Luis Vasquez didn’t understand much about the barbecue scene he was entering when he opened the Louie’s BBQ food truck in Austin in 2016. Pitmasters like Joey Victorian and John Brotherton visited early on, and encouraged him to use social media. Vasquez saw all the restaurants they’d visited in their feed, and thought, “Holy crap. There’s this many barbecue places?” Although he was born and raised in Austin, he didn’t realize how massive the barbecue community had become. “I didn’t even know there was a Texas Monthly Top 50,” Vasquez admitted to me. He quickly realized the stiff competition that surrounded the first location for his truck, Rainey Street. Then he had a terrifying thought: “Maybe my brisket’s not the best brisket in the world.”
Vasquez said he modified his brisket technique, and it improved, but business wasn’t getting any better. He moved to a lot on Brodie in South Austin where Valentina’s had once been set up. Then he tried South Congress, but the customers just weren’t coming in. “Austin is so saturated with barbecue and trailers,” he said, but he also wondered if he had chosen the wrong path. “I almost went into a depression,” Vasquez admitted, saying, “I didn’t know if this is what I needed to be doing, or if I needed to go back to an office job.” Finally, late last year Vasquez decided to leave his hometown. He had consulted Brett Boren, of Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, which opened in Rockdale last year. “Brett said, ‘You’re all in already, so don’t give up. This is your dream,” Vasquez remembered. Boren encouraged him to move to a small town, where the people might appreciate his barbecue more than in a city with too many barbecue options. Vasquez chose Buda, just south of Austin, and opened there in late January.
I first tried Louie’s BBQ a year ago, when Vasquez was still parked on Brodie. The barbecue needed work, but the massive stuffed potatoes were the big draw, and for good reason. He’s now capitalizing on their popularity by adding a secret menu of oversized potatoes. The smallest, which usually weighs in at just under three pounds, is the “The Sleeper,” priced at $15. It starts with a base coating of butter, salt, and pepper inside the split baked potato, followed by two scoops of mac & cheese, two smoked meats, barbecue sauce, salsa, sour cream, and shredded cheese. “The Dreamer” has three meats, and a pork rib is added on top to make “The TKO.”
The brisket has improved tremendously from a year ago. Vasquez laughs now when he thinks back to his first brisket, before the truck opened. His mother-in-law asked him to smoke one for his father-in-law’s birthday. He had never cooked a brisket, and was a bit confused as to why he was asked to cook it. Vasquez went a few doors down and asked his neighbor if he could borrow his smoker. Instead, the neighbor agreed to show him how to smoke a brisket.
Vasquez recalled the brisket process he was first taught. His neighbor told him to leave the brisket untrimmed. They coated it with rub and wrapped it in plastic wrap before placing it in the fridge overnight, then unwrapped it the next day to put in the smoker. To check for doneness, the neighbor would slide a thermometer into the brisket to check for tenderness, but not temperature. “He’d get a little piece of foil and plug the hole where he probed it,” Vasquez remembered, and the neighbor told him, “That little plug helps the juices from coming out.” He probed it so often there were tiny pieces of foil all over the surface of the meat. “It was like a Hellraiser brisket. It looked insane,” Vasquez said. When the brisket was finally done, they wrapped it in foil and placed it in an empty ice chest, where it sat for six hours. By the time they served it, the meat was falling apart tender.
That’s the method Vasquez used for years to smoke briskets. He modified a beat-up smoker his father-in-law gifted him and sold whole briskets to friends and family for $75 each. He said, “I did that for four or five years and saved up enough money to put in the bank for a down payment on the smoker I really wanted,” which he eventually purchased in 2015 from Big Country Custom Smokers. Vasquez loaded the smoker for pop-ups at the Onion Creek VW dealership while still selling insurance, then cashed in his 401K to buy the trailer in 2016.
In Buda he has found a receptive audience for his barbecue, which has a bit of Tex-Mex flavor. Both flour tortillas and white bread are available with barbecue plates. There are barbecue tacos on the menu, and even breakfast tacos on Saturday mornings. The slaw skips the mayo and features lime and cilantro. A side of street corn, with a fresh squeeze of lime, was one of the best I’ve had. I also loved the richly seasoned pinto beans.
Vasquez makes a creamy verde sauce with the juicy smoked chicken he’s serving. A tangy barbecue sauce pairs well with the sliced brisket, which seems like it’s from a different pitmaster than the brisket I tried a year ago. This version is tendered smoky, but could be a little more moist. A sweeter sauce is used for a glaze on the pork ribs, that were well seasoned and well smoked. It all made for an impressive platter for barbecue.
The move to the small town is working out. Louie’s BBQ struggled to sell three briskets a day in Austin, but he has more than doubled that in Buda. “Our worst day here was like our best day on South Congress,” he told me. If the improvement of Louie’s BBQ in just a year is any indication, the best days for Vasquez are ahead of him.