Abilene barbecue is going through a transformation. The Shed Market, an honorable mention on our 2021 barbecue list, recently opened a new location on Abilene’s south side, tripling its capacity. Texas Cowboy BBQ on the north side of town is showing off its new dining room and menu after being featured on Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible. And right in between them is Jay’s BBQ Shack, which has had a glow-up of its own and is serving the best brisket I’ve ever eaten in Abilene.
Owners Jay and Diana Stearns ditched their food truck in October 2019, about a year after we first wrote about their barbecue. An old house was on their lot when they bought it, and the couple moved the restaurant operations inside once renovations were complete. Dining is still all outdoors, but a pavilion and added shade structures make standing in line in the summer heat bearable.
The heat didn’t deter the many customers I stood in line with on a recent Friday afternoon. After my first visit in 2018, I had told the Stearnses I’d be back to see their progress. I was a bit embarrassed it took this long to return, but Jay mercifully didn’t mention my tardiness as he took my order. I sat down with my tray of at 1:30 p.m., and there were still plenty of folks waiting to order, which is proof Texans will sweat through their shirts for barbecue.
Stearns had previously served a commercial sausage, so his house-made sausages were a pleasant surprise. One was a Texas kielbasa with plenty of garlic and black pepper, and the other was a jalapeño-cheese with both dried and pickled jalapeños inside. They both embodied everything I love about a well-made, Texas-style sausage: the snappy casings had no chew, juices cascaded over the coarsely ground meat, and the flavor was the perfect balance of salt, smoke, heat, and meat.
To serve sausage that good requires a process that takes several days to complete. First, Stearns cubes pork butts and adds in brisket trimmings to get the right mix of beef, pork, and fat. “You can’t be throwing that stuff in the trash,” he said of the expensive raw brisket trimmings. He seasons the meat and refrigerates it overnight before grinding and stuffing the links. After three days of curing the links in the cooler to get the casings tacky, he smokes them for four hours at a low temperature, then chills them down rapidly. For service, it takes just 45 minutes in the smoker to finish the job, melting and dispersing the fat within the links and getting those casings crisp.
I asked Stearns what they’d done to make the barbecue so much better. “We decided we maybe needed to get out of Abilene,” he said. He and Diana took a road trip to Austin last year for some inspiration. He came home with a new favorite brisket, the one he’d eaten at Valentina’s. “It had some chocolatey notes to it,” Stearns said, which came from the mesquite smoke. Abilene is the heart of mesquite country, but Stearns had been smoking with oak. He switched, then stripped down his eleven-ingredient rub to just salt, black pepper, brown sugar, garlic powder, and cayenne.
“We’ve been messing with it for a long time, and just recently we decided that’s where we wanted it,” Stearns said. And the new smoked brisket is a stunner. The fatty end had a stout bark with a crunch to it on the ends of the slices. The tender meat pulled apart with little effort. Lean slices were also incredibly juicy, with a rendered fat cap and a smoky bark. “The mesquite is really easy to oversmoke with,” Stearns said, but none of it, not even the burnt ends, tasted too smoky. Stearns thinks the secret is in the firebox.
Stearns builds all of his barbecue pits. He has a Santa Maria–style grill, a steel direct-heat pit that puts off too much heat for summer use, and several offset smokers. One of the offsets has an insulated firebox, which keeps the smoking chamber hot more efficiently. Burning mesquite puts off more heat than other hardwoods. Stearns said he has to choke down the vents and smother the fire if mesquite is burning in there. The mesquite and brisket go into a smoker with an uninsulated firebox, and that inefficiency lets the mesquite burn a little hotter without spiking the smoker temperature.
The pork spareribs still get oak smoke. Stearns used to brush his ribs with a sweet glaze. “They were pretty sticky and pretty sweet, and it took away from the meat flavor,” he said, so he switched to a rub heavy on brown sugar and black pepper. The ribs are wrapped in foil with honey and butter toward the end of the cook. It doesn’t seem like a recipe with two sweeteners would bring down the sugar content, but it works. The sugar, salt, and pepper complement the star of the show: the tender pork.
A new smoked turkey was a result of a spike in chicken prices. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs went from $30 to $105 per box, so Stearns switched to turkey. Try it on the Quirky (short for Albuquerque) Turkey sandwich, which has chopped green chiles, thick slices of smoked turkey, and crisp bacon, all drizzled with chipotle mayo. It’s a great sandwich with just a bit of spiciness.
When I first visited in 2018, Stearns said that after the kitchen renovation was done, his “life [was] going to improve, and I think the quality of the food is going to improve.” The food has certainly improved, but what about the quality of life? “One hundred percent,” Stearns said. “We don’t have to cram everything into a sixty-square-foot food truck.” He and Diana have been able to hire full-time employees to help. Also, the commercial kitchen out of which they used to work was next to their house. “It used to be I never could get away from it,” Stearns said. Now that the kitchen is on the restaurant property, “when I’m done and lock the door, I go home,” he said. “I’m over here, and it’s over there.”
That’s not to say Stearns doesn’t still tinker with new recipes. Many customers come several times a week, so he’s always adding specials like brisket enchiladas and the Piggy Smalls pork sausage that has barbecue sauce mixed inside. When I stopped in recently, Stearns had packaged his first attempt at smoked beef jerky. He smoked it over mesquite after the meat was marinated, then finished it in his dehydrator. It had a much cleaner smoke flavor than most commercial jerky varieties that rely on liquid smoke. Thankfully, I got enough for my next road trip. After seeing all the attention the other joints in town were getting, I wondered if Stearns was considering an expansion or an enclosed dining area. “We finally got to where we’re happy with the quality,” he said, “and we don’t want to screw it up by growing too fast.”