I momentarily forgot where I was while standing at a urinal in the bathroom of Old Jimmy’s BBQ in Monterrey, Mexico. Taped to the wall in front of me was a printout of Texas Monthly’s list of top fifty barbecue joints from 2017. A QR code to download the Texas Monthly BBQ Finder app was displayed next to it, along with a note written in Sharpie that read, “Traveling to Texas?” It was the first acknowledgment I’d seen since walking through the doors of Old Jimmy’s that we weren’t already there.
Texas and American flags waved above a “Welcome to Texas” sign and a Dr Pepper advertisement. The restaurant’s social media is in English, a language its customer-facing staff all speak. The handwritten menu on butcher paper lists meat quantities in pounds rather than grams (but the prices are in pesos). “Don’t mess with Texas” is painted on drum trash cans and on the back wall of a courtyard filled with picnic tables. Off to one side, a stack of split oak rests next to a couple of thousand-gallon offset smokers made from old propane tanks. I was bracing myself for the illusion to all come crashing down when the platter of barbecue arrived, but its beauty only reinforced the immersive experience. These people really love Texas, and they love Texas barbecue even more.
I traveled to Monterrey to attend a barbecue festival at the invitation of Luis Rivas. He’s a veteran of barbecue competitions and has a joint of his own, RIVS Smoke & Grill, which I have yet to visit, an hour and a half southeast in Linares. He dreamed up the Monterrey BBQ Festival, which debuted October 1, and brought together over thirty barbecue joints. Half of them came from the U.S. (mostly Texas) and the other half were Texas-style joints from as far way in Mexico as Guadalajara and Mexico City. Running concurrently with the festival was a Kansas City Barbecue Societ–sanctioned barbecue competition, whose winner would automatically get a highly coveted slot at next year’s Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. The previous day, Rivas and Abe Delgado (of I Crush BBQ Show, out of California) led me on a barbecue tour of Monterrey.
For those unfamiliar with Monterrey, it’s the capital of Nuevo Léon, a state in northern Mexico. The metro area’s population is the second highest in the nation, after Mexico City. Monterrey natives are known as regios, so chains like Pollo Regio and other Texas restaurants using the term are advertising their connection to Monterrey. Chances are, they’ll feature an image of El Cerro de la Silla, or Saddle Hill, an iconic mountain in Monterrey whose peak looks like it was taken off with an ice cream scoop. Monterrey is also the home of another mountain, Cerro del Topo Chico, where mineral water is sourced to fill those bottles of Topo Chico we love so much in Texas. Rivas told me there’s a spigot by the factory where Topo Chico flows freely, but with all the barbecue on the agenda we didn’t have time for a visit.
We began at the Tampiquito neighborhood location of Old Jimmy’s BBQ, in San Pedro, the wealthiest city in the Monterrey area. That’s where owners Fernando Vela and Eugenío Martinez moved in 2019 from their original location. Technically, the original location was Vela’s driveway, in 2015. “After a year of smoking at my house once a month,” Vela said, “my wife and neighbors decided we should move the operation to another location.” When they started in a leased space in 2016, barbecue meant something other than smoked meats in Monterrey. “Barbecue was the name of any dish with barbecue sauce on it,” Vela said. Chili’s was the destination for ribs. It took some time to find a customer base that understood what they were serving, but they were able to open a second location thirty minutes south in La Estanzuela, in 2018, the same year they quit their day jobs.
One big challenge in attracting customers was the owners’ strict adherence to the Texas-style barbecue they enjoyed on trips to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor and Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. A meal at Salt Lick in Driftwood solidified the setting and the experience they wanted to replicate. “Central Texas is our benchmark,” Martinez explained. The menu has no tortillas or salsa, or really any nods to Mexican cuisine. “We set out to make the most authentic Texas barbecue we could,” Vela told me, using a word—“authentic”—that makes many food writers cringe. They get their white bread from the local H-E-B (that’s right, Dallas, even Monterrey has an H-E-B), and all the meats are imported from the U.S. I argued that tortillas, salsa, and elote are commonplace in Texas barbecue, so why not here? “You’re not going to come to Mexico to eat Mexican food in a barbecue joint,” Vela shot back. It was hard to disagree as I gazed at a smoker packed full of Prime-grade briskets.
