Joe Quintanilla is a colorful speaker. The white-mustachioed owner of Avila’s BBQ in Hebbronville, an hour’s drive east of Laredo, is sitting on the edge of a picnic table bench in the shade cast by his open-sided smokehouse. The tantalizing scent of nearly finished beef sausages and fajitas wafts out from one of the long-barrel, direct-heat smokers. Meanwhile, Quintanilla delivers morsels of the wisdom gathered in his 61 years of life and his three decades at the helm of Avila’s BBQ. Customers often ask him for the secret to great barbecue, he says. “I don’t have secrets,” Quintanilla tells them. “Secrets are for a–holes.” For him, culinary skill comes not from creative genius but rather from hard work, attention to detail, and experience.
Quintanilla runs the pits at his smoke shack. His wife, Andrea Arguelles, and his sisters-in-law, Sandra and Alma, prepare side dishes and breakfast tacos. The business is efficient, with the three women quickly doling out bags of food to the long line of pickups and SUVs. Multiple times during our conversation, Quintanilla shouts greetings at the drivers entering the ordering line. He has a brief, loud conversation with each about salsa or just to say hello before the vehicle’s window is raised and the truck moves into place. Quintanilla chuckles and continues expounding on life, food, and customers.
If he doesn’t have what you want, he’ll go to his home nearby to get it and make your dish, even if it’s not on the menu. Once he changed a customer’s flat tire for free, before the driver had even noticed it was flat. During deer-hunting season over the past three years, a couple of wealthy sport hunters have swung by, he tells me. Every time they visit, they try to leave a triple-digit tip. Quintanilla refuses. “A tip doesn’t make me happy,” says the owner. “What makes me happy is my customers coming this way. A man will judge you, see what kind of person you are.”
Avila’s got its start thirty years ago in “a little bitty old place” across the street from the current location. The restaurant today remains humble—it’s a dilapidated single-wide trailer with a creaking deck. At the beginning, Quintanilla also owned a trucking company and drove one of the trucks himself. In 1991, he decided to sell the business for an easier life of occasionally driving trucks for someone else. When he was laid off, he dedicated his time to breakfast and barbecue. No secrets, and no thermometers. Like secrets, “temperatures are for a–holes,” Quintanilla says with a wry smile. He watches the mesquite coals, which he burns down from wood. If he sees the coals dim, he adds more. After honing his technique for thirty years, watching is all he needs to do.
Still in recollecting mode, Quintanilla tells me about the day when six black FBI Suburbans with darkly tinted windows rolled into his parking lot. Federal officers aren’t an uncommon presence in this small community. Avila’s is five miles from the nearest U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, and an FBI office is an hour away in Laredo. An agent stepped out of one of the SUVs and requested thirty plates for the thirty officers, with one criterion: they would eat only the best food Avila’s had on hand. Quintanilla couldn’t help but laugh and point to the end of the line. “See that guy standing back there? He’s a poor son of a b—-, just like me. What he’s going to eat, your boys are going to eat.” The agent, stunned at such bluntness, received his plates, paid, and left. The next morning, he came back—to apologize to Quintanilla for his rudeness. The pitmaster shrugged it off. “Ain’t nobody different.”
As far as Quintanilla is concerned, the secret to a happy life is being good to yourself and others. This philosophy might seem hackneyed, but it manifests in exquisite eats. First, there is the lean beef-cheek barbacoa served in rolled flour tortillas sourced from a tortilleria in Weslaco. (Quintanilla prioritizes supporting other small, local businesses.) The tortillas are flaky and nearly translucent, but sturdy—classic South Texas tortillas. For breakfast, barbacoa is the thing to order here. The earthy-hued meat lacks the fat found in most restaurants’ preparations, but there’s enough to give off a shimmer. Quintanilla’s sisters-in-law take the beef cheeks through a three-day process, Quintanilla explains. Afterward, they salt each four-hundred-pound batch in five-gallon buckets.
Another highlight is the machacado (shredded salt-dried beef) and eggs. This taco is tender and moist with a pleasant kick. Alongside the barbacoa, it makes for an excellent South Texas breakfast. A friend and I enjoyed our meal shortly after 8 a.m. By the time my conversation with Quintanilla was winding down at 10:30 a.m., the barbecue was ready to come off the smokers. And it was outstanding.
The fajitas are served in a styrofoam clamshell to-go container. They’re sliced thick with an electric knife and show just the faintest hint of pink. The skirt steak is juicy and slightly chewy, as it should be. The salt in the seasoning brings out the beefy flavor. Quintanilla explains that his beef isn’t tough and rubbery because he allows the meat to rest and relax. Eating it is relaxing too.
Served alongside the fajitas are the mollejas (sweetbreads), or cattle thymus glands. The thick slices are golden brown on the top and bottom. The edges almost reach the delicate charred stage, while the unevenly shaped sections of the interior are a creamy white with a pink halo. The finish has subtle hints of funk that remind you of the sweetbread’s offal provenance. Meanwhile, the taste is nothing like the overwhelming smokiness of some Central Texas barbecue, which can crowd out the mollejas’ unique flavor. These mollejas blew me away, and I’ll be hard-pressed to find another version of the dish that can match the quality of Joe Quintanilla’s.
The next day, my traveling companion and I headed to McAllen and drove right past Avila’s BBQ. The line of trucks that was forming early was a tempting lure, but we were on a tight itinerary. Next time, I won’t be.
509 N. Smith Avenue, Hebbronville
Hours: Friday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.