This article is part of a series that spotlights Texas pitmasters in their own words, available exclusively to TM BBQ Club members.

Joe Zavala opened Zavala’s Barbecue in Grand Prairie in 2019. And it’s obvious he knows what he’s doing. His restaurant has received shout-outs for its brisket from Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, and for its tacos from Texas Monthly taco editor José Ralat. After two years in business, the joint earned a spot on the Top 50 list, and if Joe’s enthusiasm for the craft is any indication, this is just the beginning.

Tell us about the first person who taught you about barbecue.

My pops is the person who taught me about barbecue. Every weekend the Cowboys were playing, it was a party on Sunday. My dad would cook all day for people to eat and enjoy the game. Every chance he got to cook out, he did. It was always a party for family and friends.

Do you remember a backyard, a barbecue joint, or an experience that ignited your barbecue obsession?

When my wife and I bought our house in 2015, I wanted to create the same environment I had growing up. I just wanted people to come over and hang out. I stole a rotten Oklahoma Joe [smoker] from my father-in-law and used my friend’s dad’s old toolbox as my firebox. That’s when it all started. I’d make barbecue every weekend to drink cold beer with my family and friends.

What message are you trying to share with your customers through your food?

I want people to feel like we are family. I want people to close their eyes and remember how their cookouts with their families felt growing up. I want people to taste the love we put in our food—just like my family did for us.

As a professional pitmaster, are you a BBQ Freak just like the rest of us? What makes you a BBQ Freak?

I sure am! I’m a chopped beef sandwich guy with lots of sauce and pickles and onions.

When was the last time you ate someone else’s barbecue?

We went to Goldee’s about two weeks ago and had the best chopped beef sandwich. They made us wait in line, too!

What’s the most surprising barbecue dish you’ve eaten?

Jordan Jackson’s burnt end boudin. It changed my life.

What’s the best beverage to wash down barbecue?

I’ll only drink Lone Star Light and Clase Azul [tequila] when I’m making barbecue.

What’s a tool you use in cooking that might not seem like an obvious barbecue tool?

We love foil—we use it for everything.

What recommendations do you have for someone new to Texas ’cue?

If you are looking to get in the game, buy a thousand-gallon smoker–not a five-hundred-gallon smoker. Whatever you’re thinking about buying, buy double.

If you are eating Texas barbecue for the first time, enjoy the stories! Every barbecue joint has history and a story they’re trying to tell.

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