The building at the corner of Olive Avenue and North Cotton Street in El Paso was a problem for some people on the board of the Rescue Mission of El Paso. The mission that serves El Paso’s homeless and migrant population took over the property—which was built 99 years prior—in 2016. It was an eyesore in disrepair from decades of neglect.
Blake Barrow, who is the organization’s chief executive director, remembers the building more fondly from his early days in El Paso, where he moved in 1988. He noted its unique look—although boarded up and abandoned—while driving around town to get his bearings. When it came under the mission’s care, the roof had massive leaks, the floor was rotted out, and there had been at least two fires inside. But Barrow thought it was worth saving and turning the future home into the barbecue restaurant the mission was planning.
Barrow read a passage to me over the phone from the October 12, 1918, issue of Electric Railway Journal he keeps in his desk. The writer praised the new and “unusually pleasant brick clubhouse,” with a restaurant inside for the 166 workers of the El Paso Electric Railway. “Simple food of the best sort is served; even individual bottles of milk are used,” the article said. Despite its history, a member of the board demanded the building be scraped so they could start over without a lengthy and costly renovation. Barrow was frustrated.
Finding worth in and rehabilitating what some considered a nuisance seemed like the most obvious metaphor for the calling of the mission. “I had to wait until he turned off the board before I could get anything done,” Barrow said. The renovations began in 2020, and Hallelujah! BBQ opened this April. “We turned it into a work of art, and that’s the same thing we do with people,” Barrow said.
A job at a law firm first brought Barrow to El Paso. The Houston native had just graduated from Baylor’s law school. By 1997, he was disillusioned, and made a career change to become the CEO for the Rescue Mission. Today, the organization houses more than one hundred people from the homeless and migrant communities and provides meals, showers, and laundry facilities to dozens more every day through its Corner of Hope street outreach program.
Vocational rehabilitation has always been part of the mission’s services for residents who go through its alcohol and drug rehabilitation program. Furniture-making was its business from 1986 until TxDOT bought its land in 2014. The organization used those funds to buy the property and building where Hallelujah! BBQ now sits. Barrow began a barbecue catering operation inside the mission in 2016, and it grew into the new restaurant.
“They were all homeless when they were hired, and we will hire only from the homeless population,” he said of the twelve employees. Candace Blanchard is the restaurant manager at Hallelujah! BBQ. She came to the mission three years ago from jail on a drug charge. Barrow first hired her for the maintenance crew. She taught herself to run a front-end loader on YouTube and helped build the restaurant. Barrow offered Blanchard a job as the restaurant’s manager, and she accepted. The manager position is one of two Barrow plans to keep on long term. The others will leave the mission by design to use the skills they’ve learned in the outside world.
The other permanent position is pitmaster. The first hire for the restaurant was Mark Kaiser, who graduated from the drug and alcohol program a decade ago. When Kaiser found the mission, he was a 120-pound heroin addict who “had been living in a refrigerator box under a bridge in Las Vegas,” according to Barrow. He graduated, left the mission, and left Texas. He relapsed in Wisconsin, but found his way back to El Paso and got clean again at the mission. Barrow taught him how to cook barbecue. “He was really doing well,” Barrow said, then tragically, three weeks before the restaurant opened, Kaiser had a heart attack and died.
Barrow became the head pitmaster along with his other duties at the mission. He’s training Anthony Villa to work the four cabinet smokers built by Johnson Smokers in Ennis. Barrow explained to Villa the smoker is like a carburetor in an old car’s engine. “What you’re doing is adjusting the fuel-to-air ratio to get complete combustion,” he said, hoping Villa will catch on. “I don’t want to be training a new fire pit guy every ninety days,” Barrow said.
The rest of the staff rotates to different positions in the restaurant so they can make the most of their training, but the goal of the mission is to prepare their employees to leave. Barrow said, “The food is really not what we’re about. We’re about putting people back together.” He went further before correcting himself. “If I’m going to take people who are homeless and help them succeed at life, the way they’re going to succeed is by making the very best product, and providing the best service,” he explained.
The takeout window is prominent outside Hallelujah! BBQ, and a small door to the right of it leads to the dining room, which is full-service. When I visited for lunch, Ernie Ruvalcaba was my server. He was celebrating eleven months of sobriety, and bragged to us about installing the irrigation lines for the plants surrounding the restaurant. The following week he would move to the kitchen to learn the back-of-house skills.
That’s where David Myers started. The first batch of pinto beans he made during the research and development phase was so good, the recipe hasn’t changed. Barrow named the beans after him. David’s Beans, which are brisket-fortified pinto beans, are indeed good. Ernie recommended the brisket, but we ordered just about everything.
13 Habaneros Sausage is so named because thirteen raw habanero peppers go into every thirty-pound batch. Besides that, it’s a mix of pork, red onion, garlic, jalapeño, habanero, fennel, oregano, and sage. It’s closer to a spicy Italian sausage, without any blistering heat. Baby back ribs and brisket both had plenty of good smoke flavor and pleasantly peppery bark. The brisket could have come off earlier, though the texture of the ribs was spot-on. The turkey breast is smoked skin-on, but the skin was removed on my slices, and along with it most of the seasoning and smoke. It was still tender.
Every barbecue plate comes with a slice of jalapeño cornbread, and that’s pretty much where the jalapeños end. El Paso is green chile country, and if you like them mixed with cheese and carbs, you’re in luck. A baked mac and cheese (my favorite), potatoes au gratin, and tater tot casserole all featured green chile. The last one Barrow borrowed from the Truth BBQ recipe shared by Leonard Botello IV on this website. As for the green beans, oddly paired with Granny Smith apples and portobello mushrooms, Barrow said, “I dreamed that one up at night.” The next day he made it in the kitchen. He starts with fresh green beans and sautés them with onions and apples before adding mushrooms and tomato paste. They’re unexpectedly spectacular.
The pineapple coleslaw didn’t make me a convert. The Brussels sprouts had plenty of butter and bacon but were overcooked. For dessert, cheesecake is the only option. The kitchen makes fifteen different varieties, and one or two make it into the daily offerings. My dining companion and I wished we’d ordered two squares of the chocolate chip cheesecake, with a thick, buttery graham cracker crust.
The restaurant is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Rescue Mission, and all profits go back into it. “It allows us to expand and serve more people who are homeless in El Paso,” Barrow said. It also gives many of their residents the skills and confidence they need to go back out into the world and make a life of their own. Barrow tells them all, “I see value in you whether you see it or not, and we’re going to teach you how to succeed.”
The success of the restaurant isn’t measured just in dollars, though. It’s a way of bringing people into the mission, though many customers don’t realize they’re on Rescue Mission property when they dine. Showing them through the staff they interact with and the food they eat that homelessness might not look like what they envisioned is one of the restaurant’s main purposes.
“To the rest of society, I am running a leper colony,” Barrow said. “Obviously, I don’t see it that way. They are children of God with great talent,” he added. And his job is to convince them of their talents, whether it’s running a smoker or a front-end loader. Barrow said he understands the view from the outside of those in the mission’s care. “It’s not at all what I thought I’d find when I came here 26 years ago,” he admitted.
That awakening led him to write the book Stories from the Shelter, published in 2014, sharing the stories of the people who need the mission. Documenting the many circumstances that led people to the Rescue Mission helped Barrow see the potential in all of them, just like he saw the potential in the property. There’s more to come. The colorful shipping containers on site will become a coffee bar and a dining area. With the popularity of their cheesecakes, Barrow said, “the next business will be Hallelujah! Bakery,” right next to the century-old building he wasn’t ready to give up on.