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Follow the Smoke, South Texas BBQ

Working barbecue magic in the pits at Huntsville's New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo by John DeMers)

Hinzie's Bar-B-Que (Wharton)

Address: 8229 U.S. Highway 59, Wharton
Phone: (979) 532-2710
Established: 1970
Owner: Michael Hinze
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork spareribs, smoked sausage, chicken, fried catfish, chicken-fried steak, chicken tenders, bacon-onion potatoes, meringue pies
Payment: credit cards

Mike Hinze is the undisputed pit boss, with all memories of side dishes and meringue pies fading inside the tumultuous swirls of smoke.

Mike uses two rotisseries fired with pecan wood, a Southern Pride for his brisket and an Ole Hickory for his pork spareribs, chicken and just about everything else. Cooking is done in these overnight, with finished meats moving into a couple of 20-foot homemade barrel smokers blessed with the least expected of features—double drawers that allow Mike and his guys to reach meat without sticking their faces deep into the smoke.

Mike’s 16-hour brisket is king on Hinze’s menu, dry-rubbed at the start and basted with a mop sauce near the end. Ribs and sausage come in next, followed by chicken, pork roast, ham, and turkey. Not content with standard-issue potato salad, coleslaw and beans, Hinze’s offers no fewer than 20 sides. The trinity is among them, of course, but so are bacon-onion potatoes and pinto beans, plus fried okra, several other fried favorites and something called “okra gumbo”—more like Creole okra and tomatoes. 
For dessert, Mike and his sisters have become such masters of meringue that they’re the only workers allowed to go near Hinze’s coconut, lemon or chocolate pies. The fillings are amazingly light and flavorful, especially the coconut, and the meringues are lighter still.

Aunt Jo's BBQ (Victoria)

Address: 5303 U.S. Highway 77 South, Victoria
Phone: (361) 578-5900
Established: 2007
Owners: The Joshua family
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork spareribs, potato salad, pumpkin bread, mini pecan pies
Payment: credit cards

Aunt Jo’s mesquite smoke tastes especially good on the thick slices of fall-apart brisket that’s cooked 12 to 14 hours, but it also delivers a knockout punch to the place’s tender pork spareribs. There are separate dry rubs for seasoning the beef, pork, or poultry before it goes into the smoker, plus a wonderful, distinctive sauce for the eating afterward. It’s sweet and tangy when you first taste it, but it leaves a warm trail of black pepper on your tongue that’s equally pleasurable with beef and pork.

Side dishes travel no farther than traditional potato salad, coleslaw and beans, even though the onions provide a happy jolt. Instead of simply and typically raw, they are lightly pickled. Dessert choices include mini pecan pies baked by Monroe’s sister and pumpkin bread baked by his mother. “We’re keeping it very simple,” he says.

The Bar-B-Q Man (Corpus Christi)

Address: 4931 Interstate 37 South, Corpus Christi 
Phone: (361) 888-4248 
Established: 1977 
Owner: Malcolm DeShields 
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork spareribs, smoked turkey, potato salad, waffle cones with ice cream and praline sauce 
Payment: credit cards

Malcolm DeShields took over The Barbecue Man operation years before buying the restaurant from his father. The place seats up to 800 at a time and often does, though Malcolm stresses he likes things better with a little more breathing room. Meats are smoked in Southern Pride rotisseries, what Malcolm refers to as “wood-burning convection ovens,” essentially basting themselves as they turn in a sealed chamber.

Most popular meats here are the brisket and sausage, though the cafeteria line at The Bar-B-Q Man also entices with smoked chicken on the bone and smoked turkey breast off of it, along with tender and savory pork spareribs.

Following his father’s lead, Malcolm offers only four side dishes: the trinity of M.O.’s recipes for potato salad, coleslaw and pinto beans, plus green beans. Favorite desserts include a waffle cone bearing vanilla ice cream and a topping of gooey-good praline sauce made up the road in Sinton.

