Joe Martinez’s wife calls him a serial hobbyist. He went through a phase with bowling, then one with drones; gun collecting and hunting were next, and then he bought a Camaro for drag racing. The mechanical problems that go along with racing cars got expensive quickly. “You blow a tranny and that’s four or five grand,” Martinez said of the car he has since sold. Through it all, there was barbecue.

He smoked his first brisket 28 years ago on a Weber Smokey Mountain. It wasn’t pretty. “The flat [was] way dry like a leather belt,” he admitted, but practice eventually brought good barbecue. It’s the one hobby Martinez hasn’t abandoned. In fact, he turned it into Smokin’ Joe’s Pit BBQ, a truck he opened in El Paso last year.

Martinez spent years laying the foundation for this venture. He started the Smokin’ Joe’s YouTube channel over 4 years ago to hopefully build a following. Millions of views later, that part of the plan was working. But it was a family tragedy that pushed him closer to his goal. “I lost my mom at the height of the pandemic, in December of 2020,” he said. The loss gave him a new perspective on life. “I’m going to do what I’m most passionate about,” Martinez says he told himself. He was the regional sales manager for O’Reilly Auto Parts, a company he’d been with for 24 years. He gave O’Reilly 2 years’ notice and made plans to retire at 50 to pursue his barbecue dream.

Richard Funk of Desert Oak Barbecue lives in the same neighborhood as Martinez and provided advice as he readied for opening. Martinez even worked at Desert Oak for a bit. Finding a smoker for the new business was a challenge, though. The small offset that Yoder Smokers had sent him for the YouTube videos wasn’t going to cut it for the volume of a barbecue truck. He contacted all the big names in Texas smokers, like Mill Scale and Moberg, but their lead times were too far out.

Then Martinez found Bison Smokers, in Forney, and the company had a thousand-gallon offset ready for him in three months. He named it after his daughter Kaitlin, who runs the register at the joint. (Martinez shares pitmaster duties with his brother Martin.) The plan was to serve from the parking lot of an O’Reilly Auto Parts store, but just before opening day, in September 2022, the owner of Buddy’s Food Truck Park told Martinez there was an opening for him. That’s where Smokin’ Joe’s has parked ever since.

Smokin Joe's Pit BBQ in El Paso
Joe Martinez, pitmaster and owner at Smokin’ Joe’s Pit BBQ.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

The food truck park was nearly empty when I visited at noon. Martinez said I missed the early rush (he opens at 11 a.m.), but he also mentioned that barbecue isn’t as popular in his native city as it is elsewhere in Texas. The crowds were massive during the first few weeks. Martinez said he’d regularly sell out in three hours, but then the winter lull came. Customers evaporated, and worry set in. “I got scared,” he said, and he looked for ways to lower his food costs, like switching from Prime- to Choice-grade briskets. Business has picked up this year, and he’s looking forward to a prosperous summer. “I’m going to do everything possible to make El Paso a barbecue destination,” Martinez said. The quality of his barbecue is the best evidence he’s keeping his word.

It was just a few slices of fatty, but Smokin’ Joe’s served me the best brisket I’ve had in El Paso. The stout bark and juicy cross section glistened in the sun, and the slices pulled apart easily. The oak smoke’s aroma lingered, and the seasoning level was spot-on. It was truly impressive. Just as good were the spareribs. They came off the bone with just a tug, but they weren’t mushy. The heavy black pepper in the rub stood up to the sweet glaze brushed on just before serving.

Green chiles are the pepper of choice in these parts, so that’s what Martinez stuffs inside his chile relleno sausage. Creamy Muenster cheese melts well, and there was plenty oozing out of the sliced link. Homemade sausage and the smoked burger were solid new-school touches, but I loved the old-school way the burger was dressed. Thick-sliced tomato, red onion, lettuce, pickles, mustard, and American cheese on a locally baked brioche bun is the standard, so keep it that way when you order.

While Martinez looks to Central Texas style for his barbecue cuts, he wanted the sides to reflect El Paso. The eggy potato salad is an homage to his grandmother’s recipe, which she served at quinceañeras along with the shredded, braised briskets Martinez grew up on. He sources white corn from Mexico, corn he says is “incredibly earthy like hominy.” Martinez chars the white corn and mixes it with yellow sweet corn, chiles, butter, mayo, cotija cheese, and spices for esquites, which he lists as corn salad on the menu.

The most controversial dish at Smokin’ Joe’s may be the Texas chili. It’s beef-based, but there are plenty of pinto and kidney beans floating around in there. I loved the depth of flavor from the dried chiles and the garnishes of finely diced onion and shredded cheese, but I did wonder if Martinez caught any flak for those beans. He doesn’t care. “I believe that Texas chili does have beans,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just can’t see cowboys on the trail pulling over to make chili and not adding beans.”

As I scooped up the freshly made banana pudding, which had warmed up a bit in the El Paso sun, I smiled, realizing that El Pasoans seem to be coming around to barbecue. I’d had a great meal the day prior at the new Hallelujah! BBQ (review coming soon) and had just left Desert Oak Barbecue after sampling its excellent new brunch items. Martinez agrees a corner has been turned. “I can’t change the El Paso barbecue scene by myself, but I can contribute to it,” he said. But what about his next hobby? “This is it. This is my life,” Martinez said of the barbecue business, which is the only hobby he’s found that is actually paying off.

Smokin’ Joe’s Pit BBQ
10150 Montana Avenue, El Paso
Phone: 602-796-2211
Hours: Friday–Saturday 11–8
Pitmasters: Joe and Martin Martinez
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022