The barbecue was stunning in its quality, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it would be hard to distinguish it, with or without a blindfold, from what you’ll find at some of the best joints in Texas. The bark over the fat cap on the juicy, lean slices melted like butter. The thick St. Louis–cut ribs were smoked to the ideal tenderness and finished with a thin, sweet glaze. In true Texas fashion, Old Jimmy’s uses the scraps from rib and brisket trimmings to make a trio of sausages. There was a basic hot link in addition to jalapeño and cheese, but Vela said his Mexican customers wanted something spicier, so he recently started making a chile relleno sausage as an homage to the one from Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue in Tomball. The inspiration for the sides came from preferences I’ve shared in past reviews, including crisp slaw with oil and vinegar dressing instead of mayo. (This made me a bit embarrassed.) Vela doesn’t like eggs, but my recipe for a Texas-style potato salad includes them, so he adds eggs to his as well. Of course, I loved them both.
Between the H-E-B and Chili’s, I was feeling at home in Monterrey. Rivas and most every other local I talked to echoed the connection the city feels with Texas. The drive to Laredo or McAllen is under three hours. Rivas drives to Laredo often for work. Adrián Medellín spent several years working in Dallas and Houston before he returned to Monterrey to open Lady’s BBQ two years ago. The name comes from a nickname given to him because of his thin frame.
When he first got to Dallas in 2014, Medellín’s clients laughed when they learned he was going to Chili’s for ribs, just as he had growing up. They took him instead to Bone Daddy’s, which is at least a step up. In the Houston area, he began his barbecue quest in earnest, trying Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue, Truth BBQ in Brenham, and Roegels Barbecue Co. and the Pit Room in Houston. He devoured Aaron Franklin’s book and tried to replicate his brisket method on a Weber Smokey Mountain before finding a welder to build the offset he was standing next to when we arrived at the restaurant. In a Snow’s BBQ T-shirt, Medellín spritzed the briskets before closing the lid and making us a tray inside.
The smoke flavor on the brisket is more pronounced than at Old Jimmy’s, and it’s no less tender. Medellín said it’s a challenge to get get Prime brisket consistently from his food supplier, and he was smoking Choice-grade briskets that he still kept plenty juicy. The long spare ribs were processed in Mexico, where they’re scraped to the bone, so they were thin on meat. Plenty of bark was mixed in with the pulled pork, but the most impressive item was the house-made jalapeño cheddar sausage. It had a great snap and good smoke, and showed an impressive amount of skill from someone so new to barbecue. His customers have noticed, and as demand grows, so do his plans. A third location of Lady’s BBQ will open in Monterrey by the end of the year.
In the shadow of El Cerro de la Silla, on the southeast side of Monterrey, is Northeast BBQ. Owner and pitmaster Bryan Placencia opened his operation in a storage container in 2020. A banner advertising “Texas style barbecue” hangs above fence that surrounds the lot. I spotted a Truth BBQ shirt on one of his cooks tending a five-hundred-gallon steel smoker in the open-air pit room. A Texas flag and the flag of Mexico hung above the smoker. The place isn’t as polished as Lady’s or Old Jimmy’s, but Placencia gets the most out of his humble environs.
While the sliced brisket and the ground brisket burger were both spectacular, Northeast BBQ is famous for its overstuffed barbecue potato. It’s like a cheesy twice-baked potato topped with chopped brisket. It’s a welcome new take on a Texas classic. A link of garlicky pork sausage was the best I had from any joint in Monterrey. Looking behind the counter, I don’t know where they find the room to make that sausage or the pillow-soft flan drizzled with dulce de leche for dessert. Just as surprising were the cocktails. The daily special was a carajillo, a mix of espresso and Licor 43. Placencia rattled the cocktail shaker until the frothy cocktail emerged into my highball glass. It was the best version of the cocktail I’ve ever been served. Then he brought out a hibiscus margarita garnished with a hibiscus fruit he had smoked and candied. It was not your average Texas barbecue shack fare.