Smokey's Bar-B-Q (San Juan)

Address: 608 W. Highway 83, San Juan
Phone: (956) 702-4127
Established: 1991
Owner: Juan Salinas
Best Bites: beef brisket, grilled fajitas, 
barbecued chicken, Spanish rice, charro beans, pecan pie 
Payment: credit cards

As any pit boss will tell you, barbecue is the opposite of fast food. And, as Juan Salinas learned long ago, the key to doing barbecue his way was to break difficult and complex tasks requiring a master’s touch into brief steps that virtually no one could mess up. This way, he says, he can “duplicate” himself, whether that means consistent food cooked and served at multiple locations or simply taking a day off. Surely the most controversial of these moves is the way Smokey’s cooks brisket...usually the litmus test for the “low and slow” crowd that glares at a rotisserie with a thermostat as though it’s an instrument of the devil.

 “My brisket is 80 to 85 percent broiled in a gas oven, then finished the last 15 to 20 percent in the smoker for flavor,” says Juan. Each brisket spending about four hours in the oven and up to 2 more in the smoker. For that last step, a purist in his own fashion, Juan goes along with the local love of mesquite, using it for smoke even when he’s knocking out 800 to 1,000 plates at a time for the school and church fund-raisers that remain a backbone of his business.

Smokey’s serves beef fajitas in amounts right behind brisket, and barbecued chicken not too far behind that. Side dishes include items expected in barbecue joints all over Texas, but built out with the Spanish rice and charro beans demanded by customers in the Valley. “This is the Valley,” he says, “and you just gotta have ’em.” Having been in business since 1991, Salinas has known a lot of his best customers from the days they came in with their parents. “They started out as kids 16 years ago, eating a chopped beef sandwich for 99 cents,” Juan says. “Now they’re married and bringing kids of their own.”


Joe Cotten's (Robstown)

Address: 607 Highway 77 South, Robstown    
Phone: (361) 767-9973
Established: 1947
Owner: Cecil Cotten
Best Bites: beef brisket, chopped beef 
sandwich, homemade sausage, potato salad
Payment: credit cards

To hear his son tell it, Joe Cotten got into the barbecue business 60-plus years ago only to keep his clientele drinking and gambling.

“Back then,” Cecil Cotten explains, “gambling was just a misdemeanor, so you paid a fine and went on about your business. My daddy always wanted to get rich without working for a living. That’s why he got out of oil and opened a beer joint. He started cooking cuz he noticed guys going home to have supper with their wives. This way he could keep ’em there all night, spending money. But then, they made gambling a federal offense, and my daddy didn’t want to go to prison.”The gambling went. The barbecue stayed.

These days, Joe Cotten’s does all its meats on a series of huge, silver Southern Pride rotisseries. Brisket, sausage, pork ribs and sliced pork are the meats, and mesquite is the wood. In a hive of interconnected little rooms, the kitchen not only turns out its few homemade sides but produces Joe Cotten’s own sausage each day.

Meals are assembled in sequence between the smoker and the dining room, with each meat order on paper set in its own shallow tray, and all trays for a particular table stacked atop a deeper tray holding all the sides. Waiters go forth into the dining room carrying, for the larger tables at least, a barbecue high-rise.

One of the strangest touches—one that, this being Texas, has become a beloved signature—is Joe Cotten’s barbecue sauce. It almost isn’t. Instead of the smoother, sweeter, thicker renditions that have become the norm, Joe’s sauce is, well, chunky like Tex-Mex salsa. It’s full of rough-chopped tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, plus mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Cecil is proud to tell you, though, that the real secret is the “base” his father took to using, which, of course, his successors use faithfully to this day.

“It’s drippings from the brisket,” he reveals. “You gotta have some kinda base to put the other stuff in. My daddy said it took him eight years to get this sauce the way he wanted it.” Some people don’t like our sauce, but I always tell them to bring their own if they want to. Some of our customers been comin’ here so long—some of ’em 50 years—that they think this is their home anyway.”

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From the March 2009 issue.

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