In the last six months, I’ve written glowing reviews of two barbecue joints whose pitmasters trained at Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth. Chuck Charnichart of Barbs-B-Q in Lockhart and Amir Jalali of Redbird BBQ in Port Neches both worked the pits at the number one barbecue joint in Texas. Alongside them was Zain Shafi, who now completes a trio of promising new joints with the Sabar BBQ trailer in Fort Worth. It opened last November.
Sabar means “patience” in Urdu. Shafi’s parents immigrated to Texas from Lahore, in the Punjab region of Pakistan, 42 years ago, 6 years before he was born. He honors that heritage with his blend of Pakistani cuisine and Texas barbecue. Shafi not only demonstrates patience in his smoked briskets, but also did so on his journey to entrepreneurship. His first smoker, delivered to his home by Goldee’s cofounder Dylan Taylor, sat dormant. “I went to Pakistan for three months an hour after he brought it to me,” Shafi said, “so you can imagine how miserable my summer went.”
After returning to his Southlake home, he spent plenty of time in the backyard cooking brisket, and plenty more in the Goldee’s kitchen and pit room. But he was rarely there on the weekends so he could attend to the furniture business he owned with his dad and uncle. The brothers decided to retire in 2022 and sold the business, leaving Shafi free to pursue barbecue full time.
He searched for the right space for months to no avail, but admitted he had grown comfortable at Goldee’s. “I didn’t want to leave. Lane almost had to push me out of there,” he said. That’s Lane Milne, Goldee’s co-owner, who suggested a truck rather than a building, and knew where to find one. Tom Micklethwait, Milne’s former employer, had shuttered his Taco Bronco truck that once sat beside the Micklethwait Craft Meats truck in Austin, and was offering it at such a steep discount, Shafi couldn’t refuse. He and Milne hauled it back to DFW from Austin, but it needed some work and a paint job.
Commercial truck drivers in Pakistan pride themselves with the ornamentation they apply to their brightly painted vehicles. This rolling artwork was the inspiration for Dallas-based artists Khadeeja Zulqarnain and Safwan Chowdhury, who designed and painted the trailer bright blue with Urdu lettering that translates to “hot,” “fresh,” and “delicious.”
The menu is designed to be familiar to two audiences that Shafi hopes to bring together with his food. The smoked meats of brisket, turkey, and lamb ribs are familiar enough to the Texas crowd, while the sides of kachumber, fruit chaat, and dal chawal will ring true to Pakistanis. The bridge is the seekh kebab sausage. It’s a smoked link of finely ground beef seasoned like its Pakistani cousin with onion, chiles, and garlic. Unlike a seekh kebab, which is loosely formed around a skewer for grilling, Shafi stuffs lamb casings with the mixture, then smokes them. He says the flavor brings him back to his childhood, watching his dad and two brothers assembling kebabs for grilling along with tandoori chicken.
The flavors of that tandoori chicken are packed into the rub Shafi uses to coat turkey breasts. They’re smoked, then wrapped with butter. The butter and juices mingle with the seasoning while the turkey finishes cooking, then Shafi collects those drippings, adds more seasonings, and dips the sliced turkey into the savory, slightly spicy elixir. It’s incredible, and what’s even better is that it’s served over naan, Shafi’s substitute for white bread, which soaks up the juices while you ferry the plate from the truck’s window to the nearby picnic tables.
I visited Sabar BBQ on the Saturday just before New Year’s. I hadn’t eaten barbecue in the ten days prior, which is a long stretch for me. I’m not sure if the hiatus was responsible for my reaction, but when Shafi handed me a chunk of end-cut brisket before I ordered, it tasted like a revelation. Something about that bite on its own, with nothing else to distract, let me ponder the flavors, like the intense smokiness due to a lower temperature of smoking. Shafi prefers 225 degrees in his smoker rather than the 275-range more popular with newer joints. The bark was as dark and lustrous as crude oil, and formed a pronounced layer like, well, tree bark. It didn’t crunch, but I could feel my teeth biting through it into the tender beef beneath. Then the familiar rush of salt came in, followed by unexpected aromatics of nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves, all carried across my tongue by the melted fat. It was glorious.
Back at the table, I wrapped the sliced brisket in the naan, and topped it with the pickled onions and raita, a yogurt sauce with minced cilantro and mint, and ate it like a taco. Shafi said he prefers to tear off a piece of naan, use it to pick up a bite of brisket, then dip it in the raita before eating, but said there’s no right way. You could also try a drizzle of the savory and spicy barbecue sauce made with chile crisp. It usually comes with the lamb ribs, but works with the other proteins as well. Those lamb ribs are cooked until very tender, and get a sweet and spicy Szechuan glaze.
Shafi, who is Muslim, chose lamb ribs instead of pork ribs because of the halal-ish diet he keeps. His meat suppliers (Creekstone for brisket and Superior Farms for lamb) are halal, but the turkey supplier isn’t, and he’s not sure about the lamb casings. “The best products available to us just happened to be halal as well,” he said of the beef and lamb. (For more on halal meat discourse, read Farhan Mustafa’s recent article on immigrant-owned barbecue joints.) When he first considered his joint’s concept, he thought about producing an entirely halal menu with traditional Texas sides like pinto beans, potato salad, and slaw. Instead, Shafi chose a pork-free menu that’s not strictly halal to go along with Pakistani sides. “I want everyone to come and enjoy it, and not hew to one crowd or another,” he explained.
Dal chawal, which is lentils and rice, is a comfort food without peer in Pakistan. Shafi cooks down moong and masoor lentils, which are yellow and orange, then sautés onions, tomatoes, and spices together in a separate pan. He adds the still-sturdy vegetables to the soupy lentils for some textural variation. Kachumber (cucumber) salad and fruit chaat are also traditional Pakistani dishes. Both are fresh, bright, and a lighter accompaniment for Texas barbecue than many of our more traditional sides. For the kachumber salad, chunks of small cucumber, tomato, and onion are mixed with an acidic dressing, a combination of fresh and dried herbs, and finely diced pickled onion. Fruit chaat always contains apples and some seasonal fruit, like the pomegranates in mine tossed with green grapes, coriander, and cardamom. Mango will come in the warmer months. The only dessert is gajrela, bright orange from the shredded carrots that are soaked in sweet milk, cardamom, and saffron, and topped with roasted cashews and almonds.
Sabar BBQ is currently open just on Saturdays for now. Shafi isn’t comfortable yet giving up control of the smoker or the cutting block to anyone else. He feels a responsibility to produce smoked meats of high quality that can impress on their own. That’s Shafi’s primary goal. “It’s not only something different,” he said, though showing off an underappreciated cuisine from the fifth-most-populous country in the world is also a benefit. Shafi chose to open in the hottest market for new barbecue joints in Texas. Fort Worth is big, but the corner of Vickery and Main, where Sabar is located, isn’t that far from Goldee’s, and there are plenty of great joints in between. But for now, the city has the only Pakistani-Texas barbecue joint I’ve ever been to, and a return visit to Sabar BBQ will be priority number one during my next trip to Cowtown.