Three large red letters caught my eye at a busy intersection in El Paso, and I knew I’d found the new home for Desert Oak Barbecue. “BBQ” is the only thing written above the door, but it stands out amid the strip center clutter. It’s a big step up from the food truck owners Richard and Suzanne Funk ran for a couple years between a liquor store and a western wear shop before they opened this location this past August. Now the venue and the menu are all grown up.
When I last visited Desert Oak, during its food truck period in 2015, brisket, ribs, and stuffed baked potatoes were the extent of the options. Plenty of sides have been added, as well as a house-made sausage that is alone worth a visit. “I taught myself how to make sausage in my kitchen with Suzanne,” Richard says. It took some effort to get a recipe they were happy with, and then sausage whiz John Lewis of Charleston’s Lewis Barbecue came out for a visit. “He gave me a few pointers,” Richard recalls. They changed the cooking technique and tweaked the recipe. They use brisket and spare rib trimmings that are coarsely ground and then add crushed red pepper and mustard seeds. The Funks wanted a Texas-style sausage, but “salt, pepper, and cayenne [alone] just didn’t do it for me,” Richard says. It’s packed with flavor and plenty of heat too.
The brisket is about how I remember it from a few years back, meaning it’s still easily the best in El Paso. The beef is on the far end of tender, with well-rendered fat. Slices from the lean end of the prime beef were as juicy as it gets with Texas brisket. The smoke and pepper are a bit muted from a long hold in butcher paper, but it’s a small quibble for some great brisket. A half chicken right off the smoker was juicy with good smoke on the crisp skin. Richard would prefer to grill his chickens if he could, but a half-dozen proteins on the menu doesn’t leave time for much more than keeping the smoker dialed in. The juicy smoked turkey was impressive, and tender pork ribs were executed equally well—the heavy pepper rub was balanced with a sweet sauce that goes on during the latter part of the cook. If you like the ribs at La Barbecue in Austin, you’ll be happy with these.
The flavors of El Paso are well represented in the sides, for better and worse. I loved the bite of hatch green chiles in the cheesy rice dish and the bits that studded the excellent cream corn. One of the sides that remains from the early days of the food truck is the soupy slaw with canned pineapple, and I didn’t like it any better this time around. Richard laughingly apologized saying, “That’s how El Paso likes it, so that’s how I have to make it.” Opt instead for the mac & cheese or the simple, satisfying pinto beans.
Chile toreados were unfamiliar to this Dallasite, but I’m glad I paid the $1 to get a couple. To make them, Richard roasts whole jalapeños in the smoker’s firebox. The charred skin is shucked off, and the pods are soaked in a mixture of soy sauce and lime juice. They’re great on their own, or they can really liven up a pulled-pork sandwich. It’s one of those flavors that’s so unusual and so good that I’ll know I’ll be making some of my own at home. Banana pudding, the only dessert option, is as light and fluffy as I’ve ever eaten. Whipped cream is folded into the pudding base layer and layered with banana slices and wafers. Plan on not sharing an individual serving.
After the meal, Richard took me back out to the alley behind the restaurant. It was hot on the asphalt, and he wiped sweat from his brow. He said the silver lining of El Paso’s punishing summer heat is that it cuts his wood consumption in half versus the winter months. The wood is now stored in the old food truck, which has been mostly gutted. It sits next to a new trailer-mounted, 1,000-gallon offset smoker. Desert Oak has come a long way from serving a few items two days a week out of a food truck, and if the Funks keep making barbecue this good, they’re gonna need another smoker.
1320 N. Zaragoza Rd., El Paso, TX, 79936
Wed-Sat 11-8 (or sold out)
Pitmaster: Richard Funk
Method: Post oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2015