The barbecue food truck is the modern-day version of the old roadside barbecue shack. These mobile kitchens may still be trendy in big cities, but they’re now a common entry point into the barbecue business in small towns as well. Joe Cantu says his Henry’s Barbecue food truck was less expensive than a brick-and-mortar, but he reminds me that it’s not cheap to open a restaurant of any sort. He cashed out his 401(k), his wife Patricia quit her job, and they partnered with her sister Monica Fernandez to open the Del Valle truck last year. Now their only option is to make it a success.
The food truck is parked in a small lot off of FM Road 812. The tower at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack is part of the view from the picnic tables out front, but it feels a long way from Austin, where Cantu used to work. He left a good job at Borden Dairy to pursue his dream. The dream began nine years ago, after his father-in-law showed him the basics of barbecue. “My first brisket was tough as nails,” Cantu admits, but he persevered. He learned more lessons from his grandfather Henry, whom the business is named after. He was a welder and built a vertical smoker that Cantu inherited after Henry’s death in 2014.
Cantu used that smoker for a brisket that got him to the final table at Rodeo Austin’s barbecue competition that same year. His Borden coworkers started asking for barbecue, which is when he started selling it. The side business grew so quickly that Cantu bought a larger offset smoker in 2015 to keep up with his orders. The Buda native finally left the job last year to open the food truck near his wife’s hometown of Cedar Creek, and the business has been growing slowly but steadily ever since.
The barbecue menu is basic and well executed. Brisket is seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and garlic, and smoked until it gets a deep brown bark. The slices are incredibly juicy and tender, with a good dose of smoke. A bit more goes into the pork shoulder rub, including some Fiesta brand seasoning salt. Rather than shredding the meat ahead of time, Cantu tears a chunk off the pork shoulder for each order. My serving was in one large clump, and thanks to all the bark I might have confused it for a brisket burnt end. The bold flavor and bits of rendered exterior fat were a welcome change from the bland pulled pork found at too many barbecue joints.
St. Louis–cut pork ribs are seasoned with the same rub as the shoulders, but it’s applied too generously. Thankfully, the sweet sauce Cantu mops on as a glaze counteracts some of the salt. Sides of macaroni and cheese and pinto beans were pretty basic, so I’d save room for a bacon cheeseburger on the side instead. The patties are a blend of ground brisket and beef short rib, and they’re delivered fresh. The burgers are grilled to order, then placed on a buttered and grilled bun. Crisp bacon and a slice of American cheese tops the burger on half of the bun, and the cold toppings—lettuce, tomato, and sliced onion—are stacked on the other side of the container. Pile it all together and you get the perfect proportions for a filling burger that can easily be held in one hand without it falling apart. The burgers have gotten so popular that Cantu is considering adding a deep fryer to make french fries.
I commended Cantu on the obvious care that goes into all the food he serves. “We’re customers ourselves, so we try to give people what we’d like to get in return,” he says. They simply serve what they like to eat. They’re also a compassionate bunch. An injured Chihuahua was hanging around the picnic table looking for food during my visit, and I gifted it some brisket. Cantu found a home for the dog the next day. The following week, Henry’s served a free barbecue dinner to local families in need—on Tuesday, which is usually a night off. “We just decided to give back a little bit to the community that’s been supporting us through COVID,” Cantu says.
The goal is to find a permanent location for Henry’s Barbecue in the center of Del Valle, rather than food truck on the outskirts. Right now Cantu is smoking between four and eight briskets a day, which isn’t a lot. He isn’t discouraged. “We can’t control busy days and slow days. We can only control the effort,” he says, and the effort certainly shows. Throughout our conversation, Cantu sounded like a seasoned barbecue coach, with phrases like “preparation creates opportunity.” The business started small, but the family has a game plan, he says, adding, “If we keep our head down and put the work in, things will work out.”