John Bates couldn’t find the South Texas flavors that reminded him of home. But now, the Austin pitmaster, who grew up in Corpus Christi and gained renown when his restaurant, InterStellar Barbecue, was named a 2021 Texas Monthly Top 50 joint, is dishing out those hometown flavors with his new Yellow Bell Tacos trailer.

“By getting closer to my heart and doing things that I really, really loved, we found a lot of success,” he says. “Tacos are kind of the same thing for me as well.” If Interstellar’s consistently long lines are any indication, Yellow Bell will follow suit. But customers will have to locate the trailer first.

The seven-month-old mobile operation is tucked behind Austin Beerworks’ taproom in Sprinkle Valley. The location, in the city’s far east, is a favorite with disc golfers and sits on open farmland. Signs warn of snakes. Signs also point to the Yellow Bell Tacos trailer, which is out the back door and to the right of the rear sidewalk and across from a covered pavilion. Even the signs aren’t enough to get you there quickly and easily, but that’s okay.

Once you’re at the ordering window, you can choose from an array of South Texas favorites filled with mostly smoked meats, including longaniza (aged chorizo) and chicken thighs topped with fried chicken skin. Then there are the crispy dogs. All-beef Hebrew National frankfurters are sliced open, stuffed with cheese, rolled in a corn tortilla, and deep-fried. Served two to a basket, the dogs are delightfully messy after being topped with cilantro-speckled avocado salsa, mild, creamy jalapeño salsa, and a shot of pico de gallo. The tortillas are crunchy but not brittle, and the hot dogs have an audible snap.

Crispy dogs at Yellow Bell Tacos in Austin.
Crispy dogs at Yellow Bell Tacos, in Austin. Photograph by José R. Ralat

These are a dish from Bates’s youth. The mother of a friend would make them as a treat when Bates went over to hang out. Until recently, though, he didn’t know crispy dogs were a signature San Antonio dish. “When you learn a little bit more about their history, you know, it’s kind of a niche in family culture,” he says. “I think [they’re] worth serving and worth sharing.” 

Again and again, it comes back to family. Even the name Yellow Bell, referencing the flowers that grow in and around Corpus Christi, was workshopped by Bates with his wife and kids. It’s through bonds, memories, and the versatility of the tortilla that Bates has sussed out a smoky, comfort-food-driven manifestation for the food of his family gatherings. There were smoked meats, enchilada plate after enchilada plate, homemade salsas, grilled meats, pots of soupy frijoles charros, refried beans (potently whipped with garlic at Yellow Bell), and never-ending bowls of rice. And, of course, there were homemade flour tortillas. “No one ever asked if we wanted corn tortillas growing up,” Bates says. It’s no surprise, then, that all of Yellow Bell’s flour tortillas are hand-rolled in the traditional manner. 

This is a familiar story for many South Texans who grew up attending backyard barbecues, carne asadas, and Sunday barbacoa meals with extended relatives. While some people may categorize it as Tex-Mex barbecue, better terms might be Tejano barbecue or South Texas–style cooking, which do more to honor the regional tradition. 

“A lot of what we do nowadays is about family,” Bates says. “It’s the same thing with the barbecue restaurant.” He’s focused on maintaining a warm, supportive environment in the kitchen and outside of it. Bates wants his restaurants to be places where his nieces and nephews can make unannounced visits from San Antonio and walk into the kitchen to say hello. Bates doesn’t want employees to drag themselves in with worry everyday, just to punch the clock and run through a routine. This ethos spills over into the food. 

You can taste it in the slightly gamy smoked lamb and rich, crispy brisket chopped into ribbons in sturdy, fragrant nixtamalized corn tortillas. The corn tortillas are important to Bates. He admits he could have learned to nixtamalize corn and put in more time and labor, but he knew his limits. So he searched for a provider. Ultimately, he chose San Antonio Colonial Tortilla Factory, owned and operated by Raymundo Escamilla and family. Bates liked the all-corn tortillas’ thickness, their plasticity, and the absence of the sugary, metallic flavors prevalent in masa harina.

Most important, though, he liked the smell. “Honestly, one of the biggest things was when we walked in the building, [we were] just hit with that smell of the corn being nixtamalized,” he recalls. The corn tortillas connect South Texas, Austin, and Mexico.

That San Antonio Colonial is a multigenerational tortilleria with the next family members in line to take over also impressed Bates. It deepened Yellow Bell’s commitment to family. “All these things kind of come together to represent the family meal,” Bates says. “For me, that’s a lot of what the inspiration is.”

Yellow Bell Tacos at Austin Beerworks
10300 Springdale Road, Austin
Hours: Monday–Tuesday 4–9, Wednesday–Saturday noon–9, Sunday noon–7