Every three years or so, when Texas Monthly’s Top 50 BBQ places in Texas comes out, my passion to visit all 50 is revived. I yearn for the smell of smoke. I salivate envisioning ribs and brisket and sausages. I thrill over the thought of discovering something new.
Yet the best I could do in a single year was only about 20 on the list. Which I finally concluded was alright since I didn’t always agree with TM’s choices.
One of the fascinating things about the list, however, is that within the top 5—and sometimes sitting at #1—were establishments in small and even obscure locations. For example, both Cooper’s in Mason, TX and Snow’s in Lexington have been named #1. (Quick! Where is Lexington? Can you identify what region of Texas it’s in?)
So if the allure of great BBQ is associated with the adventure of discovery, I’ve got something for the next Top 50 list.
Even though I have an insatiable love for BBQ, I do not claim the title of “connoisseur”. That individual would have to make judgments as to what’s good, better, or best. I can make no such judgements.
Among BBQ aficionados, there are the endless debates surrounding the issues of sauce/no sauce, sides/no sides, post oak/mesquite, coarse grind/fine grind (as in texture of the sausage links), and fat or lean brisket. I suppose battle lines could be drawn over whether pits are required or if smokers suffice.
I do not participate in these discussions which to me are pointless. They are pointless because when it comes to BBQ, I pretty much take it as I find it. And am always glad to find it!
I originally hail from Oklahoma and am tolerably proud of my heritage. One of Oklahoma’s favorite sons was Will Rogers who said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Now, I don’t think Will necessarily meant all men were equally likable. He may have meant that he was discriminating about the men he chose to meet.
My point is I never had bad BBQ. Not that there isn’t any. I just have a very broad taste palate for all things smoked, and therefore am not a connoisseur.
Thus I turn to my recent experience at Hell Fighter’s South Texas Smoke located just 30 miles from the heart of San Antonio going west on highway 90. That’s about the distance to New Braunfels, but you don’t have to fight the traffic on 35 to get there.
The journey will carry you through Castroville another 7 miles to a stop known as Dunlay, Texas at the junction of Farm Road 4643.
Raymond Gibson just opened the place recently about half-way between Hondo and Castroville after operating Hell Fighters Kitchen in the same location since 2013. Hell Fighters Kitchen is a remote-site catering service that established itself as a go-to caterer in the Eagle Ford oil fields.
With professional, culinary trained chefs already on board, Gibson reached out to Jordan Crain to become his Pit Master. Though only 30, Crane has 15 years’ experience in the food business. While having a grasp and understanding of proven techniques, Crain approaches the role of Pit Master creatively, developing his own techniques in a quest for perfection.
The initial goal is to sell 300 pounds of cooked meat daily. From my observation, this should be achieved very quickly!
Crain uses only mesquite wood not simply because of its abundance in the area but because it allows him to maintain an even heat with prolific smoke over an extended time period. Hell Fighters’ beef rib and brisket cook low and slow for 10-12 hours. And the results are evidenced by a smoke ring well over an inch thick!
The history of BBQ has to do with the ability to make cheap pieces of meat palatable. Gibson and Crain do not subscribe to tradition. They locally source their meat whenever possible using only 30-day aged choice or prime beef and the highest marbled pork on the market. The sausage is from Harwood, TX and is made using the Akaushi line of prime beef, a Japanese breed.
The menu features Black Angus Choice Brisket, Citrus and Herb Brined Turkey, and Tamale Stuffed Bandera Quail, giving this smoke shack an upscale product line.
Crain provided a sampler plate with generous portions. Everything was superior in taste, texture, and tenderness, but my hands down favorite was the Ribeye Cut Giant Beef Rib!
I remember clearly the first time I saw the smoked pork chop at Cooper’s in Mason. At the time, it was unique in all the BBQ universe and provided a memorable dining experience unlike any other.
That’s how I feel about the beef rib at Hell Fighters. I’ve noted beef ribs popping up on menus here and there but never took them seriously. I think I assumed they could never match the pork variety for tenderness and juiciness. That’s definitely not the case here!
I loved it so much I ordered one for the road!
And then there are the sauces which were developed by chefs Mike Beltran and David Trevino: Mango Habanero, Guajillo BBQ, and Bourbon Scorched Brown Sugar Sauce. I happen to be a purist. I don’t want anything covering up or taking away from the smoked flavor of the meat, so I usually by-pass the sauce. However, when you’re doing a review, you have to make some compromises. I somewhat ashamedly confess I caved and dipped my meat morsels in all three!
The Mango Habanero has a little honey mustard thing going on with not much heat as the habanero tag would suggest. Nevertheless, it livened up the turkey and pulled pork nicely.
My fav was the Guajillo BBQ sauce with a hint of smokiness all its own without much sweetness, while the sweet sauce had a hint of bourbon-y tang for balance.
Sides? Sure they’ve got ‘em. But I’m a no sides kinda guy. Even a reviewer has to maintain some standards.
Still the mac and cheese, pinto beans, and roasted jalapeno cream corn might be worth exploring on another day.
Hell Fighters currently opens at 10 AM Wednesday-Sunday and, like other sought after BBQ places, will close when the meat is sold! On a slow day, you may find them serving until 5 PM. By spring/summer, Gibson anticipates extending the hours to include Tuesdays and remain open til 7 if the food lasts.
For more information contact Raymond Gibson at 210-705-9218 or visit Hell Fighters Kitchen on facebook.