Jason Herring left Mineola after high school to make a life outside his hometown. He tried his hand at the insurance business, worked in a Cargill slaughterhouse, and ran smokers that could hold 2,400 pounds of meat at a ConAgra processing facility. “We had four of them rolling 24 hours a day,” he told me. Some days they were full of ribs headed to Applebee’s and Chili’s restaurants. While those famous baby backs are technically barbecue, he wasn’t exactly fulfilling his longtime dream of working as a pitmaster. So, twenty years after he left Mineola, Herring returned to open CowBurners BBQ & Taproom along the old downtown strip, across the street from the historic Select Theater.
The business began as a food truck. Years before, Herring and his father had outfitted a trailer for their CowBurners BBQ competition team and would reunite annually to compete until his father passed away in 2011. By the time Herring moved back to Mineola with his wife and child in 2015, the trailer needed a lot of work. Thankfully Herring’s brother Bobby (who now eats and drinks for free at the restaurant) was there to help refurbish it. “I burned through all my savings and ran up a big credit card bill,” he said, but they opened the window for the first time on April 15, 2016.
“It did well, but it’s a barbecue trailer in a small town,” Herring said. He needed a permanent location, and luckily a friend of his, Daniel Mosher, believed in the barbecue enough to invest in the brick-and-mortar. The new location also provided room for Herring’s other passion: craft beer.
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Another of Herring’s jobs in his two decades away from Mineola was quality assurance manager at Karbach Brewing in Houston. The duties included tasting a lot of beer to ensure it was up to standards. It sounds like the kind of job your friends all say they wish they had, but Herring notes, “There’s only so many days you can go in at eight in the morning and start drinking beer out of a tank.” Still, he wanted to bring craft beer to Mineola, a town that had been completely dry until 2012. Ten taps line the bar, including three IPAs and two sours. He sells beer to-go from his coolers and fills growlers as well. “I’m serving the only craft in Mineola,” Herring boasted, which likely means it’s the only place for craft beer in all of Wood County.
I boldly ordered Watermelon Crush, a sour ale from Fort Worth’s Martin House Brewing, to go with my tray of tacos. It was Taco Tuesday, which meant fresh tortillas made in Tyler stuffed with barbecue, chicken tinga, and pork with an al pastor marinade for $2.50 each. Herring also makes a signature CowBurner taco, which he describes as “a bastardization of a picadillo,” with chunks of smoked sausage added in. Cilantro, chopped jalapeños, and raw onions are available, as well as four good salsas, two of which are house-made. I especially liked the aguacate (not one of the house-made) on the tacos and in the white queso, which Herring serves with fried pork rinds so fresh they were still popping minutes after they hit the table.
I went back for a tray of barbecue. Herring uses a seasoning similar to one he and his father developed for the competition circuit. The smoked turkey was moist with a little spice, and the sausage from Slovacek’s was good. Sliced brisket from the lean end was dry, but with a good dose of hickory smoke. Herring uses Choice-grade briskets because he doesn’t want to pass the price of Prime (which he used in competitions) on to his customers. “I don’t want to charge someone $20 for a pound of meat if I can avoid it,” he said. He made good on his promise: the three-meat plate I ordered was a steal at $15.
Herring enjoys the challenge of cooking with a lower grade of brisket. “It’s a brisket, you know? It’s supposed to be this diamond in the rough that you turn into a gem,” he said. Herring also does very little trimming of the briskets to keep as much fat as possible, “so it can render down into the meat to replace the fact that there’s not much fat in it.” It didn’t quite work that way when I visited, but I appreciate the intention.
Rather than cooking overnight, or hiring someone to watch a fire, Herring uses a Southern Pride rotisserie smoker that can be set to maintain a consistent temperature for hours with a gas assist. “I would love to be on a big stick-burner,” he said, “but I don’t have the resources or the space.” The building used to house a bakery and wasn’t designed to accommodate a large offset smoker. Herring also said he likes the consistency the rotisserie provides.
Customers have to wait until the weekend to try the pork ribs. Herring serves an item he calls “rib candy.” Think of it as pork rib burnt ends. He takes strips of the rib ends and seasons them with a sweet rub before smoking them. They might be more popular than the ribs themselves. Try them with a side of freshly fried okra or Herring’s special-recipe potato salad, which contains chunks of something I couldn’t recognize. At first I thought it was fried potatoes, but upon closer inspection, it was meat. It was the first protein other than bacon I’d ever encountered in a potato salad. Herring wouldn’t divulge what it was, but said I was close when I guessed fried bologna.
Herring has built a solid customer base serving East Texas barbecue classics, while also adding some fresh ideas to the menu, like the tacos and rib candy. It’s the Taproom part of the name that’s pushing harder against skepticism in Mineola. “I’ve converted a lot of people to craft beer,” Herring said. “We have a few customers that call me Beer Jesus.” Thankfully, the craft brew evangelist of Mineola serves some pretty good tacos and barbecue too.