When a barbecue joint is destroyed by fire, many of us would assume the smoker is to blame. But at Helberg Barbecue, in Woodway, just west of Waco, the November 2023 fire originated inside the nearby food trailer the staff used as a kitchen. When owner-pitmaster Phillip Helberg looked at security footage, he saw the propane tanks attached to the trailer ignite. Then the fire traveled via an awning to the restaurant, where the intensity of the heat damaged the steel beams that supported the roof. (Thankfully no one was harmed.) Helberg and his wife and co-owner, Yvette, didn’t have long to mourn. Three days before Christmas, they began operating a drive-through from a new trailer next to the burned-out hulk that used to be their restaurant. Helberg hopes to open a new building about half a mile down the road from the old one within the next year—and none too soon, as business tanked by nearly 50 percent from what it was before the fire. The temporary model also inhibits Helberg’s ability to banter with customers at the cutting board and maybe persuade them to try his favorite item on the menu: the pork steak. “We’ve lost our best marketing tool,” he said.

When Helberg first opened his joint, in 2018, he smoked whole bone-in pork shoulders to make pulled pork, but he wasn’t happy with the result, calling it “lame and boring.” So he bought a bone saw and began cutting thick steaks from each shoulder. He tried various methods of seasoning and cooking and finally settled on a technique unlike any I’ve encountered in Texas.

The steaks marinate overnight in a blend of orange juice, lime juice, and minced garlic and jalapeños. Next they get a coating of orange pepper, a mix of spices dominated by ground black pepper and dehydrated orange peel. “Everyone has heard of lemon pepper, but orange pepper is a newer thing to a lot of people,” Helberg said. After seasoning the steaks, he smokes them for about two and a half hours then transfers them to a foil boat filled with more marinade. The boat gets another hour on the smoker, until the meat is tender.

By weight, the pork steaks are one of Helberg’s least expensive items, at less than $21 per pound; a half portion with a small side and a medium drink is just $12. The strong citrus comes as a surprise as it crashes against the smoky, savory pork, but the sting of black pepper and the spicy warmth of jalapeño bring it all home. The cacophony of flavors lingers on the tongue and in the memory. I’ve never been so dazzled by a meal from a drive-through.  

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Out of the Flames” Subscribe today.