Nelsons BBQ

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Nathaniel Nelson needs more space. A steel smoker hogs up valuable square footage inside the tiny food truck, leaving little room to prepare orders. The truck sits beside a tattoo shop along the 1604 access road in San Antonio. Vehicles jockeyed for position around the undersized parking lot on a recent Friday evening. I was there along with two others at 5 p.m. watching for the “open” sign. As soon as the window opened, the first big takeout order came rapid-fire from a regular as others gathered in line. Evidently the joint has a following, and for good reason.

Ivy, Nathaniel’s eleven-year-old daughter, was taking customer orders (she also designed the truck’s logo when she was six). Her dad was already elbow deep in brisket and had forgotten to hang the menu. She recited it to me while the lights flickered inside the trailer. Nathaniel ran outside to restart the generator, and came back to provide some recommendations. “I make the sausage,” he said, “and the bacon.” Sold. I wanted to try it all, but I had come here mainly for an item I could recall without the help of a menu: The Nasty Nate.

“I hate making that sandwich,” Nelson told me over the phone a few days later. Unlike an order of ribs brisket that just needs to be sliced, the Nasty Nate requires grilling Texas toast, frying bacon (also made in house), slicing some fatty brisket, and corralling a slab of mac & cheese in the middle of it all. It’s a lot of steps for a one-man kitchen crew. I ordered it only for my own amusement, not expecting such a monstrosity to be anything more than a spectacle. I was wrong. I loved it. The bacon had crunch and saltiness, while the fatty brisket was soft and peppery. The slab of mac and cheese was held together by a layer of baked-on cheese, and acted as the middle “bun” in this barbecue version of a Big Mac. Every bite was as messy as it was throughly satisfying.

I suspect Nelson’s dim view of the sandwich is also a symptom of his desire to be known as a competent pitmaster. He is completely self-taught and has worked for years to hone his brisket technique. Growing up in Dallas, his family was too busy with sports to become barbecue cooks. It wasn’t until after he’d moved to San Antonio after college at Abilene Christian University (where he was a national champion long jumper), that he first attempted barbecue. He brought ribs and chicken to a weekend company pot luck. “By Monday, word had got around about how horrible my food was,” he said. That was a burn he didn’t take lightly. His competitive nature drove him to cook on a weekly basis to improve. Nobody laughed a year later at another company pot luck. His coworkers urged him to start selling it.

Nelson’s BBQ started with a few catering gigs and no truck. He towed a loaded pit to bars, where he sold barbecue on the sidewalk. In 2013, a friend gave him a good discount on a food truck that Nelson spent a year repairing. When it was ready, he found an auto parts store that let him use the parking lot. In 2015 he moved to his current spot, but he could soon outgrow it if his popularity continues to climb. As for a brick and mortar, he’s in no hurry. He maintains a job during the week, and the barbecue truck is his weekend refuge. “When I get to the barbecue, it’s the least stressful thing I do,” Nelson told me.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Expanding would only add stress, but he understands it’s pretty likely. With barbecue like this, Nelson isn’t going to leave himself with much of an option. It’s good. The bark bit back on a couple slices of well-smoked fatty brisket. I get why Nelson might think it’s a shame to hide it underneath mac and cheese. Taut sausage links are made from the brisket trimmings. “I was throwing away 10 or 15 pounds of scrap every cook,” Nelson told me. His first few batches weren’t so great. Esaul Ramos from 2M Smokehouse visited one day and Nelson noticed he left his sausage mainly untouched. Instead of stewing about it, he asked if Ramos could give him some tips on sausage making. They shared notes, Nelson bought some new sausage stuffing equipment, and the result is impressive.

After my visit, Nelson told me the pulled pork is the sleeper of the menu, but sadly I ignored it like so many of his other customers. I did get to enjoy the pork spare ribs. They’re peppery, salty, and a little sweet from a glaze. They might be a touch more tender than I prefer, but these were some very good ribs. My only real complaint about the meal was the beans. For a guy who cures his own bacon and grinds his own sausage, canned beans didn’t seem to compute. “I’m working on them,” Nelson told me, adding he’ll have a few other recipes for sides coming soon. “Until I know the recipe is down pat, I don’t want to introduce them,” he said.

It’s great to see the barbecue community expand around San Antonio, and Nelson’s BBQ is a new bright spot. This one-man cooking crew is putting out some great barbecue, and one heck of a signature sandwich. I worry for Nelson only because the quality of his barbecue is going to make it hard for this business to remain as a personal stress reliever. He’s cooking around the clock on weekends because his smoker is maxed out at eight briskets. Sausage making and bacon curing are balanced through the week with family time and another job. Given Nelson’s talents, it seems inevitable that he’ll become a full-time pitmaster who’s just as stressed out as the rest of them.