Siblings Francisco “Paco” Carmona and Paola Buentello grew up in their family’s barbecue business in Eagle Pass, an hour south of Del Rio and directly across the border from Piedras Negras, Mexico. He was two years old and she was one when their late grandfather Hugo Buentello and their mother, Selena Buentello Price, opened the Wagon Wheel in 1994. They sold barbecue and other goods from a drive-through building. “You grabbed your beer, your deer corn, your brisket sandwich, and you were off to the ranch,” Carmona said. I first visited the joint ten years ago, and when I returned to try it again last month, so much had changed—including the location—that I didn’t even realize it was the same business.
Hugo passed away in 2015, but Buentello Price said the family never considered closing the place. “That’s all we knew,” she said of the restaurant. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the take-out business kept the Wagon Wheel afloat, but it was a struggle. By the end of 2021, the family sought a new, smaller location. Buentello Price said they also wanted to move farther from a facility where migrants released from U.S. custody were delivered by the busload to seek transportation out of town. (Mission: Border Hope, a local nonprofit, took over the facility in April 2022 and was serving five hundred migrants a day as of September.) The family moved into a new spot two miles south a year ago.
“Our goal for 2022 was bringing something to Eagle Pass that people look forward to visiting,” Carmona said. That meant reinventing the basic barbecue menu he’d grown up with. The family members bought a new five-hundred-gallon smoker from Jesse James Custom Pits, in Poteet, and another is being built. They added new sides and specials like ribeyes, burgers, and chicken-fried steak. They also switched to Prime-grade briskets, and they’re now cooking twenty per day instead of the six they used to do in the old location. “We never thought we’d be where we are,” Buentello Price said.
The thick slices of brisket were smoky, tender, and juicy, and the black pepper–heavy rub was entirely savory. “The culture down here is that people like salty food,” Carmona said. He adds a little more spice to the rub on the turkey breast, which is his favorite. He said it’s so moist because they start it off at a high temperature to really set the bark before lowering it back down. Large half chickens get the same rub and come out dripping with juices. They were not at all tough, as I assumed such large birds would be. The only hint of sweetness is found on the sparerib glaze. Carmona said it’s optional, but he prefers a little sauce on his pork.
While we dined, pitmaster Freddy Reyes tended the firebox of the smoker, which is situated like a display piece on the back patio. He and Carmona recently developed a house-made sausage recipe. I tried a link just two weeks after they started making it, and it was a valiant effort. I joked with my dining partner that it tasted a whole lot like the beef-and-pork V&V smoked sausage, out of Cistern. It was only later that I learned V&V was the sausage brand Carmona and Reyes had served in the restaurant previously, and they were trying to replicate it with those heavy garlic and paprika flavors.
A few of the sides are worthy holdovers from Hugo’s old recipes, like the fluffy Mexican rice and the popular charro beans. The latter have distinct chunks of pork chicharrón floating in them rather than the standard bits of bacon or smoked sausage. Crushed chicharrón provides a crunchy topping to the creamy mac and cheese. I loved the fresh green beans sautéed with plenty of butter and onions, which were far better than the canned green beans more commonly found in barbecue joints. “Everything is made fresh every day,” Carmona said, minus the previously frozen onion rings. And that goes for the barbecue, too. The meat sells out every day, which hasn’t been easy for locals to get accustomed to.
Customers are sometimes angry when their favorite proteins aren’t available near closing time, like they were in the old location, but cooking limited quantities of meat is the only way to ensure freshness. It’s the main reason the Wagon Wheel’s barbecue is so much better now than it was a decade ago. “We finally got the community, in the last year, to understand that concept,” Buentello Price said. The Wagon Wheel is aiming to be different from other barbecue joints in the area, and from what it’s been in the past, she continued. Carmona agreed. “We had to change it up for a new era,” he said. And they have, thankfully for the better.
The Wagon Wheel
1824 Del Rio Boulevard, Eagle Pass
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11–7, Sunday 11–6
Pitmasters: Francisco Carmona, Freddy Reyes, and Otto Rodriguez
Method: Pecan in an offset smoker
Year opened: 1994