Willow Villarreal is hot right now. Like, literally hot. He parks his Willow’s Texas BBQ truck outside the Big Star Bar in Houston Thursday through Sunday, and the heat can be punishing inside. Another trailer, painted black, is parked in the back corner of the lot. It holds the J & R Smokemaster cabinet smoker, and I promise there’s no A/C in there. Every morning that he’s open, Villarreal unloads briskets to wrap them, then loads the smoker with ribs, turkey, sausage, a little more wood before abandoning it for an hour or so. He keeps his fingers crossed that nothing will burn up while he drives the food truck to the commissary for the daily inspection and then back to his parking space to get ready for the day. He hasn’t had any disasters yet.
Villarreal has also become a great, new story in Houston barbecue. I dined with the Houston Chronicle’s J.C. Reid, who recently praised the barbecue in print, and a magazine photographer was there for another story while I ate. In two years, he has gone from cooking for a barbecue kiosk at Wet ‘n’ Wild SplashTown to getting citywide attention for the barbecue he’s selling under his own name. The picnic tables outside aren’t an ideal setting for a barbecue lunch in the summer, and the lighting inside the comfortably cool Big Star Bar is low enough that a lit cigar would make a noticeable difference. I certainly don’t fault them for that. It is a bar after all, and the Topo Chico they served me was so cold it was almost a slushee, which eased the heat outside a bit.
The side offerings were also seasonally appropriate. Villarreal’s fiance, Jasmine Barela, prepares the orders inside the truck, and also takes charge of the barbecue accompaniments. Happiness is the duo of bright and juicy marinated grape tomatoes and a side of the otherworldly cream corn with a few flecks of jalapeño and black pepper. Summer barbecue sides don’t come much better. It may be a little warm for pinto beans and a pot of greens, but both were done superbly. I also loved the red-skin potato salad, and Villarreal has come to appreciate it too, albeit begrudgingly. “We had a traditional yellow potato salad,” he said of the mustard potato salad that this one replaced. “She finally had it to where it was just like I remembered growing up,” then she got bored and changed the recipe. I had no complaints.
The smoker was running on all cylinders with Villarreal at the helm. It was a new smoker for him when he opened, which proved to be a challenge. He had been using a borrowed rotisserie pit and then made the switch abruptly. “The first time I cooked on that, my bark changed,” Villarreal lamented. “Everything was so different. I was like, ‘Oh man, I gotta learn all over again,’ and I didn’t have much time to learn because I was out of money, which I still am, but we had to get open,” he said. I think he’s got the smoker figured out now. The brisket was spectacular, with a bark that bit back and a supremely supple fattiness. Pork ribs were just the right amount of tender with a simple rub that highlights the smoke and sweetness of the pork rather than adding more sugar to cover it.
Sliced smoked turkey breast was well executed and juicy. I also liked the flavor the sausage being made for the truck by Ruffino’s. The grind was too fine, giving the sausage an unwanted bounce, but the smoke and the casing were just right. All the meats go well with the house-pickled onions and barely limp, quick-pickled cucumbers.
A signature of the menu is straight-up stoner bait. It’s a chopped brisket sandwich on a donut, but not just any donut. They call it the Brisket Hug, because the jalapeño cheese donut is made by Hugs & Donuts in Houston. It’s of the same density as an apple fritter, so there’s nothing light about it. The brisket is rough chopped and lightly sauced. Villarreal said the pickles and onions on the sandwich help to balance out the sweetness. I laughed because this monstrosity of a sandwich is anything but balanced. It’s a fat and sugar bomb—an experience that is best shared.
Villarreal is happy to serve the patrons at Big Star Bar, but his barbecue deserves to be more than a sideshow. He’s putting out destination-worthy smoked meats, and Barela’s sides make it a must visit. If they get the chance to move to their own spot, they’ll certainly take it, but moving the pit will be a challenge. It’s technically “mobile,” being trailer-mounted and all, but it took almost a day to squeeze it, inch-by-inch, between the buildings on site to get it parked in the lot’s back corner. Lucky for the Heights neighborhood, they’re stuck with Willow’s Texas BBQ for now.
1115 W 19th St., Houston, TX, 77008
Pitmasters: Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela
Method: Oak wood in a cabinet smoker
Year opened: 2018