It’s the best of times and the worst of times for any new barbecue joint in Midland. Oil and gas are still revving the region’s economic engine and ensuring plenty of hungry customers. But any business not affiliated with the city’s biggest industry is a lower priority for city permits and inspections, as Junior Urias discovered when he was building Up in Smoke BBQ Co. from the ground up. He negotiated $10,000 off the cost of a water tap on the property, and that didn’t cover even half the fee. The review process lagged during construction, though he finally opened last October.
Every conversation I overheard in line at Up in Smoke involved a gas well that was over-producing, under-producing, or was sure to produce. My rented vehicle was the only one, among dozens, without a tailgate in the gravel parking lot. Diners were eager for their barbecue fix, which Up in Smoke offers just twice a week, on Fridays and Saturdays. One customer, looking around at the large kitchen and pit room, asked a companion, “all this for Friday and Saturday?” Urias said he hears that often, but the rest of the week he’s too busy with oil field catering jobs—more than a dozen each week, feeding up to 100 people. The food is gone quickly. The windows open at 11 a.m. and close at 2 p.m. or whenever he’s sold out of his 25 daily briskets.
Urias also smokes beef short ribs with a beautiful bark and glistening fat. I was tempted by one on the cutting block, but I already had two trays full of everything else on the menu. The bark on lean slices of brisket (it was cutter’s choice, as I wasn’t given an option of fatty or lean) was dull, almost beige. The meat had good flavor, and juiciness, but it had steamed for too long while wrapped up. Urias smokes mainly with pecan and adds some mesquite logs for a West Texas flavor, but that note was hard to pick out on the brisket.
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Urias has a decade-long history in competition barbecue, capped by multiple appearances and a big win on the BBQ Pitmasters reality TV competition. Even so, he cooks a lot differently at the restaurant than he did out on the circuit. “I don’t think [competition barbecue] is as good as old-school traditional,” Urias admitted. “You learn a lot [in competitions], but, you know, I don’t use none of my techniques that I used in competition here.” He also would never think of using strong mesquite smoke when competing. “The flavor’s too harsh for a lot of folks outside this area,” he said.
Thick slices of smoked pork belly were the standout at Up in Smoke. Urias said it’s his second-most popular item after brisket, and for good reason. The meat is pulled from the smoker before all the fat has melted away. A stout crust of black pepper surrounds each buttery tender slice. Large pork spare ribs are just tender enough and get the same peppery rub, but also the addition of a sweet and tangy glaze. The barbecue sauce is a bit heavier on the smoked chicken, and although I usually prefer sauce on the side, it paired well with the juicy bird.
Sausage-making is a skill Urias is working to improve. I applaud his use of serranos and jack cheese rather than the standard jalapeño and cheddar. The links had great flavor, but the grind is too fine, and the casings aren’t done enough for a good snap. The filling comes out each side when you bite down into it.
Macaroni salad isn’t a side you often find with Texas barbecue, but Up in Smoke serves a good version. The potato salad is a deep yellow thanks to all the egg yolks. I enjoyed the purity of the pinto beans, with just a little onion and peppers in the mix, and the green chile mac & cheese was pure comfort food. House-made pickles and pickled onions were also a nice touch. And don’t skip the jalapeño poppers. The peppers inside still have a bit of bite, and the bacon surrounding them is perfectly crisp.
Urias has something at Up in Smoke that I hadn’t found in Odessa and Midland before—barbecue worth traveling for. The limited hours make it a challenge, but Urias said he may add Thursdays and wants to do a wood-grilled steak and chop menu on Saturday nights. Back in 2015, Urias was honored by the mayor of Midland with Junior Urias Day on June 11. He still celebrates the day every year and is planning a whole hog cook in recognition this year, though that will come a little late, on June 22. A bite of that whole hog would truly be a rarity among barbecue rarities in Midland.