays.
Most barbacoa you find in Texas is steamed or braised. At Butter’s, they smoke beef cheeks with oak and a few sticks of mesquite. The juicy meat is shredded and served in large flour tortillas made by Soto’s mom, Frances Guzman. (They also serve corn tortillas, which Guzman doesn’t make, but prefers with the barbacoa.) Homemade salsas and a few avocado slices come on the side. It’s a great way to start the weekend.
Soto’s brother makes the sausage, which uses Butter’s brisket and pork rib trim. The juicy, smoky links are mainly beef, and have a nice peppery kick. The jalapeño version is served on the weekend. They form the third leg of a solid Texas trinity here. Massive pork spare ribs come with thick rub of salt and pepper. They’re moist and glossy with a subtle smoke and a savory flavor. The meat is tender and yielding, but doesn’t fall off the bone. I couldn’t pick a favorite between the ribs and the expertly smoked brisket, of which both the fatty and lean slices were superb. It’s a steal on Saturday when a 1/2 pound brisket plate with two sides is only $11.
The barbecue at Butter’s is good enough to make you forget about the sides. The basic pinto beans are solid. I needed every bit of their juice to revive the dry side of rice. A rigatoni pasta salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and black olives is a great idea for a summer side, but it was pretty bland. There currently aren’t any dessert options on the menu.
Soto feels more confident about the business as he continues to grow a base of regulars. “Every Saturday you can expect Justin to come pick up a pound of barbacoa, and Sunday you can expect Rachel to come get four brisket sandwiches,” he said. It’s still a challenge to keep a steady weekday crowd. Soto explains, “Barbecue is not cheap, so sometimes it’s hard to compete with the fast food joints.” At these barbecue prices, they really have no excuse. Letters painted on the building read “Small Town, Big Barbecue,” and I’m confident that plenty of folks outside Mathis will soon know they can find big barbecue at Butter’s.