Like most regions in Texas, the Rio Grande Valley has its own barbecue style. Rice and charro beans feature alongside smoked fajitas and smoked beef cheek barbacoa. Tortillas and salsa are more often guaranteed than white bread and barbecue sauce. But George Watts Jr. and his son George “G” Watts III wanted to stand out from the local norm and bring the sliced brisket and homemade sausages of Central Texas to the area with GW’s BBQ. “We didn’t want to be the traditional RGV barbecue joint,” G said, though they do offer barbacoa on Sundays, which is the only day they serve tortillas.
The Wattses weren’t the first to serve Central Texas barbecue in the area. The Smoking Oak in Mercedes opened in 2015, and Smokin’ Moon in Pharr followed three years later, just as GW’s was getting its footing as a food truck. But I haven’t been as excited about a barbecue joint of this type in the Valley since Teddy’s Barbecue, which made our most recent Top 50 list, opened in Weslaco three years ago. Since GW’s BBQ added a permanent location in August 2021, the area east of McAllen has become a destination for homemade sausages and oak-smoked brisket.
The parking lot of GW’s was packed just before noon on a recent Friday, and I had to squeeze through folks waiting to be served just to find the end of the line, which moved quickly. G was working the cutting block. He recognized me, as did several other employees. Various members of the Wattses’ network of family and friends have been asking me to visit since they parked their truck at the Yard in McAllen in 2018. Bad timing and the COVID-19 pandemic kept it from happening, and they closed down the truck to focus on the new location while our team was in the midst of the Top 50 search last year. It was worth the wait.
I asked for lean beef, and G cut a slice from a dark-crusted brisket with juices flowing onto the block. It was tender, with the familiar flavor of oak smoke, salt, and pepper. The Wattses used to stop there when it came to seasoning, but they recently added a sprinkling of seasoned salt as well. The same goes for the spareribs, which were also nicely seasoned with a well-developed bark. Both items would hold up well against the Central Texas ones they emulate.
Where GW’s makes a bigger impression is its sausage. G served me an uncut link of the peppery beef sausage. (They also make a jalapeño cheese version, and they’ve recently begun a special sausage of the month, with habanero Havarti as the inaugural offering.) The sausage burst with juice after my first bite snapped through the taut casing. The grind was properly coarse, and the salt well balanced. More than anything on the menu, it reminded me of a Central Texas meat market.
The culinary arts program at South Texas College didn’t teach G much about barbecue when he attended, but the experience did spark his desire to become a fine-dining chef. Those positions were hard to come by in the Valley. He worked at the Italian chain Johnny Carino’s, Dairy Queen, and the cafeteria of a local hospital. None was the sort of job he was seeking, so he took a detour into law enforcement. Through it all, he said, “I knew one day I wanted to have a barbecue restaurant.” Last August, he resigned from the police department serving Edinburg CISD to focus fully on GW’s.
His barbecue education began with his dad, George Jr., who’d had plenty of catering gigs before GW’s. G also read barbecue books and watched the many instructional videos available on YouTube. Still, both father and son really learned how to produce great barbecue on the job. “It’s night and day,” George Jr. said, comparing the barbecue he used to serve at weddings to what he offers at the restaurant. “Every cook I feel like we learn something,” G agreed.
Even with all the sausage they produce, there is always more brisket trim to be used. They started incorporating it into a weekly “smash burger” special, which has gotten so popular it will be added to the daily menu. It’s available as a single or a double, but I found one of the half-pound patties to be plenty. The secret to the burger’s incredible crust, G said, is to leave it alone. The beef is smashed down onto a griddle, then cooked for a few minutes until it’s about two-thirds done before being flipped and topped with American cheese. You can add pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomato, but it needs nothing more than the buttered and griddled bun.
The Peacemaker sandwich is a bit more complicated. First, the crew at GW’s cures and smokes its own bacon and makes pimento cheese from scratch. Then both are layered onto thick slices of smoked pork loin. It’s a lean cut that can often be dry when served. The GW’s version was so moist I thought it must have been brined, but no. G said the key is simply not to overcook it. It’s also available by the pound and would pair well with the savory braised-cabbage side.
Other sides include fresh green beans with garlic, pinto beans, slaw, and potato salad. Lisa Watts, George Jr.’s wife, said the jalapeño creamed corn is the most popular. A few items also remain on the menu from the food truck days, like loaded cheese fries and barbecue nachos. “That’s what we were known for,” said George Jr., though they’ve tried to leave the food-truck image behind.
The current iteration of GW’s BBQ might be new, but it has been a long time in the making. The pitmasters’ hard work and attention to detail come through in the food, and though the Wattses may be Pharr natives, they’ve brought a taste of Central Texas to the Valley. Just hop in line now, before it gets too long, and get there early. Most days, GW’s is sold out by 4 p.m.—which might be its best imitation of Austin barbecue yet.
107 N. Nebraska Avenue, San Juan
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 11–6:30 or until sold out, Sunday 10–6 or until sold out
Pitmasters: George Watts Jr. and George Watts III
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2018