Bright red chile oil sizzles on a propane-fueled flattop griddle under a pop-up tent in Houston’s Third Ward. Joseph Quellar swirls a dozen corn tortillas, one at a time, into the shimmering pool. He streams a bit more oil from a squeeze bottle, then flips them all. Finely shredded Oaxaca cheese, more than I expected, rains from Quellar’s hand onto the now red-tinted discs. The cheese begins to melt, then seeps over the edges of the tortilla to brown on the hot flattop. Meanwhile, Quellar has retrieved a chunk of smoked brisket from its braising liquid, or consommé, of pureed chiles, onions, garlic, and spices. He shreds it and places hefty portions, still dripping with juice, in the centers of the tortillas, which are now nearly obscured by cheese. Quellar adds a bit of chopped white onion and cilantro, then raises a ladle full of consommé high above the griddle and splashes it down on his composition, the liquid sizzling and steaming as it streams onto the hot griddle. Quellar smiles—he’s putting on a show.
Using a wide, flexible putty knife, a perfect tool for releasing the browned cheese and tortillas from the griddle, he scrapes around the edges, then grabs a second spatula with his free hand. The filling is so generous that the taco won’t easily fold, so Quellar places the sharp edge of one spatula in the center of the mound of meat and cheese, and uses the second to fold the tortilla onto itself. Before it can be served, it sits on the griddle for a few more agonizing seconds, the flavors melding, cheese melting on cheese, forming the taco into a single solid structure. Quellar transfers it to a tray with a side cup of consommé for dipping, and I finally get to taste a smoked brisket birria quesitaco from the man who launched this creation into the Texas barbecue mainstream.
Joseph Quellar didn’t invent birria tacos, or the smoked brisket taco, or even the smoked brisket birria quesitaco that he’s now famous for. He credits Houston chef Arash Kharat for the technique. But Quellar did jump-start the popularity of this very specific taco, which has become part of Texas barbecue culture. From Arlington to Olton, pitmasters are making their own versions of the instant classic that Quellar first served in October 2019 at a collaboration dinner with chef Victoria Elizondo at Cochinita & Co. in Houston. Our taco editor, José Ralat, was in town to try them at a subsequent JQ’s pop-up just three days later. He wrote about the taco, and suggested that “If other pitmasters and taqueros are paying attention, they’ll start tinkering with birria using different cuts of beef and ingredients.” Pitmasters took notice of the rise of birria but have largely stuck with smoked brisket. (Quellar actually adds some smoked oxtail into his mixture for a richer consommé.) But though brisket birria tacos are Quellar’s most famous dish, he’s doesn’t just play the hits at JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ.
Quellar was serving barbecue long before birria. When he was still an oil field machinist, he started smoking meat in his backyard, practicing for barbecue competitions that he never ended up entering. “I just knew I liked cooking this stuff, and in my mind I was a grand champion,” he says. When his wife Cindy was pregnant with their daughter, she got so sick of his barbecue that just the smell of smoke made her ill. He made more barbecue than he had friends and family to eat it, so in 2017, he and Cindy held their first pop-up. Quellar was part of a fixed-gear bike club, which rode to a restaurant every week. One weekend, he suggested the group ride to a tent he and Cindy had set up. “I gave up one hobby for the other,” he says. He parked his bike and parked himself in front of the smoker for what soon became weekly pop-ups.
The first JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ menu, shared on Instagram, consisted of barbecue by the pound, salsas, and tortillas. The business steadily morphed into a pop-up version of Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, which mixes barbecue by the pound with sandwiches and tacos. When he needed something special for that fateful 2019 dinner, he reached out to chef Kharat, who was working at (now closed) Beaver’s in Houston. Kharat had just finished up an appearance at the Houston Barbecue Festival, where the smoked brisket birria tacos were a huge hit, and Quellar wanted to make a version of his own.
Kharat said his inspiration for the dish was simple. “We had to come up with something that tastes great, looks great, but was also affordable for us [for serving at big events and barbecue festivals],” he says. Kharat’s mother is Mexican but didn’t know what he was talking about when he asked her about birria, so he did his research. He made a few versions of smoked brisket braised in birria consommé. He thought the tacos needed a binder to keep them folded, so he added cheese. Despite the tacos’ popularity throughout Texas, Kharat doesn’t make them much anymore. Customers at Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., where he’s the executive chef, complained they were too messy. He still makes smoked brisket birria to serve on top of queso, and he finds places to use birria elsewhere. (Next week, he’ll launch a 44 Farms hot dog on a bun topped with birria and served with consommé.) “He took it over, and he’s rocking it,” he says of Quellar. And seeing the quesitaco gain vast popularity across Texas in such a short time, Kharat says, is “kind of a proud papa moment.”
When Quellar launched the birria tacos, he knew immediately that they would be his specialty. They’ve become the identity of JQ’s, but Quellar has plenty more to offer. “Come for the birria, stay for the carnitas,” he says. He smokes large cubes of seasoned pork shoulder for three or four hours, then braises the meat with orange juice, bay leaves, cinnamon, butter, brown sugar, and honey. He shreds it and uses the meat to build a carnitas taco similar to the birria, minus the consommé.
They’re both stunningly flavorful tacos. The birria is richer, especially with all that gelatin from the oxtails. The tortilla is somehow both crispy and wet with juices at the same time. There’s smoke from the chiles and the beef, and browned bits of cheese to provide another layer of flavor. There’s a heft to this taco, and that’s before you dip it into the juice. “If I’m on your barbecue tour, I can’t be last,” Quellar jokes. I was throughly satisfied after only one taco, which is why he offers the “mixta plate” with one birria and one carnitas taco. The latter is lighter only in comparison to the former. Each one is a destination-worthy barbecue taco on its own.
Quellar offers simpler barbecue tacos as well. Tender slices of smoked brisket, smoked with oak and pecan in a Pitmaker vault smoker, are topped with pickled onions and a viscous avocado and serrano salsa. He does the same with supremely tender smoked beef cheeks. Thick slices of tender pork belly are so perfectly smoked they stole the spotlight at a recent pop-up. The pop-ups, currently the only way you can enjoy JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ, are usually held every weekend in Houston (check Instagram for details), and encourage online preorders rather than walk-ups.
The good news is JQ’s will soon be upgrading from folding tables, a portable flattop, and pop-up tents. Quellar, Cindy, and their business partner PJ McLaughlin will launch a new food truck soon. They ordered it last February, and are currently putting the finishing touches on it for the opening, planned for no later than October. “I need to get it finished, but I also need to pop up because that’s my living,” Quellar says.
When the time comes, they’ll have a whole lot more than tacos on the food truck menu. “I don’t want to be boxed in as a specialty taco thing. I’m barbecue first,” Quellar says. He wants to serve barbecue platters; ribs and enchiladas are his two favorite foods, and neither are on his current menu. He also hopes to add tamales, puffy tacos, and chimichangas once the food truck is operating three or four days a week.
Does Quellar regret that his business has become so closely tied to one taco? “I can tell you I’m tired of making it,” he jokes. Standing over a hot griddle outdoors in the Houston heat will make anyone rethink some life choices, but Quellar is far more proud than beat down. “We made a mark on the Texas barbecue scene,” he says. “And that’s really hard to do.”
Hours: Friday 5–10, Saturday 2–10
Pitmaster: Joseph Quellar
Method: Oak and pecan in a vault smoker
Year opened: 2020