Richard Funk thought the end was near for his Desert Oak Barbecue in El Paso in mid-2018. Traffic was down, and he wasn’t replacing employees who left. He told remaining employees to start looking for new jobs. Since he jumped from a food truck, which opened in 2015, to a brick-and-mortar location in 2017, growth had stalled. “Every week I was wondering if I’d be open the next week,” Funk said. He was back to the hundred-hour workweeks he thought were behind him. “I was doing what I really knew I wanted to do, and I thought I was going to have to throw in the towel,” he said. But he didn’t tell anyone, not even his wife, Suzanne. She resigned from her job not knowing the dire situation. Funk was in a bad spot.
A positive review from Texas Monthly that July led to a write-up in the local paper. Desert Oak saw some new faces, and profits went up. Then the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives came calling. Funk’s response was tepid. “They wanted all the recipes,” he said. “It sounded like a scam.” Plus, Funk had never heard of the show. He looked it up and recognized host Guy Fieri, with his spiky blond hair. Funk booked his ticket to Flavortown.
The “Triple D” episode featuring Desert Oak Barbecue aired in August 2019, and the joint saw an immediate response from customers. Producers told the Funks the real boost would come the following year, when the show’s die-hard fans would follow Fieri’s trail. It gave the couple enough hope that they sought a bigger place. Then they made the Texas Monthly Top 50 barbecue list last November, which resulted in another bump in sales.
When Richard Funk heard about a new barbecue truck parked at his old spot on Gateway Boulevard in El Paso, he had to make the trip. He found that the truck was already gone for the day, but there was a “For Lease” sign on the huge liquor store next door. Funk knew the landlord from his food truck days, and before the day was over he had a handshake deal on a lease, with eight months free rent. The joint was supposed to be open in late 2021 but was delayed until May 18, 2022. That’s how Desert Oak Barbecue came to open two new restaurants within a week of each other.
The other location, to the northeast, on Rich Beem Boulevard, opened May 13. It’s a satellite location, meaning the barbecue comes from the smokers at Gateway, and it also offers breakfast and some great coffee. Suzanne’s son, Stephen Ortiz, and daughter, Alyssa Ruiz, who both work at Desert Oak, became so obsessed with coffee several years ago that they were ordering raw beans from Central America to roast themselves. They found kindred spirits within the Miller family of Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton, who also own Muscovy Coffee Roasters. The Funks bought a La Marzocco espresso machine and ordered beans from Muscovy for their espresso-based drinks. I loved the creamy cortado so much, I stopped in twice in one day for a caffeine boost.
The lunch and dinner options at the Rich Beem location differ from Desert Oak’s typical menu. You won’t find the smoked chicken because it sells out daily at Gateway, and the weekend beef ribs are reserved for the main location as well. “If they want the full barbecue experience, you need to come here,” Funk said as we ate from a barbecue tray at Gateway. What you’ll find only at Rich Beem are the many new breakfast options.
The bacon and egg sandwich on a buttered, griddled bun is nice, but the better option is what is called the spiced ham. It’s really homemade Spam, made from pork trimmings. The cooks slice it thick, grill it, and top it with fluffy scrambled eggs. It’s just one of the ways Desert Oak is using the new menu to showcase leftovers. Brisket trim is ground fine and mixed with diced potatoes for a picadillo burrito, and hunks of leftover smoked brisket are stewed with red chiles and spices for a chile colorado burrito. The fluffy tortillas come from the shop next door. The barbecue sauce or hot sauce packets are fine additions in a pinch, but some homemade salsa would have been welcome.
The rest of the brisket trim is used for a smash burger available at both locations. Quarter-pound patties are seasoned and griddled (get the double) and topped with American cheese and a few thick rings of red onion. Instead of Thousand Island dressing, the excellent burger gets a “special sauce” made from pureed smoked tomatoes and mayo.
Back at the Gateway location, the Funks have expanded seating capacity, which was just over twenty at the previous brick-and-mortar, to two hundred. They have added two new offset smokers to the two they already had, and now produce 1,800 links of house-made sausage every week. “In my mind, this is the original vision of what I wanted it to be,” Richard said.