Before Jaime Elizondo went to nursing school, he taught himself how to barbecue. “There weren’t a lot of resources then like there is now,” he recalls. This was the early 2000s, and when he’d pull that perfect brisket or rack of ribs from the smoker, it felt especially rewarding. He loved that feeling and hoped it would lead him to his own barbecue joint. But that would have to wait. “Life got in the way,” Elizondo explains. He became a registered nurse and married his wife, Maria De Leon. The couple, who met growing up in Edcouch-Elsa, just north of Weslaco, pursued their professional careers. “You kind of let go of your dreams,” he says. But not forever.
Elizondo’s passion for barbecue was reignited in 2017 with a new smoker. Soon he and De Leon were offering to cook for weddings and other events in their free time. Their services were in demand, but they had stable, well-paying day jobs as well. “I’m always gonna be a nurse,” Elizondo remembers thinking. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do [barbecue].” So they decided to go all in with the purchase of a food truck. Smoke Crafters Barbecue opened its window in Mission in 2019.
Elizondo remembers just how small the operation was when it started. For the first couple years, De Leon made all the sides and Elizondo cooked every bit of barbecue on his own. Smoke Crafters has grown since then. There’s now a shipping-container bar next to the original food truck and covered patio seating. Two more shipping containers on the site will soon turn into indoor dining. Elizondo hired Rich Quintero, who was previously selling smokers at a barbecue supply store, to help run the pits. It’s all running smoothly now, but Elizondo has considered closing the place for good more than once in the past two challenging years.
Smoke Crafters was serving barbecue at the annual Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in March 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the event overnight. “I had just received this big order of food,” Elizondo says. “I’d been cooking all night. The refrigerator was full, the freezer was full, and the warmer was full.” It was a tough situation, but he figured they could serve everything the following day at the food truck instead and make at least some of their money back. Elizondo arrived on-site the next morning to haul the truck away and found that the venue had unexpectedly cut the truck’s power overnight. Every bit of food, both raw and cooked, had to be disposed of. “That was a big hit,” Elizondo says. He wasn’t sure Smoke Crafters could recover from it. But he put out a call for support on social media, and the community rallied around the business.
After the shock of that loss wore off, he realized Smoke Crafters was in a better position than most restaurants in the area to weather the pandemic. The joint already had outdoor seating and an online-ordering system. A friend brought a movie screen to the large lot next to the truck. Audio was piped through the car stereos of customers, and on movie nights, they got dinner and a show. It was all working well until another reality of the pandemic set in. A few staff members left for other jobs, and Elizondo and De Leon couldn’t find help to replace them. The business had outgrown what they could handle on their own, so last August, they were forced to close. Elizondo went back to nursing and wondered if he’d ever be able to reopen. The time off lasted just a month once they brought on Quintero and a few other new team members.
After reopening, they analyzed the massive menu and cut it down to just the best-sellers. The chopped brisket sandwich remains the most popular item. “It’s probably the safest thing on the menu,” Elizondo presumes. He’s gotten far more creative with other items. “Barbecue is more than just sliced brisket by the pound. Let’s have fun with it,” he says. Part of the fun are the birria sausage, served with consommé, and the smoked Italian sausage, though neither were available when I visited. I tried the jalapeño cheddar variety (made with brisket and pork rib trimmings) in the Tejano Dog, which is served on a toasted hoagie bun and topped with pico de gallo, chipotle mayo, and salsa verde. The juicy sausage snaps with every bite.
There’s sliced brisket, too, which was smoky, peppery, and tender to the point of being overcooked. It’s best inside one of the flour tortillas De Leon makes with fat rendered from the briskets. The creamy mac and cheese was as satisfying as the popular street corn side that comes with a bit of spice.
The smoked burgers are made with trimmings from the briskets. Elizondo got the idea when making sausage: there was always some of the raw mixture left at the bottom of the sausage stuffer, and he would fry it up for a snack. The choriqueso burger gets a layer of locally produced chorizo on top of the patty, which is draped with a slice of Oaxaca cheese so large it hides the burger underneath. It’s topped with pico de gallo and served in a toasted bun brushed with beef fat.
Elizondo stresses the importance of making everything as fresh as possible. Even the Micheladas are individually mixed, because he thinks the seasonings, like celery salt, overpower the Clamato and lime juice if the juice mix is batched. I tried mine with sparkling mineral water instead of beer, and though the Tajín-coated rim brought the heat, I was compelled to keep sipping.
My visit to Smoke Crafters was on a drizzly evening. The joint can be a challenge to find in the dark, as evidenced by a car that drove through a nearby ditch after missing the entry. Other than Saturdays, when it opens at 1 p.m., Smoke Crafters only serves in the evenings. Unlike most of the new joints in the area, it’s also way off the interstate, about nine miles north. Elizondo says that was by choice. “There aren’t many restaurants serving this community,” he says of the north side of Mission. And the community members have been supportive enough for Elizondo and De Leon to continue their dream. In return, they get some fresh takes on Texas barbecue made with care in the Rio Grande Valley.
Smoke Crafters Barbecue
5924 Texas Highway 107, Mission
Hours: Wednesday–Friday 5–9, Saturday 1–9
Pitmasters: Jaime Elizondo and Rich Quintero
Method: Mesquite in a reverse-flow smoker
Year opened: 2019