Wiatrek’s Meat Market just opened a new location in San Antonio, but if you want the good stuff, drive forty minutes down State Highway 181 to the original location in Poth, where they’ve been serving up Saturday morning barbecue from a mammoth steel pit for 45 years.
On a recent trip to Wiatrek’s, I saw more beef options on one pit than I ever had before. There were beef ribs, T-bones, ribeye steaks, sirloin, seven steaks (from the chuck), and of course brisket. Pitmaster Roland Herrera loads the pit early in the morning. “I’m here at 4 a.m. to get my fire going. Meat hits the grill about 5 a.m.,” he said. “I try to flip it about 7 a.m. and have it done by 9 a.m., hopefully.” I couldn’t count all the individual cuts on display: steaks and chops overlapped like protein strata, and briskets were snugly wrapped in foil to finish their cook at one end. They wouldn’t be ready until 10 a.m., but there was no need to bother waiting for the brisket—there was plenty more to eat. I retreated to the trunk of my car with a haul.
I started with chicken, a pork chop, T-bone steak, and a rope of sausage. They’re all cuts that perform well on a direct heat cooker. Herrera prefers mesquite wood, and carefully places shovels full of the wood coals into the pit to keep a consistently low heat from end to end. He slips cardboard strips under the heavy lids if he needs an infusion of oxygen. He learned the craft from his father Ray Herrera, and Robert Kolodziej, who are both former pitmasters at Wiatrek’s.
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Herrera isn’t a Wiatrek’s employee. He works customer service for Sears during the week, but loves coming in to cook the barbecue on Saturdays. The market staff season all the meat the night before and have it waiting for him in the cooler when he arrives to start cooking. Herrera, who is now 35, has been helping work the pits for almost twenty years, but he just took them over full time a few years ago.
At the end of the pit, a brush handle stuck out of a pot filled with Herrera’s mop sauce. It’s a mix of butter, water, and fajita seasoning. “I don’t depend on it a whole lot,” Herrera said of the mop sauce. “If my heat gets too high, I have to protect the meat.” It’s just one the variables he deals with throughout the cook. “It’s tough cooking a brisket six inches away from a half chicken.” Herrera said with a laugh.
The sausage is a beef and pork mixture produced by Wiatrek’s. It had great snap, and plenty of juice. I liked the saltiness of the pork steak and the moist chicken. The thin cut T-bone was a dry disappointment, so I went back to the pits to ask Herrera if there were some not so well-done beef cuts. He explained that some customers prefer the fully cooked steaks, which is why the T-bones were cut thin. Boneless ribeyes were about three times thicker, and were cooked just above medium. At $10.50/lb for the ribeye (the most expensive menu item) I didn’t flinch about buying a whole one. I was amazed that after four hours on the pit, it was still pink in the middle. Although I had several more stops planned, I couldn’t stop until the ribeye was gone.
Barbecue customers order directly from the pit and can pay for it with cash outside or a credit card inside the market. It’s worth stepping inside the small-town market to peruse the counter and pick up a smoky dried sausage for a road snack. In need of a beef head for barbacoa? That’ll be $25 even.
If you’re looking to make the trip to Poth, they start serving the barbecue around 9 a.m. every Saturday. Be sure to get there before noon. “We always try to beat the noon bell,” Herrera said, referring to the literal bell that’s audible around town at midday. Don’t expect to find much in the way of sides or dessert at Wiatrek’s. “It’s just meat and sauce out here,” as Herrera says, but it’s also the best variety of barbecued beef I’ve found in Texas. That’s something worth getting up for, even if it makes for an early Saturday morning.