Michael Ruiz took an eighteen-year break from smoking briskets. It had been so long since his last cook, his wife Pamela didn’t really believe he knew how until he fired up his brother-in-law’s smoker for a family gathering in 2013. “Everybody loved it,” he said of the brisket, even Pamela, and it reminded him how much he loved cooking barbecue. “It’s like riding a bike, I guess,” Ruiz says. He kept pedaling until he could open a place of his own.
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Ruiz learned to appreciate a well-cooked animal. He watched as his grandfather would slaughter a goat, lamb, hog, or a few chickens to be cooked over an open fire. The family’s brisket method was a little different. Using a recipe Ruiz says was popular in Corpus in the eighties, his uncle would marinate the brisket overnight in Italian dressing and wrap it in foil before smoking it for five or so hours, then finishing it in the oven. Ruiz didn’t see a brisket smoked any other way until his late friend David Aranda showed him how to start a mesquite fire using one end of an old oil drum as a pit. Ruiz was surprised it took all night to smoke the brisket. He wondered aloud, “The meat is going to stay by the fire for that many hours and come out edible?” Aranda nodded and told him, “Wait until [the brisket] jiggles like Jell-O.”
That was back in 1995, when Ruiz was holding down two jobs in Corpus. He started smoking briskets slathered in liquid smoke flavoring and Fiesta-brand brisket seasoning, a combination he laughs at now. The memory is fresh, because he took detailed notes in the barbecue notebook he still keeps. He’d slice that brisket and make po’boys and sell them at local refineries. It wasn’t exactly a sustainable third job, so he gave up after a month. He didn’t smoke another for eighteen years because he didn’t have the right equipment, but he continued adding notes and clippings to his barbecue “notebook of dreams.” There was a page of possible barbecue joint names, drawings of smoker designs, and images of great barbecue he’d eaten, like the brisket at Kreuz Market in Lockhart and the famous Big Chop from Cooper’s in Llano.
After the renewed barbecue energy he got from cooking for his family in 2013, Ruiz bought a trailer-mounted smoker and began serving barbecue at the Mansfield Farmers Market. A couple years later, he and Pamela ate something from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ at a festival in Dallas, and he told her excitedly, “This is the kind of food I grew up on, and this is the kind of food I want to sell.” Ruiz was driving a garbage truck at the time, collecting the trash from Republic Street Bar, where Heim Barbecue had its first trailer location in Fort Worth. One morning in 2017, he realized the smoker was gone and the trailer was empty. Heim had moved out. Ruiz’s moment had come. He quit his job and began selling barbecue out of the old Heim trailer under the name Jefe’s Tex-Mex BBQ. The name was meant to honor his grandfather, whom everyone called Grandpa Jefe, and also because “[barbecue] is really something I feel I do better than anything else.” Barbecue is his best shot at being his own boss.
Ruiz was certain this new barbecue venture was his future. The crushing realization that he had to shut it down and postpone the dream came just five months later. The business wasn’t making any money. “I was digging myself into a hole,” Ruiz says. He climbed back behind the wheel, this time hauling rocks. He listened to barbecue podcasts while on the road, plotting his comeback. A coworker shared an ad for a used food truck, and Ruiz negotiated a lease-to-own deal. He had to sell his trailer-mounted smoker for a down payment, but the truck had a small barbecue pit on it already, which Ruiz still uses.
I first found Jefe’s at a Texaco station in Mansfield in February, where Ruiz served every Saturday. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I got just a small sampling. A carefully made brisket quesadilla, a thick slice of smoked brisket, and some smacking good pork ribs had me planning a second visit, but it didn’t happen before he’d worn out his welcome at the Texaco. I thought the barbecue dream may be dimming once again, then in June, Ruiz announced he was quitting his job and opening the barbecue truck four days a week in the Liquor King parking lot in north Fort Worth. Since the third day at the new location, Ruiz and his wife have made more money than their best day in Mansfield.
I stopped in just after the opening time of 3 p.m. Ruiz figures he’s better off going after the dinner crowd. He and Pamela were working together on the truck. She’s a teacher and a writer, so Ruiz is going to need another employee when the school year begins. “This is my dream. It isn’t hers,” he said flatly, though Pamela’s contributions have been crucial to the business and the menu.
Pamela makes the salsa verde with roasted serrano chiles, and a creamy avocado sauce with cilantro and lime. The former is scooped atop the savory, meaty, soulful charro beans. Sides of both sauces comes with the quesadilla, available with either pulled pork or chopped brisket. It’s filled with plenty of meat and cheese along with sautéed peppers and onions. A brisket taco, served on a flour tortilla from a local taqueria, was topped with the avocado crema and pico de gallo. Both the taco and the quesadilla were great, but Ruiz’s barbecue doesn’t need to hide inside a tortilla or a bun.
The tender pork spare ribs were massive. Ruiz coats them with a simple rub of salt, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and enough sugar to create what looks like a glaze after they’re finished in foil. I enjoyed the balance of sweet and savory flavors, neither of which overwhelmed the pork flavor. Slices of brisket were more generously seasoned with black pepper, and were well smoked.
Ruiz said his family’s backyard barbecues always included charro beans and potato salad. He shared notes with Pamela as they built the potato salad recipe, and was surprised to find that his grandmother’s recipe—with onion, sweet relish, pimento, celery, dill, mayo, and a hint of mustard—was very similar to the one Patricia’s East Texas grandmother had passed down. As for the Mexican-style creamed corn, Pamela came up with that one on her own. It’s a mix between traditional creamed corn and Mexican elote, and was hard to put down.
Despite his recent success, Ruiz isn’t yet convinced that his dream has come true. It’s refreshing to talk about the barbecue business with someone who doesn’t assume hard work and passion are a guarantee for success, though few have Ruiz’s perseverance. “I don’t know where it’s going to end. It could end next week,” he says. “It’s hard work. It’s tedious and it’s continuous.” Ruiz is in his fifties and struggles with arthritis. But he’ll keep fighting for his dream because, he says, he has no choice.
1900 Western Center Boulevard, Fort Worth
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 3–9
Pitmaster: Michael Ruiz
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2017