Phillip and Yvette Helberg’s plan was to bring Texas-style barbecue to Orange County, California. They met on a Hawaiian cruise ship where Phillip, who grew up in The Woodlands, was working. Two years later, the couple was married and living in the Golden State, where Yvette grew up. Together they founded an event company, Helberg Ranch, in Rancho Santa Margarita. Yvette did the planning and marketing while Phillip provided the catering: barbecue from a steel offset smoker. Phillip also raced mountain bikes competitively, and their new home was a good spot for the endeavor, but it just wasn’t working financially. “I raced a lot out there, but that wasn’t paying the bills,” Phillip said. “Barbecue wasn’t really paying the bills, either.”
They needed a fresh start somewhere with a lower cost of living. On a road trip through Texas, the two had loved the state. Of all the Texas towns they’d visited, Yvette liked Waco best, so they hauled their smokers on a trailer from California. They paid cash for a not-so-lightly-used food truck on Craigslist in a Walmart parking lot in Greenville and drove it down to their new hometown. “I was shocked that it made it,” Phillip said.
What began as a barbecue pop-up outside Waco’s Pinewood Roasters in April 2018 is now a regular Thursday and Friday gig (check their Facebook page for their Saturday location). The Helbergs serve brisket-stuffed zwiebacks, an Eastern European pastry similar to a klobasnek, in the mornings starting at 7:30am, then switch to the full barbecue menu at 11am. Customers order straight from the sidewalk, and can take their barbecue trays inside the coffee shop or dine in a comfortable courtyard with picnic tables. When the first of two barbecue trays came out for our order, we set up an impromptu picnic on the stoop next to the trailer.
Yvette makes the Helberg’s sausage. A link of the jalapeño cheese version had a ruddy shade from the smoker, and the casing provided great snap to the juicy sausage. A bratwurst was available on a bun with house made sauerkraut, grilled onions, and mustard. It’s an uncommon way to serve sausage at a Texas barbecue joint, but I could get used to it. Also unusual is the pesto-stuffed smoked turkey breast. The cut is butterflied, stuffed with the herb mixture, then rolled back up and smoked. It was some of the best smoked turkey I’ve had in a while, and was incredibly moist.
Helberg uses Open Prairie beef from IBP for its brisket, which doesn’t include added hormones or antibiotics. “I love the fat,” Phillip says. I agree. The brisket was spectacular with good smoke and a peppery bite. It seemed like there was even more pepper on the pork spare ribs, but the sharpness had been tamed by smoke and a sauce applied during cooking. They weren’t all that sweet, but could have used some more salt with all that pepper. Plenty of pepper coated the fistful of pork Phillip pulled from the tender pork butt. It was fatty, smoky, and my serving came with plenty of bark.
It’s a bit jarring when a bite of mac & cheese is sweet. Phillip’s version, influenced by television chef Alton Brown, is supposed to combine the flavors of a cheese plate into a single dish. In this case, it’s smoked gouda with a thick cracker topping and chopped dates which provide the sweet element. While I appreciated the creativity, I prefer the mustardy potato salad or the street corn salad. The latter is packed with spice and herbs, and is dense from the crema and cheese holding it all together. I enjoyed it served at room temperature, which is done on purpose. As Phillip explained, “When it gets cold, it turns into concrete.”
The house made pickles are a nice touch. The meaty pinto beans were also a standout, but you won’t find slaw. “No one was buying it,” said Phillip, who had something of a cole slaw grudge already. His first job was at the chicken finger shop Raising Cane’s, where slaw comes with nearly every combo. “I can’t tell you how much cole slaw people threw away, and it pissed me off because I had to make it in the morning,” he said. Instead, the Helbergs offer a refreshing watermelon and blueberry salad with feta and a balsamic glaze. It might not be a classic barbecue side, but it tastes great on a Waco sidewalk in the summer.
The Helbergs don’t plan to serve barbecue from the trailer forever. They’d like to have their own place in Waco. In the meantime, they’ve teamed up with a local pub, which will open in a few months in the same building as Pinewood Roasters. The Helbergs will be in charge of providing food to the hungry patrons. Until then, seek out the trailer for a great new barbecue option in Waco.
2223 Austin Ave, Waco, Texas 76701
Thu-Sat 7:30am for zwiebacks, 11am for barbecue until they run out
Pitmasters: Yvette and Phillip Helberg
Year opened: 2017