Amir and DeLani Jalali closed their new restaurant for a week to get married on November 4. They spent their honeymoon serving hundreds of customers back in Port Neches at Redbird BBQ. Having opened just ten weeks earlier, Amir Jalali said, “I didn’t want to take off back-to-back weeks at the restaurant.” He said they’d eventually like to go to Hawaii, but the only plans they’re focused on now is serving smoked meats from their new barbecue jewel in the Golden Triangle.
The couple both grew up in Port Neches, in the far southeast corner of Texas. They left town for college (he went to Waco and she went to Houston), then built careers and a life together in Houston. Jalali was promoted to sales director of a workforce solutions company, but the office environment was wearing on him.
He had always craved restaurant work, and found a part-time position at Feges BBQ while still working his full-time job. He got an introduction to the craft, and got to witness the process of opening the Spring Branch location in 2021. The experience solidified barbecue as his future. Jalali quit his job, and he and DeLani moved home in search of a space for their future joint. They got engaged, and then Jalali promptly left town.
It was late 2021, and Goldee’s Barbecue had just been named number one on Texas Monthly‘s barbecue list. They needed help serving the new influx of customers. Jalali was already seeking pointers from co-owner Jonny White, who invited him to join the staff, which needed to ramp up production quickly. Jalali said yes, and drove to Fort Worth on a Thursday to make it in time for the midnight rib shift.
It was trial by fire as he witnessed the weekend after Goldee’s topped the list. “They kinda just threw me in,” he said. Over twenty months, he was tasked with taking out the trash, cleaning the pits, working the door and the register, trimming briskets, and eventually smoking and cutting the meat. (He actually smoked and sliced the brisket for an impressive tray I had last July.)
Jalali was learning so much, but his new fiancée was understandably lonely. “I promise you it’s going to be worth it,” he told DeLani to assuage her frustration, but the rest of her family wasn’t convinced. “Her grandmas would definitely get on to me for being away so long,” Jalali said, but they’ve since come around.
When he was home in Port Neches, Jalali searched for a space and found a vacant building next to the Neches Brewing Company. In his old surroundings, he was reminded of the things he loved to eat growing up, such as green-onion sausage and red beans and rice, which have found a place on the Redbird BBQ menu.
Jalali also considers himself a Caesar salad connoisseur, ordering one whenever he sees it on a menu, and making Caesar dressing from scratch at home. That same Caesar dressing is now the base for a creamy slaw with kale, romaine lettuce, and plenty of shaved Parmesan. The croutons are made with house-baked rolls, and the cooks also make the mayonnaise for the dressing.
The term “from scratch” gets thrown around plenty, but Jalali takes it seriously. In a dish such as cornbread pudding that typically calls for boxed cornbread mix and canned cream corn, Jalali makes the creamed corn and cornbread batter from scratch. Loads of fresh dill make the finely diced potato salad pop. The chunks of pork in the red beans are smoked trim from the ribs, and smoked pork bones are the base for thick stock.
My favorite scalloped potatoes come from Interstellar BBQ, but Redbird’s have me questioning that. Jalali blends roasted garlic into the cream sauce for the base, then mixes the thick-sliced potatoes with Gruyère and Cheddar cheeses. It’s so rich, and has a nuttiness from the browned cheese and a kick of spice. That dish really reflects the lessons Jalali gleaned from Goldee’s co-owner Lane Milne. “He helped me learn how to season at every step of every dish,” Jalali said.
Jalali also learned a thing or two about baking, banana pudding, and barbecue sauce at Goldee’s. His are all different, but the combination of mustard and a generous amount of honey in the barbecue sauce is familiar. Jalali adds banana slices and folds in whipped cream to Goldee’s banana-less banana pudding. The fresh-baked white bread at Goldee’s has its own fan club, and every member should make a pilgrimage to Redbird for its fluffy, sweet yeast rolls that go for a buck a piece. Spring for the optional side of cinnamon honey butter made with beef tallow. After making a thousand rolls just this weekend, Jalali isn’t sure he can handle a boost in their popularity. “I did not realize how labor intensive they would be, but I love them, so they’re not going anywhere,” he said.
As far as smoked meat goes, the bevy of fine barbecue on my platter was also an impressive reflection of Jalali’s tutelage. The red hue of the juicy, buttery smoked turkey jumped out thanks to the Cajun seasoning blend, which sets the turkey apart from most others in the state. Jalali studied a dozen different blends to find the signature ingredients for a good Cajun seasoning, and his includes cayenne, celery seed, white pepper, dried thyme, sage, and oregano. That Cajun blend is also the base for the brisket rub applied the day before they go into the smoker. Jalali said he’s been adjusting the salt levels, and although the brisket was pleasantly smoky with a perfect texture, it was too salty this time around.
The fires are built differently in two Cen-Tex offset smokers: one is smokier and a little hotter for briskets; and the other gets less heat and a lighter smoke for the pork ribs. For the Saturday-only beef short ribs, Jalali uses the brisket smoker to get extra post-oak flavor. There’s only room for the ribs near the firebox, so the blast of heat turned the bark pretty chewy on my rib, but the meat itself was quite tender.
A hot-honey and vinegar glaze douses the pork ribs, which are a great blend of sweet, savory, and cayenne spice. They had a stout bark and tender meat. More cayenne goes into the pork-and-beef cheesy green-onion sausage, which tastes like a hybrid of a jalapeño cheese link and boudin without the rice. The original sausage is all beef, and its snappy casing and peppery bite showed the simplicity of a well-made Texas-style beef link.
Jalali is a Persian name, and Jalali’s father, Hamid, emigrated to Texas from Iran as a boy. There aren’t any Persian dishes yet on the menu. Jalali said he wanted to gain the trust of the community with the basics first. “I wanted people to get a good grasp on what our foundation menu is,” he said, but father and son are working on a beef koobideh sausage to mimic the classic Persian ground-beef kebabs. “It’s one of the staples of Persian food,” Jalali said, and it should debut soon after Thanksgiving.
Family and friends play a huge role in running the restaurant. The newlyweds were joined by their mothers behind the serving counter, as well as by Jalali’s step-mother. Jalali jokes that Hamid always wanted to own a restaurant instead of being a doctor, and now the family has one. “As soon as he’s done seeing patients at noon [on Friday], he’s driving to service making sure everything is going good,” Jalali said. Friends travel from Houston to work the dining room, and Drew Barnett, who has been with them since the first pop-up, works the pits. He is joined by Derek Ray, who was formerly a pitmaster at 1701 BBQ in nearby Beaumont.
The restaurant also serves as a remembrance for a late family member. Jalali’s step-brother Cody passed away five years ago. Cardinals or redbirds are believed by some to be the messengers of departed loved ones. Jalali noticed them far more often after Cody’s passing. When practicing his brisket in his father’s backyard, he told Hamid that if he spotted a redbird during that cook, he’d know the name of the restaurant was settled. Soon after, a redbird landed near Jalali, and he felt like Cody was sending a sign.
The response from the community toward the restaurant has stunned the Jalalis. A line has formed before opening every day, and customers keep coming back. “We have so many regulars,” Jalali said, which should be no surprise given the effort they put forth. At the cutting block, he greets many people he grew up with, as well as folks from outside Texas. At the front of the line, I joined a man who said he’d traveled from Chicago for a meal. Jalali said it has been rewarding, especially in his hometown. “The thing I love to hear,” he said, “is people thanking me and DeLani for coming back to where we grew up to do this.”