I don’t think barbecue reaches its full potential until it’s served in a tortilla. I make this declaration as a bit of a joke, knowing it rankles a certain subsection of smoked-meat aficionados. But it is a fact that the consumption of Texas barbecue as tacos is a decades-long tradition. What once started as a practice at backyard gatherings has evolved to appear on menus of restaurants like Zavala’s Barbecue in Grand Prairie and El Sancho Tex Mex BBQ in Mission. Texans put everything in tortillas, so why not pair the state’s signature cuisines for a handheld treat?
Pitmasters and taqueros continue to innovate on the art form of the barbecue taco, taking it to the new heights I discovered at James & Jon Barbeque and the Taste of Texas Tex-Mex BBQ, both in Beaumont. The two restaurants couldn’t be more different, yet each offers fine examples of the barbecue taco.
Tony Salazar established the Taste of Texas Tex-Mex BBQ in 2017. It started as a side gig for the now-41-year-old Port Arthur native. Back then, Salazar was a welder, a trade he practiced full time for twenty years and in which he now only dabbles, thanks to the success of his business. In a bittersweet way, the COVID-19 pandemic helped. “We became in demand for our catering,” he says. That boon allowed him to go all in with the assistance of his son and co-pitmaster, 16-year-old “Little Tony.” The younger Salazar was involved from the start and eager to work. Now the pair, along with employee Josh Taylor, have a trailer with a detached offset smoker that burns a mixture of pecan and post oak. And Little Tony is the brisket minder.
When the boy started out, it was just to make money during summers and weekends. Now he excitedly wedges himself against his father while the elder Salazar unwraps a brisket, saying, “Cut it. Let me see.” The young man then considers the quality of the brisket and what needs tweaking. “I might try this next time,” he says. It’s Salazar’s proudest moment. “I couldn’t do what I do without my son being there,” he says. “Without him helping me the way that he does, it really wouldn’t be possible. I think he can outsmoke most grown men.” It’s a bold claim, but it might very well be accurate. The broad slice of brisket is juicy, with a nice jiggle to it. The bark is assertive, due to a rub of Bolner’s Fiesta brand fajita seasoning and coarse-ground black pepper, but it doesn’t interfere with the wonderfully smoked beef served in a fresh flour tortilla. The dab of guacamole and shot of chopped red onions and cilantro add creaminess and a pop of brightness, respectively.
The Taste of Texas’s carnitas are smoked over the same pecan–post oak combination before getting a bath in a bubbling pot of rendered lard. The meat is served on a corn tortilla that skews sweet but holds up to the shredded pork’s weight and sweet-and-salty flavor. The carnitas are also finished with guacamole and pico de gallo. Rounding out a trifecta of barbecue tacos is the splendid smoked beef cheek, which glistens with the right amount of fat. It’s an instant favorite of mine.
At first, the beef cheek was hard to sell to the restaurant’s customers. “The Mexicanos loved it,” Salazar says. But there were a lot of “no, thank you”s from others. “It took a minute for people to gravitate to that,” he continues. One customer, in particular, started off ardently against it. “Oh, no, I hate barbacoa,” she told Salazar. He offered her a sample. She accepted and immediately ordered six tacos. The woman returned for a second order. “She got eight more to go because that’s how much she loved them,” Salazar says. “She wanted to bring them to her family so they could try them.” Such is the transformative power of tacos. Neither beef cheek nor barbacoa is prevalent in Beaumont, whose Hispanic community clocks in at 18.9 percent of the city’s population. But folks eventually came around to Salazar’s vision.
Boudin is everywhere, though, including on the Taste of Texas’s menu. I was disappointed to learn it’s not served in a taco. Rather, the single link is cut on the bias, exposing a loose, rich filling of rice and meat in a shimmery casing with a good snap.
Boudin is also on the menu at James & Jon Barbeque, which opened last year and sits at the corner of an auto mechanic shop’s lot. Inside the auto shop are two classic Mercedes-Benzes parked behind the windowpaned garage doors. The building is painted an innocuous off-white and includes a bench under a canopy near a door. It’s a good place to spread out food for eating.
I dove into a Snooze Button, a burrito jammed with two scrambled eggs, hickory-smoked brisket and pulled pork, potatoes, and cheese, and enveloped in a large flour tortilla and a griddled cheese costra. It’s a decadent, tasty, nap-inducing beast. The costra tacos, which are smaller but still hefty, are called Catnips. They evolved from the home kitchens of owners Jon Couzens and his father-in-law, James Filipich. Sometimes patrons who are unfamiliar with the tacos, in which discs of griddled cheese replace the tortillas, are confused. “One guy just walked up to me and flat-out asked, ‘Were you high when you create these?’ ” Couzens says with a chuckle. Costras, which started as post-nightclub meals in Mexico City before moving into the U.S. via McAllen and then Dallas, are, thankfully, done well in Beaumont.
I passed on the Catnip breakfast tacos and opted for more barbecue-focused ones. One of my favorites included boudin folded in with scrambled eggs and cheese. It was the first time I’d tried this combination in a taco, and it was a welcome representation of the region. Couzens told me he uses a supermarket-grade pre-shredded Mexican-style blend, usually called a fiesta blend. It’s a product for which I have a soft spot despite its down-market connotations. The picadillo taco had the classic Mexican ground beef preparation in a net of eggs and cheese and was topped with a lacrosse basket’s worth of chunky guacamole. The mashed avocado got everywhere—on my nose, my cheek, my chin. My only reaction was to laugh in delight. In another taco, the pork belly had crunchy bits that contrasted with the meat’s tenderness and was covered in that same fiesta-blend cheese. While it might seem like sacrilege to mix a high-end ingredient like pork belly with pre-shredded cheese, it turned out outstanding. This kind of homey, unpretentious combination is the foundation of James & Jon Barbeque, as it is at any good taco operation.