Aaron and Christina Rejino gave up job security in small-town Texas for barbecue. Before they opened a food truck in the town of Olton (population 2,112), on the edge of the Panhandle, she kept the books at their local church and he drove the 25 miles into Plainview to work as a store manager for United Supermarkets. Now they’ve taken on part-time work so they can dedicate all the hours required to make a mark with their new venture, Rejino Barbeque.
The couple caught the barbecue bug after a visit to Houston. “That first trip to Killen’s was mind-blowing,” Aaron said of the highly acclaimed Pearland barbecue joint. He bought a smoker when they got back home and entered a few competitions to scratch the itch, but it was an expensive hobby. Still, using Killen’s flavors as a guide and Aaron Franklin’s online videos, they kept practicing on a little offset smoker and then upgraded to a 250-gallon smoker they bought from West Texas Pit Masters in Plainview. “We ate a lot of bad stuff before we got to the good stuff,” Aaron joked, but by June of last year they felt confident enough to serve the public. “Our very first pop-up was right in front of our house in a ten-by-ten pop-up tent,” Aaron recalled. “We made six briskets, and we had bags of Doritos and Cheetos.” They sold out in 45 minutes.
For nearly a year they continued the pop-ups and catering gigs. This past May, they settled on an empty lot across from the abandoned grocery store in downtown Olton as their permanent spot. Orders are taken from the sidewalk at the tiny front window of the trailer. Aaron’s brother owns a store next to the trailer and an adjacent greenhouse that doubles as a dining space as the windy chill of winter sets in. An even larger new smoker behind the trailer churns out up to ten briskets a day with oak smoke instead of the mesquite they grew up using. They prefer oak for its milder flavor, but it’s becoming harder to find as the weather cools off. A recent trip to procure more required a three-hour round trip.
Their efforts pay off in the barbecue tray I enjoyed. Smoked turkey was plenty moist and pleasantly peppery from the rub. Ironically, Rejino uses Meat Church’s Holy Cow rub on the poultry and brisket seasoning from Fiesta for pulled pork. The latter was incredibly juicy, with hefty chunks of bark mixed in with decadent amounts of well-rendered fat. It’s hard to make a big impression with pork shoulder, but they pulled it off.
Thick slices of brisket had a beautiful bark, deep smokiness, and great flavor. The wind gusts sapped away a bit of the moisture from the brisket as I scurried to the greenhouse, but this was excellent smoked beef. A few spoonfuls of green chile cream corn and pinto beans fortified with brisket were enough to warm me up. I was also lucky to stop in on a day they smoked some stuffed jalapeños. Crisp bacon enveloped the nicely cooked peppers and cream cheese. Instead of their usual St. Louis ribs, they could only find baby backs, and Rejino said he wasn’t sure how to properly season them. They were well smoked, but seemed bland next to the rest of the highly seasoned cuts.
There’s nothing convenient about a trip to Olton. It’s thirty minutes off the interstate and an hour or more from Lubbock or Amarillo. Rejino Barbeque is going to have to rely on a local population that’s suffered a bit since the closing of the denim factory in nearby Littlefield. Aaron’s father, Oscar Rejino—who makes their sides—lost his job there along with 340 others in 2015. Now that Aaron switched to part-time at the grocery store, the couple will lose their health insurance next May. From an outsider, their situation looks tenuous, but Aaron said business has been good. The local school has supported them through plenty of catering jobs, and they haven’t had to deal with much leftover barbecue. He’s proud to be the hometown pitmaster, and Olton seems to love Rejino Barbeque back.