Joe Zavala has created a barbecue sensation in Grand Prairie, but he’s not sure if he wants to make it a full-time job. He enjoys his Monday-through-Friday job as a consultant, a position that provides the kind of benefits and salary than most pitmasters could only hope for. Smoking meats is his passion, and he’s lucky enough to have taken his side job this far. For a couple years he’s been cooking with friends under the Zavala’s Barbecue name for barbecue pop-ups, and a few Saturdays ago, the permanent Zavala’s Barbecue restaurant opened in downtown Grand Prairie. It’s a big step, but for now he and his partners are happy to keep it a once-a-week hobby.
The line was probably one-hundred deep on a chilly, drizzly Saturday morning in February when the doors into the tiny Zavala’s Barbecue opened for the first time at 11:03. I was toward the back and hoped that the 24 briskets they’d smoked, more than they’d ever done before, would last until I got to the counter. I had failed once before, last April, when Zavala announced to the line outside their pop-up at the Brass Bean that they’d sold out in 30 minutes. I left hungry then, but not this time.
Zavala’s menu has a few Tex-Mex barbecue touches like fluffy flour tortillas from a local purveyor. Squeeze bottles of house-made red and green salsas (the green improved just about everything it touched) top the tables instead of barbecue sauce. Smoked beef-cheek barbacoa is available, but it needed a more thorough trimming and more time to tenderize on the smoker. Their most popular item might be the Sloppy Juan taco. It’s a riff on an East Texas sloppy joe, where the trim from a bunch of different smoked meats is chopped together with sauce. It’s usually served on a bun, but at Zavala’s it’s a taco with some real heft.
Don’t let the Pizza Pepper Sausage on the menu fool you into thinking there’s any Italian influence in the kitchen. The name is an homage to Roland Lindsey. He’s the late founder of Bodacious Bar-B-Que, and his son-in-law Jordan Jackson has been a barbecue mentor to Zavala. When Jackson and Zavala were working out a recipe for sausage, Lindsey asked if they were going to put the “pizza pepper” into the mix. They were confused, but he was referring to the crushed red pepper that often comes in packets alongside delivery pizza. Zavala figured he’d use the red pepper flakes and borrow the name. The sausage is made weekly by Zavala’s business partner Drew Wright and Cameron Tryggvason. It doesn’t taste like pizza, but it’s a damn fine sausage.
The brisket was flawless. They use 44 Farms beef and don’t add much more than salt, pepper, and smoke. It came out tender, juicy, and well-seasoned. It also sold out in just 2 1/2 hours, but they’ve since added a second thousand-gallon smoker, which should bolster the available barbecue quite a bit. Slices of moist turkey breast were smoky and salty. Pork ribs exhibited a pleasing texture and had good smoke, but I was looking for a bolder pop of flavor. Zavala agreed when I talked to him later. “That’s my goal this year, to figure my ribs out,” he said. They also need to work on the sides. Only a basic slaw and a potato salad they call “krunk salad” are available, and I’ve never tasted anything so bland with “krunk” in the name.
Zavala has already come a long way with his barbecue skills. He remembered a family party he cooked for in 2015. After refurbishing an old backyard smoker, he smoked a brisket and a couple of pork butts. His family raved about it, but a friend, CJ Ramirez, offered some harsher feedback. “He tasted it, and he said, ‘This tastes like garbage,'” Zavala recalled. It was harsh, but he appreciated the feedback, and CJ now runs the cash register and the business’s social media accounts. CJ is also still brutally honest about the quality of their barbecue. Zavala said, “He keeps us humble.”
Zavala, Ramirez, and Wright all attended Grand Prairie High School together. Zavala was the center on the football team when Rhett Bomar was taking the snaps. Zavala, an undersized center, even dreamed of becoming a sports agent, so he got his MBA in preparation. While interning he realized he didn’t have the stomach for the cut-throat business, but he’s been able to take advantage of the business degree. He knew right off the bat that the first iteration of his barbecue business wasn’t built for profitability. Back in 2016 he sold his smoked briskets and pork butts online and offered free delivery to anywhere in the Metroplex. “My wife wanted to kill me because we were driving to Lakewood, Highland Park, Mansfield, Trophy Club, and close to Denton,” he said. They’re both much happier staying close to home with the new barbecue business.
Zavala also learned something about his hometown during the pop-up phase of the business. He thought those barbecue deliveries were going to build a fan base all over the city that would support him once he found a permanent spot. It turns out that the free delivery was as big a draw as the barbecue; the people supporting his business now are his neighbors. “Everybody was so appreciative that we stayed here,” he said. “One thing I underestimated was the power of community.”