Junior Urias introduced the modern style of Texas barbecue to Midland when he opened Up in Smoke BBQ in 2018. That location, a victim of the COVID-related oil and gas industry bust, shuttered in late 2020. Urias did it again in the Hill Country town of Early, just north of Brownwood, where he and his wife Jennifer resurrected Up in Smoke BBQ. In a town known for the seventy-six year old Underwood’s Cafeteria and Bar-B-Q and its unique barbecue beef steak, Urias is producing sliced brisket and sausage better than he had in Midland at the new brick-and-mortar that opened five months ago. This one comes with a retail meat market too.
While living in Midland, Junior and Jennifer had been driving three and a half hours to spend their weekends on Lake Brownwood. Their restaurant in Midland was only open Fridays and Saturdays, because the bulk of their business was catering the oil fields during the week. Those jobs disappeared in March 2020. The restaurant’s takeout business was strong, but it was hard to predict the couple’s future in Midland, so they closed in September 2020, trading the oil fields for the lake life.
When Up in Smoke BBQ first came to Early, it operated out of a food trailer. Slowly, a building rose behind the trailer, and that building would finally become the joint’s permanent home in February 2022.
The offerings at the new location are similar to those at the Midland one—though the beef ribs and smoked chicken haven’t yet made appearances—but the menu is confusing. Customers in Early were asking for combo plates rather than only ordering meat by the pound. The plate options were written on a butcher-paper menu with the prices hastily scribbled out. When I asked for two different two-meat plates, I was served about two pounds of barbecue total and charged for it by the pound. “We’re working on a new menu, but it will be better worded and easier to understand,” Urias promised, but in the meantime, ordering by the pound will probably give you a more predictable serving size and price.
The smoked brisket, which was previously pale with muted flavors, has improved immensely. Urias brought in a thousand-gallon offset Bison smoker just for his briskets (the rest of the meats are smoked in a Myron Mixon water smoker). He wraps the nearly finished briskets in plastic film rather than foil or butcher paper because he prefers the moisture retention. Urias also adds more salt and a fresh layer of cracked black pepper just before wrapping. The meat was juicy as intended, and the rub was bold enough for black-pepper fiends.
The sweet glaze is gone from the peppery pork ribs, which are tender and savory. But the most impressive meat was the smoked turkey. The slices were incredibly juicy and took on the flavor of the smoke better than the rest of the barbecue. The smoked turkey also goes well with the house-pickled onions and dill pickle slices.
Cowboy potato salad is a new side to go along with the classic mustard potato salad. Skin-on chunks of potato are mixed with bacon and mayo dressing for a baked-potato flavor. The hatch chile mac and cheese was well made and mildly spiced. A cup of the pinto beans included several slices of smoked sausage, but the beans needed more seasoning to cover up the flavor of the can they came out of.
Sausage was a challenge for Urias at the Midland location, and he has worked to improve it here. The grind is thankfully coarser, and the casing has a great snap. I also loved the pairing of Oaxaca cheese with serrano peppers. One standout back in Midland was the carefully smoked slices of pork belly. This time around, the same cut was hours from being done. Urias was embarrassed when he saw it, and he refunded the cost. “I’ve got several guys in training, and they just pulled the wrong pork belly,” he admitted.
His attention was on stocking the newly opened meat market next door. “It’s a little difficult for me to run both right now,” he said. You can purchase Wagyu briskets and the same 1855 Prime-grade briskets he uses at the restaurant. The meat case is also full of raw steaks and the sausages Urias makes for Up in Smoke. And if you can’t stay for a hot meal on-site, there is vacuum-packed barbecue for sale at the market as well.
I was impressed with Up in Smoke BBQ’s first iteration in Midland. Urias has built on that success in Early and, for the most part, serves a better version of his barbecue in his new home. The folks in Brownwood would do themselves a favor by checking out the new kid in town.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Urias as a pitmaster at Underwood’s Cafeteria.
Up in Smoke BBQ
231 Parkway Drive, Suite 100, Early
Hours: Thursday 11–3, Friday 11–3 and 6–9, Saturday 11-3
Pitmaster: Junior Urias
Method: Pecan and oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022