The last time I saw Phillip Helberg, he was inside the Helberg Barbecue food truck with his wife, Yvette, hoping passersby would stop at their window to order. I stood nearby on some concrete stairs, evading a bee that wanted my Dr Pepper, while balancing a barbecue tray in one hand and holding my camera in the other. The Helbergs didn’t have much to offer in the way of accommodations back then, when most of Waco hadn’t heard of them, let alone the rest of Texas. That was just fourteen months ago, but much has changed since then for the Helbergs and for Waco’s barbecue reputation.
A few years back, I would tell prospective barbecue joint owners seeking an underserved market to look to Waco. Reid Guess listened and left Austin to open the Guess Family Barbecue trailer on Waco’s historic traffic circle just off Interstate 35. Meanwhile, David Gorham, already a Waco resident, felt that the city could use a new barbecue perspective when he opened his food truck, Honky Tonk Kid BBQ. And the Helbergs fell in love with the city during a Texas road trip. They figured they could have more success selling barbecue in Central Texas than where they were living (Southern California), and they were right. Within the past year, all three of these barbecue up-and-comers have grown out of their food trucks and into larger permanent locations. They’re all happy to be making more barbecue, and Waco is rewarding them for their efforts.
On Texas Highway 6, about fifteen minutes outside downtown, I was the first customer at Helberg Barbecue on a Wednesday morning. The doors had just opened, and customers continued to trickle in during my hour-long visit. Helberg said he’s fine with a slow day, knowing what the whole crew will be in for when the weekend rolls around. It still feels surreal to him to have people waiting in line for his barbecue, especially before he even turns on the “open” sign. “I remember reading something that Aaron [Franklin] had said a while back about the pressure of seeing people line up before you open,” Helberg said. “I never thought I’d taste what that felt like, but Saturdays here are like that.”
They moved into the building in May. It had been the production facility for a winery, and it’s big enough to seat quite a crowd. Even with all the new demands on the business, the food at Helberg has only gotten better. “We’ve been able to grow and not just maintain, but we’ve improved the quality,” Helberg said with pride. “That’s my definition of success.” They now use grass-fed beef briskets from Grass Run Farms, and those smoke up beautifully. They save all their trimmings for a pair of house-made sausages. The all-beef sausage has richness from beef heart, and the jalapeño cheese version is a pleasantly spicy link. Both are incredibly juicy and well-constructed, something that was difficult to produce in a food truck, which they abandoned for good on September 1.
The Helbergs have added plenty to the menu, like a smoked and fried half-chicken that made me question why every smoked chicken isn’t also fried. The pork steak was a nice change from the inherently more boring pulled pork. Most of the sides had been tweaked for the better (the mac and cheese isn’t oddly sweet anymore), and they now offer daily specials. On Wednesdays, a huge rack of their smoked spareribs is just $25, possibly the best barbecue deal in Waco. The higher volume of cooking has seen them reach capacity in their two 500-gallon smokers, so a pair of 1,000-gallon smokers will arrive soon.
Back in town, Guess Family Barbecue, which opened its brick-and-mortar on September 11, has a fleet of smokers parked behind a new smokehouse that was built behind the old Michna’s Bar-B-Que, which closed in 2016. They’ve renovated the interior of the old joint so completely that it’s hard to imagine the collection of old dusty hats that used to cover the walls. There’s still room enough for more than the two 1,000-gallon smokers that are currently operational. Chris Linares was checking the briskets in one during my visit. He was an unfamiliar face at the joint whose staff had to grow quickly during the move. His story exhibits the maturation of Waco barbecue perhaps better than any other.
Linares was hooked on Texas barbecue after the first brisket he cooked in his backyard in New Jersey. He and a friend had bought a $230 smoker from Home Depot. The brisket, which he described as “horrible,” took more than 21 hours to cook, mainly because they opened its doors every fifteen minutes to check the temperature. All he wanted to do afterward was try another one. That was in February. By August he had quit his job at a furniture manufacturer and booked a one-way ticket to Austin hoping to land a job at a barbecue joint.
Rewinding a few months back to May, Linares sent a message to Max Chiefari, a pitmaster who had worked at Franklin Barbecue in Austin and had announced over Instagram that he was coming to New York to help open Juicy Lucy BBQ. They met, and Chiefari became his mentor. He taught him how to cook brisket and secured him the job at Juicy Lucy. Linares started there in June and stayed through early August, when Chiefari suggested he go to Texas. “He basically told me, I’ve taught you everything I can teach you here,'” said Linares, who arrived in Austin with three pieces of luggage and zero job prospects.
