Bo Moreno traded the security blanket of a good job with health benefits at H-E-B for the unpredictability of the barbecue business. The Austin native was assistant manager at one of the chain’s San Marcos stores, but toward the end of his tenure there he found it hard to focus at work. All he could think about was the next thing he was going to cook on his smoker. Moreno prepared plenty of barbecue for family events and a few paying customers, but he wanted barbecue to become more than a part-time gig. “What’s keeping me from doing it?” he asked himself and his wife Nora. Last June he finally made the jump and opened the Moreno Barbecue food truck in South Austin.
Flanked by two trailer-mounted smokers, the truck sits in the front corner of the parking lot at the Cherry Creek Plaza shopping center, which is anchored by Thrift Town. A large flat-screen television is in view for those who choose to sit at the covered picnic tables. Moreno and I talked there about his passion for barbecue, as well as the pitfalls of opening a new joint. “I’m very optimistic, but there are days,” he said, like when he sees good weather is in the forecast and cooks a large batch only to see customers fail to materialize. “Right now I’m throwing a dart up against the wall,” he said about determining how much to cook from day to day.
The hours at Moreno Barbecue are officially 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., but they’ve been selling out by 5 or 6 p.m. some days. So call ahead if you’re planning to stop for dinner. With brisket this good, it’s hard to see how it even lasts that long. A thick slice from the fatty side was juicy almost beyond comprehension and pull-apart tender. Salt, black pepper, and oak smoke were the only seasonings, and formed one heck of a bark. Moreno uses Creekstone briskets and wraps them in butcher paper to finish the cook.
When Moreno was a kid, he’d visit his grandfather in Odem, near Corpus Christi, and they’d smoke barbecue together. The wood of choice was mesquite. Now Moreno uses oak and explains why in a way I hadn’t heard before. “One bad log won’t affect your meat as much,” with oak, he said. A bad piece of mesquite—meaning one that’s still green—can mar the flavor of the meat, but with oak, he said, “You can get over a bad log pretty quickly.”
The oak fuels a large offset smoker from AJ’s Custom Cookers and a smaller Pitmaker Sniper offset. They don’t have enough weekday business yet to fire up the big smoker until the weekend, so everything I ate came off the Sniper. The ribs were meaty and tender with a bold rub with plenty of spice and a little sweetness. Juicy slices of smoky turkey breast get the same rub. The only dud was the pitifully dry pulled pork inside the taco. Neither the spicy salsa nor the complex chipotle barbecue sauce could save it. If you want tacos, stick with the brisket.
Plenty of the leftover brisket fortifies the well-spiced pinto beans. The creamed corn was also a standout. The cream part of the corn was almost fluffy. The Gouda used for the shells and cheese was a nice touch too. Nora Moreno makes all the desserts, including pecan pie and banana pudding. I tried the chocolate chip cookies on the recommendation of their daughter, Ivelisse Moreno, who takes customer orders at the window. Before baking, the dough is rolled tightly into a log and then coated in a mix of demerara sugar and salt before being sliced into cookies. When they come out of the oven, the cookies (which come three to an order) have a sweet bark that looks a lot like the bark on slices of brisket.
The job of a pitmaster can often be a hindrance to family time, but Moreno said he’s actually getting to spend more time with family members than he did while working at H-E-B. One reason is that he’s hired a bunch of them. His cousin Matthew Moreno helps work the pits, and he and Nora’s son and other daughter help out when they can. The motto on the side of the food truck reads, “Serving barbecue one memory at a time.” I asked Moreno what that meant. “I remember whenever I was a kid at my grandfather’s house, every time he would cook, all the family would come. We would all hang out. We were just making memories there,” he said. He’s still trying to do that with his barbecue, but he’s also trying to make a living.
In the crowded Austin barbecue market, that can be hard to do. Still, the competition isn’t as concentrated near their spot in South Austin, and brisket like this is worth the trip.