Just north of Waco, out on Gholson Road, you’ll find the Red Wagon BBQ trailer. It sits at the back of a gravel lot in between Brazos Valley Cheese and the Homestead General Store at the entrance of Homestead Heritage. Homestead Heritage describes itself as “an agrarian and craft-based intentional Christian community.” As a member of the group, Joe Slack lives on the property and serves as the pitmaster to Red Wagon BBQ.
Slack sat down with me at a picnic table during my meal. When I told him I’d never heard of Homestead Heritage, he sounded surprised. Perhaps because the property gets 70,000 visitors a year and its popular Thanksgiving fair alone accounts for about 20,000 of them. Or maybe because when we spoke, I wasn’t aware of the upsetting story from a few years ago about Homestead Heritage or the community’s rebuttal to that report. (I became aware of these past events while researching Homestead Heritage after my visit.)
But I was there to eat the barbecue, which I had heard about from a reader’s tweet. The two-year-old trailer sits on the edge of the Homestead Heritage property and serves as the first impression to its many visitors on Friday and Saturday, the only days it operates. According to Slack, the crew of the Fixer Upper show are big fans of the beef ribs. (And vice-versa, it would seem; the Homestead Heritage folks were part of the recent barn-raising at the Gaines’s Magnolia Market.) The crew requested the ribs often enough for catering that the ribs have been added to the regular menu at the trailer. Those ribs will cost you $19-per-pound, but thankfully they cut the racks in half before smoking to keep the weight per serving down. The rib I got needed some more time on the pit, and a more restrained hand with the seasoning. The rub was a bit heavy. As for the cooking, Slack asked for a little, well, slack since he and Mason (his pit hand) only get to practice eight days a month.
There are no pork ribs on the menu. Slack explained, “We do beef. Beef barbecue is what we like.” A lack of pork products on the barbecue menu and at the Cafe Homestead suggest there might be more to it than a preference of taste. Grass-fed beef goes into the homemade sausage. It’s a new recipe as well, and has a ways more to go than the beef rib. The filling was mealy and bland, and the casing fought back with every bite. Go for the chicken instead. Quarters of free-range bird have a good, crisp skin, and were pleasantly juicy. Pure savory flavors are one thing you’ll notice in all the food here. There’s no sugar in the rub or in any of the sides. Raw cane sugar is used sparingly in the sauce and in the excellent sweet kai tea.
All of the sides are also organic. A list of the ingredients is displayed in the window of the trailer. The beans are classic pintos with a little beef sausage. The potato salad does have some French’s mustard, but the mayonnaise is homemade. Cabbage and onions are shaved thin for the creamy slaw, but it’s still crisp. I enjoyed the unique balsamic slaw used on the Haystack sandwich. Brisket is topped with slaw, pickles and barbecue sauce for the sandwich. The bun is baked on the property from flour milled at the Homestead Gristmill. They use water power to run a 230-year-old mill reconstructed on the site. This sandwich is the embodiment of the pre-industrial agricultural practices of the Homestead group, and the bread was impressive too.
Like the beef ribs, the brisket is all-natural, Prime grade Angus. The sliced version was equally good on its own as it was on the sandwich. The beef could have used more salt, but it certainly didn’t lack for other flavors. Slack says he learned about barbecue from John Lewis, formerly of La Barbecue and now with Lewis Barbecue in South Carolina. One of Lewis’s signatures is to slather a bit of pickle juice and mustard on raw briskets to help the seasoning stick. Slack uses the same method for his rub of black pepper, kosher salt, and paprika.
Slack also modeled his smokers after Lewis’s. In addition to the woodworking, weaving, and blacksmithing you can witness on site at the Homestead, Slack also has a welding shop at his disposal. He used it to build both smokers which he hopes will soon be at capacity. Once his Friday service gets busy enough, Slack hopes to add Thursdays as well. For now, your best bet is a Saturday visit if you want to see the craft village in action, and get the best brisket I’ve found in Waco.