The slow-cooking tradition of Joel's Bar-B-Q outside Flatonia.
Joel's Bar-B-Q covers I-10 at Flatonia with a smoky fog that could only come from a real Texas barbecue pit. You may not immediately smell the mesquite smoke, but as soon as you see the little barbecue stand on the north side of the highway between Luling and Schulenburg, you know it's there.
Looking down from the frenzied pace of the interstate, the little shack with the large Texas flag flapping in the breeze could only be a barbecue joint. With the big rigs lined up in the dirt parking sometimes three or four deep, you know that something on the menu has to be great. The long-haul drivers have a couple of dozen places where they can stop to eat between Houston and San Antonio. They know where the best places are, and many of them choose Joel's.
"Oh, we get a lot of truckers," says Joycelyn Kubesh, the owner of Joel's. "They've been real good to us over the years," she says with a slight Southern accent that belies her Mississippi roots. "They don't like to stop if the food's not good and the service isn't quick."
At Joel's they get both. "If you start with good meat you'll have good food," she says matter-of-factly. The brisket and chopped beef are tasty, the chicken is juicy without being greasy, the turkey legs have a rich, smoky flavor, and she makes a really good beef jerky and dry sausage, but it is the smoked sausage that is outstanding.
"In our area of the state there is a lot of good German sausage," Joycelyn says. "You find a good one and expand on it." Joel's sausage is a great blend of spices with a hearty, meaty flavor. Joycelyn doesn't add any fillers or additives. "I want it to taste like meat," she says.
Joel's Bar-B-Q started as a weekend business on wheels in October 1978. Joycelyn and her then-husband Joel Kubesh parked their smoker wherever they thought they could attract a crowd. A year or so later they set up a one-room temporary building next to the Conoco station at I-10 and FM 609. Twenty years later that temporary building is the front kitchen of a patchwork building.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Joycelyn says with a laugh. "We needed something so we built it." The business didn't have much money, but they had a large stack of wood. Add a little concrete to the shack and they had the walls to the dining room. "Then we build a shelter over it to get out of the rain and moved the pit under the roof," she says.
In some indefinable way the piecemeal construction of the building adds to the character of the food. The rustic building and the slamming of the old screen door somehow make the smoked meats a little more flavorful. Several years ago the insides of the kitchen were nearly destroyed by a fire. Within a few days the restaurant was up and running again in the Dairy Queen-like building next door. "It just wasn't the same," Joycelyn says. "This place is just the way a barbecue place is supposed to be."
After the fire she couldn't wait to get back into the crowded old building with its drafty windows and multilevel floors. Even though the other building stands vacant she has no intention of moving back. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
In an occupation dominated by men, this feisty woman takes on the business of smoking meat with a passion. She closed the gas station next door at the end of 1999, because she "just wanted to be in the barbecue business." She says she might turn it into a meat market and gift shop, but, right now, she prefers to concentrate on offering her customers good food.
All of the side dishes, everything except the cookies and pies, are made from scratch at the restaurant. "The recipes have been a trial-and-error thing," she says. "We find something we like and stick with it." The desserts are made by Gladys' Cookie Shop, run by a local lady who Joycelyn is sure everyone has heard of since Gladys appeared on the Johnny Carson show.
"The people are the best part of a job like this," Joycelyn says with her trademark laugh that makes everyone feel like a friend. "It's like going to the movies. Everybody is different and unique, and most are not half bad if you give 'em half a chance."
One person she doesn't have much use for is a guy in a town closer to Houston using the same name on his barbecue joint. "I want people to know that the other place is not affiliated with us in any way," Joycelyn says. She is so emphatic about proclaiming that this is the original Joel's that she put a sign on the front of the building letting everybody know that this is the "real" Joel's Bar-B-Q. She says the sign went up right after a guy stopped by with a soggy sandwich that he claimed had been purchased at the other place and asked for his money back.
Kubesh's Joel's Bar-B-Q is at exit 661 off I-10 at Flatonia. The place with the picnic benches out front and the smoker going in the back is open seven days a week, 8am-10pm, and until 11pm on Friday nights. To order the jerky or dry sausage sent by mail, call 361/865-2454.
Coming up ...
Impressions of Africa, presented by the Duncan-McAshan Visual Arts Center in Ingram, exhibits the works of three African artists showing the uniqueness and struggles of the continent, through Feb. 3. 830/367-5121 or www.hcaf.com.
John Gutmann: Culture Shock at the San Antonio Museum of Art displays the photographs of an exile from Nazi Germany who traveled the U.S. as a photojournalist in the 1930s with a unique perspective on American life, through Feb. 25. 210/978-8100 or www.sa-museum.org.
Gourmet Raft Trip down the Rio Grande and through the Big Bend National Park, where the bluebonnets have already started to bloom, takes guests on a three-day journey past spectacular scenery with meals prepared by chef François Maeder of Crumpets Restaurant in San Antonio. Feb. 9-11, March 23-25, April 6-8. 210/821-5600.