Terlingua is the western gateway into Big Bend National Park and a mecca for “chiliheads.” Both the Terlingua International Chili Championship, sanctioned by CASI (the Chili Appreciation Society International), and the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, founded by Frank X. Tolbert and Wick Fowler, are held here every fall. These are the same folks who lobbied the Texas legislature to name chili as the official state dish. Right here in the middle of chili country, defending the good name of barbecue, is DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ.
Don Baucham, whose friends call him DB, opened the barbecue truck in 2016. His long and winding path to becoming a professional pitmaster began in the kitchen of Harrigan’s Grill & Bar, in Odessa, about an hour north of his hometown of McCamey. Baucham worked the grill there during college in the late seventies and early eighties. The money to be made in the oil fields drew him westward to tiny Kermit, in 1981. There weren’t many restaurants around, so Baucham started cooking on a modified charcoal grill. “I built a firebox on the side of it myself, out of sheet metal,” he told me. The barbecue was good enough to make a little money on the side. “You could get about six briskets on there,” he said. “That’s what I started on.” He spent the next few decades in the oil industry but never forgot about barbecue.
An oil job took Baucham to Angola, in Africa, where he worked thirty days on and thirty days off for a decade. He once stayed over on a four-month stretch without coming home and made enough to buy the trailer he currently serves out of, but it would be years before he used it. “I was preparing,” he explained. “I knew that one of these days this was going to happen.” Baucham left Angola for Brazil in 2013 and was laid off two years later. Drawn to yet another remote location, he and a friend bought some land in Terlingua. “I just like the desert,” he said.
I visited right after New Year’s Day, which is still considered the busy season for Big Bend. The government shutdown hadn’t affected the traffic into the park, which remained open but relatively unattended. A sticker on DB’s food truck window read, “Resist! No Wall,” and I asked Baucham what it was like to live in an area that’s at the center of so much debate, a lot of it by people who haven’t been to Terlingua. He said the border region in this part of Texas is misunderstood. “We get a lot of people visiting from New York City asking how safe it is here,” he said. “I tell them it’s safer here than in New York City!”
The barbecue is better than most in New York, too. Baucham cooks on a trailer-mounted rotisserie fueled only with mesquite and red oak. The sides of slaw, pinto beans, and potato salad are all basic but are made with care. Brisket slices were smoky and tender, if a bit dry. They’d be better on a sandwich with a bit of the house-made sauce. I preferred the juicy and pleasantly salty smoked turkey, which Baucham said has gotten surprisingly popular recently. The tender and peppery pork ribs were also good, especially after a dip into the thin, sweet sauce. Considering this is the farthest barbecue joint in Texas from my home in Dallas (measured by travel time), a visit to DB’s certainly wasn’t a wasted trek.
Baucham said the next few months will likely be slow, but in March things heat up for Spring Break. He’ll be open every day then and looking to make enough to finish his permanent restaurant in the Terlingua Ghost Town. “I’m paying as I go,” he said. Water, septic, and power are already done on the site, but there’s not yet a building to show for it. “I’ve spent over $60,000 so far, and I haven’t sold a sandwich there yet,” Baucham said with a forced laugh. It looks as if the previously nomadic Baucham has finally put his roots down. “I’m in deep here, buddy.”