Jay and Diana Stearns have seen their business go through plenty of transformations since they started Jay’s BBQ Shack in 2015. In fact, they’ve reinvented the place once a year, converting a catering operation into Abilene’s only roaming barbecue food truck. They found a spot to park for good last November, in front of the building that will become the permanent home of Jay’s BBQ Shack early in 2019. “The opportunities for branching out and doing other things are going to be a whole lot better once we get in there,” Jay said with excitement.
For now, their operation is housed on a fleet of trailers. There are several for the smokers and one for the food truck, which Jay built himself atop an actual trailer. He and Diane had shopped for food trucks, and thought they found one in San Antonio. After driving out to inspect it, they realized their budget wasn’t going to allow for something in good working condition. Instead, they bought a sixteen-foot flat bed trailer, loaded up some lumber, and got to building. All the smokers are mounted on similar trailers, also built by Jay. He’s been welding pits together for over twenty years, since the couple lived in Austin.
The Stearns both grew up in Abilene and moved to Austin to work for Dell. After ten years, the company outsourced Jay’s job to Tennessee, but he didn’t want to leave Texas. He moved back to Abilene to work with his dad in the oil fields, but continued building pits. “I was mainly building them because I like to eat barbecue,” he joked, but he sold quite a few as well. He lost money trying to compete on the barbecue circuit, so he figured he’d try selling barbecue instead of trying to win trophies. That’s when the idea for the barbecue truck was born. Unlike in Austin, where serving from a food truck is a marketing boost on its own, they weren’t cool in Abilene. “To get people to eat off a trailer that they don’t know in Abilene is pretty difficult,” Jay said. “We’ve got make it fun and give people a reason to come try us.”
That’s what they’ve done inside the sixty-square-foot trailer. I had the daily special: smoky and spicy quail poppers wrapped in crispy bacon. Depending on the day, you might also find habanero glazed pork ribs or a smoked brisket burger. Bacon burnt ends, which are quickly showing up on menus statewide, are on the regular menu. The smoky nuggets are tender, but could use a thinner coat of the sweet barbecue sauce. Diana makes all the sides, including a fluffy potato salad with fresh dill and a rich bread pudding for dessert.
If you’re looking for heat, you can get it in stages. The excellent green chile mac & cheese (for which they won the “Big Cheese” award at a local competition) provides a bit of kick and plenty of creamy cheese. The jalapeño cheese sausage is a step up, but the real burn comes from the ghost pepper sausage. It looks tame, but packs a wallop. Ghost pepper barbecue sauce comes on the side if you want it extra hot. The sausages are all commercially made for now; Jay said he enjoys making his own, but doesn’t have the room or the time. At the moment, he uses a commissary kitchen for much of his cooking, but he plans to change that once they open the brick-and-mortar location.
“For the time being, my day starts at 2 a.m. because I’ve gotta cook beans,” Jay told me. While most pitmasters rise early to stoke their fires, he’s stuck in the kitchen making beans from scratch. It’s the only window of time he has before the meat goes on, and he has to cook most of it faster than he prefers. “I cook [the briskets] as hot and fast as I can without burning them,” he admits.
Even if it’s cooked hot and fast, the slices of tender, fatty brisket I ate were impressive and plenty smoky. Instead of the usual mesquite wood found in the area, Jay prefers a mix of oak and pecan. It works well on the simply seasoned ribs as well. He explained that he has to wrap the ribs in foil to get them done more quickly, but he’d prefer not to. Stearns is a man conflicted between cooking his barbecue the way he wants and making a living. He says it will all work itself out as soon as they get into their new building. “My life is going to improve, and I think the quality of the food is going to improve,” he says. Fortunately for Abilene, his barbecue is already pretty dang good.