It’s not easy to find barbecue success in Levelland. When they opened Embers Barbecue this summer in the small town thirty miles west of Lubbock, Andrew and Jewel Hill were optimistic enough to worry how their new business might affect the local owners of the Dickey’s Barbecue a few blocks away. Five months later, Andrew utters a dejected laugh when adding the fifth and final brisket to the smoker for the overnight cook, wondering aloud if it was even worth the cost of the oak wood to run the pit overnight.
“If you want me to be completely honest, some days are very hard, you know?” Andrew said through the screen-covered ordering window. I stood on the porch of the portable building that serves as their kitchen and watched the couple prepare my order. (Customers dine on outdoor picnic tables.) “We love it,” Jewel said. “We don’t mind the work, but the business isn’t quite there.” They’ve tried opening on Sunday, but nobody showed up. When they added dinner service, Andrew stood on the sidewalk beckoning at cars to pull into their gravel lot, only to watch them choose the pizza chain across the street instead.
The Hills chose this community to plant roots in for good reason. Jewel grew up in Levelland, and Andrew got his first barbecue experience working at J&M BBQ in Lubbock. Back then, he would try different rub recipes on his own briskets in the smokers at work and bring them home for Jewel to try. According to a recent blog post of Jewel’s, Andrew’s salt and pepper briskets convinced her—a lapsed vegetarian—of the power of good barbecue. An inspiring trip to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor further cemented their path. Andrew wanted his own smoker, so he salvaged a steel tank from his grandfather’s property that he once played on as a child. “Me and my dad built it over a year and half,” he said proudly. It was time well spent, because it’s turning out some of the best barbecue in this part of the state.
If Andrew and Jewel aren’t sure about their future as pitmasters, it’s not the barbecue’s fault. Thick-cut pork ribs are smoky with a peppery bark, finished in foil, and incredibly juicy, with a perfect texture. The brisket had great smokiness and a nice bark. Burnt ends served alongside the slices were especially good. Sliced pork belly was a unique Texas barbecue menu item, but they smoked it until the meat was tender and the ribbons of fat were nicely rendered. They made for a great trio, but it was the green chile and cheese sausage that stole the show. It’s house-made, with a coarse grind and a great snap, and it’s milder than the more common jalapeño cheese variety.
The sides are just as impressive. Brisket stew, with green beans and corn, was rich and warming on a chilly day, as were the simple pinto beans. Heat of a different kind came with the excellent green chile cream corn. It was here that I realized just how popular green chiles, in lieu of jalapeños, have become in West Texas barbecue. The most pleasant surprise were conchitas made from Jewel’s family recipe. To make conchitas, small pasta shells are toasted in oil before adding liquid, much like rice would be treated for risotto. She then adds tomato sauce, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper and of course some chopped brisket. The conchitas and the stew alone make this spot worth the visit.
There’s plenty to love at Embers Barbecue, but I was the only customer during my meal right at opening time on a Saturday. Making great barbecue isn’t always enough to make for a successful barbecue joint, but usually it’s the work load and long hours that wears people down. That doesn’t seem to be an issue with the Hills. A sign out front reads “True Texas Grit” below the business name, and the Hills are showing all the grit they can muster in Levelland. Hopefully they can stick around long enough for folks to find them and their impressive barbecue.