Lupe and Christine Nevarez engrained a mutual love and respect for barbecue into their family, and it shows. Kelli Nevarez is a true Texas pitmaster, just like her mom and dad, and she’s just getting started.
Tell me about the first person who taught you about barbecue.
Lupe Nevarez: My father. Like many Hispanic families growing up in the seventies, we didn’t go out to restaurants. The mentality was that you could feed more people with less money at home. Less money meant chicken halves.
Kelli Nevarez: I learned barbecue from my father, Lupe Nevarez Jr.–just like he learned from his own father. My father’s passion to make LaVaca BBQ in Port Lavaca, Texas one of the best barbecue restaurants on the Texas Coastal Bend inspired me. Being a first grade teacher a block away from our restaurant allowed me to come over and help after school and weekends. Just before summer, I could smell the post oak burning from the playground during recess. I would daydream of actually working with my parents. When summer arrived, my parents asked if I would like to be an owner. They planned on opening a second restaurant, which is now LaVaca BBQ–Bay City. I agreed to try it during my summer vacation. I started by watching and maintaining the fire on La Blanca, our 1000-gallon smoker. My instructions, “keep it within 5 degrees.” By the end of summer, my father’s dream became my dream. I did not return to teaching. Instead, I started to handle all meat prepping, smoking, and slicing at our existing restaurant while he worked on getting the new restaurant up and running. I now smoke the meats for both locations. I run this restaurant and my mother, Christine, runs the Bay City location. I can now hear the school kids playing as I check on my fire during the day. I don’t day dream of going back. I now have my own barbecue passion and dreams. I dream of one day being recognized as one of Texas’s best female Hispanic pitmasters and restaurant owners.
Do you remember a backyard or a barbecue joint that started your barbecue obsession?
Lupe: My barbecue obsession started when Christine, my wife and Lavaca BBQ co-owner, and I would travel to Houston and eat at Luther’s BBQ. They served thin sliced brisket soaked in sauce. The sides were buffet style. Man, we thought that was the best barbecue in the world. Of course, as 18 and 19-year old newlyweds, it was affordable.
Kelli: Our own family cooking was my barbecue obsession. Every cook became an episode of “Chopped.” We would not eat until we tried samples off of paper plates numbered 1 – 6. By the time we ate, we were no longer hungry. I never knew our obsession would turn into recipes I would serve in my own restaurant.
What message are you trying to share to your customers through your food?
Lupe: I want our customers to taste the time and passion put into each item we make. Our foods are inspired by our Mexican heritage. Our meats, sides, desserts are our sounding boards for our culture. We developed our one of a kind smoked tamale as something to give back to the Texas BBQ culture. We describe it as Mexican meets Central Texas. Our butcher paper wrapped-brisket was named as one of Texas Monthly’s Favorite BBQ Bites of 2020.
Kelli: The flavor of loving what you do can be tasted in every bite.
As a professional pitmaster, are you a BBQ Freak just like the rest of us? When is the last time you ate someone else’s barbecue besides your own?
Lupe: As a BBQ Freak, and mostly geek, I venture out to enjoy others’ barbecue often. As a new thriving business, it is important to not fall into your own barbecue rut. We taste our own food every day. Christine and I took a trip to Austin for her birthday. We ate at Black’s, Kruetz’s and Smitty’s as we made our way back to Port Lavaca.
Kelli: I visited The Salt Lick with a friend. She asked, “don’t get you tired of barbecue after cooking it?” I replied, “It’s a barbecue thing!!” I guess that’s the same as being a BBQ Freak.
What’s the most surprising BBQ dish you’ve eaten?
Lupe: The most surprising barbecue dish was a surprise as an adult, but was the norm as a kid. My father and I would go hunting. My job was to catch armadillos before they went into their holes. We would take these overgrown pill bugs home, skin them and smoke them on their backs in their own shells. The surprise was that I found later that they carried leprosy. I told my dad the news and he replied “Que ese eso?” What is that? That was the end of smoking armadillos.
Kelli: As a lover of Mac & Cheese, I was surprised that topping it with smoked pork belly would taste great. I have accepted my mother’s recipe and now I improved it by smoking our cheddar cheese in post oak before shredding it. Our Mac Belly has become my favorite side.
What’s the best beverage to wash down BBQ?
Lupe: For me it is hard to beat Sweet Tea. When we first opened in Port LaVaca, we hounded our tea distributor until we felt it was perfect. Extra filters, special tea blend and clear cups. Even the Ice needs to be clear for the perfect glass. Being an ass about tea has earned us “The Best Tea In Calhoun County Award.”
Kelli: Dr Pepper or Beer.
What’s a tool you use in cooking that might not seem like an obvious barbecue tool?
Lupe: I use a 12” long hand rake to reach into La Blanca, our 1000 gallon smoker, and tilt briskets. I catch the outside edge and tilt them towards me. This keeps the grease puddle off the briskets, creating that classic Texas brisket bark.
Kelli: Being a 5-foot-tall female makes it difficult to reach into a 1000-gallon smoker. I learned the hard way that head hair starts to singe at 275 degrees as you reach for a brisket at the back of the smoker. My hair dresser and best friend was shocked to see all the damage. I now wear a winter FRC head cover, like construction workers use, under their hard hats. My father designed and built our second 1000-smoker, El Segundo, lower just to fit me. Kind of cool to have a beast built to fit a girl. You can call us Beauty and the Beast.
What recommendations do you have for someone new to Texas ‘cue?
Lupe: Your best friends for Texas ‘cue are Kosher salt and medium grind black pepper. Our basis for everything we smoke.
Kelli: Keep it simple and believe that females can run a pit better than some men. I sometimes feel like I am on a game show with all the questions at the cutting board from men. “How long do you cook? Where are the men? What time do you start cooking?” My answer: “I have smoked over 10,000 pounds of brisket and I don’t know what you are talking about.”
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