I’d had enough barbecue for one day and festival was coming up, so I held off on a trip to Nōmada XXI until my final day in Monterrey. It was worth the wait. A Dairy Queen and a Starbucks anchored the corner of a lot with a three-story strip mall. It didn’t seem like a classic barbecue joint location. A group of us took the elevator to the top floor, where the view from the restaurant was breathtaking. Beyond the two offset smokers in the pit room was El Cerro de la Silla, the backdrop to the center of Monterrey below. The great views didn’t stop there.
Owners Jesús “Chuy” Rodríguez and Farid Foroughbakhch delivered to our table of six a tray loaded with enough food for twelve. The two were excited to share their barbecue this way not just because of the visitors from Texas but because most customers in their restaurant prefer this sampler platter. The sampler, which includes barbecue sandwiches, burgers, quesadillas, and tacos, is jaw-dropping in both variety and heft. With Old Jimmy’s holding down the traditional side of barbecue in Monterrey, Nōmada XXI is pushing the boundaries of what defines barbecue.
Rodríguez and Foroughbakhch had to be creative when they launched the food truck that preceded the restaurant in 2013. They first called their venture No Menu because there wasn’t a menu. Dishes changed weekly and sometimes daily. Frustrated fans would return for a favorite just to see it replaced. If they kept too many dishes, equally frustrated regulars would ask why there wasn’t anything new. Eventually, they settled on a few favorites, like smoked chicken thighs drizzled with white barbecue sauce and chunks of smoked pork belly finished in the deep fryer. Those two items stuck around once they opened Nōmada XXI, in 2017. “In spirit, we are nomads,” Foroughbakhch said about the name. He and Rodríguez cooked together in Qatar, Bali, and Puerto Rico before coming back home to Monterrey, where they met Eli Hernandez Falcon.
“Eli was the one that started all this journey,” Foroughbakhch said of their friend, who began as their nemesis in the local Grillmaster competitions held by H-E-B. Nōmada and Falcon often finished first and second until the Nōmada team was asked not to compete because it won too many times in a row. Falcon persuaded Rodríguez and Foroughbakhch to take a barbecue research trip with him to the U.S. in 2015. They visited 36 joints between San Antonio and Memphis. “When I came back, I designed the smoker,” Foroughbakhch said. They began adding smoked meat items to the food truck.
At this point, Nōmada has mastered basics like smoked brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. The Texas trinity at our table would hold up against the best in Texas, but then you get to those chicken thighs, the pork belly bites with a spicy peanut sauce, and a bowl of smoked crab dip. I scooped up the last with fluffy house-made flour tortillas and saved the corn tortillas for the smoked beef cheek barbacoa that was bursting with flavor from Nōmada’s seasoning rub and a splash of its salsas. This was also the first pulled pork I had in Monterrey that wasn’t bland. I was thoroughly impressed before I even got to the chicharrón-topped mac and cheese and the pan de elote dessert topped with ice cream and dulce de leche. It tasted like cornbread meeting tres leches. We toasted with a glass of Rodríguez and Foroughbakhch’s private-label Gota Santa mezcal, a blend they developed with a mezcalero in Oaxaca. “These guys don’t stop,” Falcon said as he raised a glass, knowing that his friends had impressed us. As we left, he pointed to their new seafood restaurant, which was nearing completion a few doors down.
I didn’t know what to expect from the barbecue in Monterrey. Obviously, Rivas thought there was enough interest to throw a festival, and with attendance in the thousands, he considered it a wild success. As I sat at the airport, belly full and a little buzzed from the mezcal, I reflected on the love I’d witnessed for barbecue and Texas, and the respect for our cuisine. “We would have never imagined how big it has become,” Vela said of Monterrey’s barbecue culture. And that’s just it. These aren’t just a few disparate joints in a massive city. They’ve really developed a culture, with shared ideas, encouragement between competitors, and residents who are waking up to the fact that their city is home to some of the best barbecue in North America.