Linares went knocking on pit room doors across town. He dropped off résumés, but didn’t get any calls. Having eaten everywhere he applied, he was getting a barbecue education, but he wanted more than anything to get to work. “I hadn’t touched a smoker,” Linares said. “I was itching.” Eleven days into the trip, he was losing hope. His fiancée back home was worried about his finances, and he was worried about failure. “I was going to fly back east with nothing to show for it but a bunch of trucker hats,” Linares remembered thinking. Then he met John Brotherton at Black Iron Barbecue in Pflugerville. Brotherton talked him off the ledge, and sent Linares to one more spot, Interstellar Barbecue in Cedar Park.
Guess Family Barbecue was working with Interstellar on a collaborative menu that Saturday. Linares arrived several hours before opening, asking how he could help. Cade Mercer of Guess Family put him to work. When Mercer learned Linares was looking for a job, he said they needed help opening the new restaurant in Waco. Linares said yes immediately, although, he confessed, “I had no idea where Waco was or what Waco was.” Now he’s one of the core group of cooks at Guess Family Barbecue. “I’m still learning every day,” he said. That’s how Waco, not Austin, became the destination for a barbecue apprentice from New Jersey.
Linares is usually joined in the Guess Family pit room by Mercer, who ran the restaurant group’s Koko Ramen food truck, which is closed for now. Mercer is working out new recipes for when Union Hall up the street (yes, Waco will soon have a food hall) opens in the next few months with a Koko Ramen counter inside. He also changed up the ribs at Guess, a restaurant that describes its barbecue as “the kind Jesus ate.” That means they cook it simply, rather than trendily. I liked the glaze Mercer added to the ribs, but not as much as the clean, peppery, smoky spareribs that I’ve had at Guess in the past. That old version is what I would describe as an ideal example of a Texas barbecue sparerib. However delicious, these new, sweet ribs weren’t the kind that Jesus ate, and when I brought it up to owner Reid Guess, he agreed. The old recipe for spareribs is now back on the menu, and they’ve added baby back ribs with Mercer’s glaze.
Everything else at Guess has only gotten better. The house-made sausages are excellent, and Linares even had some ideas to improve the smoked turkey, which was juicier than just about any other smoked turkey I’ve tried. Crushed hot Cheetos blanket the street corn dish, and the mac and cheese now has a crumb topping. There’s even local craft beer on draft (free, for now, until they get their liquor license). Guess said he plans to add dinner service along with an expanded menu by the end of the year. As for the food truck parked behind the building, it’s likely permanently retired. “We’ve learned that food trucks are the devil,” co-owner Gene Vinnykov told me. If so, that’s no place to serve the kind of barbecue that Jesus ate.
David Gorham still sends his Honky Tonk Kid BBQ food truck out a few times a week, but he’s found employees to run it. He spends his time indoors at the new location along the Brazos River. Three flags hang outside: the U.S. flag, a Baylor flag, and a third, rotated weekly, that represents the country from which Gorham drew inspiration for the week’s special menu. On my visit, it was Spain’s. Of the forty flags Gorham owns, about thirty have been flown thus far. Jamaica was popular, and he was refining his beer cheese recipe for the upcoming German menu when I visited. There’s a standard menu that remains the same, so you’ll have to look to the dry-erase board near the register for those specials.
I’ve tried Gorham’s barbecue before, but this new version seems like it comes from a different cook. The landlord of his new space, which he’s occupied for a year now, didn’t allow his old offset smoker. He traded it in for a Southern Pride rotisserie. The brisket is now more tender and juicy, and I loved the snap on the sausage, but it was the baby back ribs that stole the show. They’re unlike any other pork rib I’ve had in Texas. He introduced them to the regular menu three months ago, but they taste like they should be featured during a week of Chinese-inspired cooking. Gorham uses ginger powder, Chinese five spice, white sugar, and a little black pepper in the rub. Once the ribs are pulled off the smoker, they’re glazed with honey and butter, and left to rest. The flavor is astounding, and it doesn’t hurt that they were expertly smoked as well.
“We did a big overhaul,” was Gorham’s response when I asked about the bump up in quality. He’s using a different rub on the brisket, and he changed some of his side recipes, like the unique cotija mac and cheese. Basically he’s treating this new restaurant like the 2.0 version of his food truck, which is a metaphor for the rest of Waco’s new barbecue joints. Vinnykov at Guess Family said the biggest surprise at the new restaurant is realizing how many locals never knew about their food truck. “We have a seen such a new demographic of people,” he said. Helberg echoed those sentiments. He’s happy for the support Waco has shown the new location, but he’s not surprised. Instead, he told me, “It just shows how much we needed it here.”