Pals since high school, Jeff Turner and Kelly Gartzke started Chief's BBQ & Grill four years ago. Turner's parents run a popular barbecue restaurant back home in Boyd (30 miles northwest of Fort Worth), a town of about a thousand. Both Turner and Gartzke – by virtue of hanging around each other's parents' places – come with a pedigree. Gartzke was the first to make the move to Austin, moving into his sister's house to attend UT, and he eventually convinced Turner to follow. There were a couple of times Gartzke almost gave up. He was cleaning out the remains of what used to be a barbecue place that had previously occupied Chief's BBQ's new location, a spot he had been lusting after for well more than a year. The renters had locked up the place fully stocked, and the power had been cut off for two months when he and Turner got the lease. "I was in a hazmat suit with a respirator, and I could barely cope," Gartzke recalls.
"I was running our Lago Vista restaurant single-handed, and Kelly would call me up complaining that he didn't think he could finish it," Turner says. But after lots of scrubbing, 21 gallons of bleach, several cases of disinfectant, and a few Dumpster loads, it was squeaky clean and ready to occupy.
They were able to get into a small house out by Lago Vista to open their first version of Chief's: an old-school, seat-of-their-pants operation with no fryer or Vent-A-Hood. The restaurant's moniker is based on a nickname Turner acquired in high school. When it looked like they could get the coveted spot on South First, they scraped together their cash, maxed out their credit cards, and sold an inherited house to secure the funding they needed. "We had been stockpiling restaurant equipment for a while; some of the stuff we needed for our catering gigs, and now we're collecting for a second location, hopefully in Southwest Austin," Gartzke says.
"Our menu is based on my folks' place in Boyd," Turner says. "All of the recipes are tried and true, but we've added some twists of our own. Kelly's family has contributed some dishes, too." The excellently balanced barbecue sauce is an example. Turner's mom invented it in 1983, and it's made from scratch, using 15 ingredients. "There is this guy from Dallas that comes through Boyd on his way to deer hunt every season," Turner says. "Through the years, he's guessed 11 of the ingredients and even bought a batch and sent it to A&M for spectral analysis. He still doesn't know what's in it."
"And never will," adds Gartzke. "We sell the sauce and the spice rub, in whatever quantity you want, but you aren't getting a recipe with it."
The staff at Chief's seems very competent and friendly. Most started out as acquaintances and have ended up being like part of the family, "except for the bad ones," Gartzke says. "We get rid of the bad ones." The place is small but does a steady, thriving business. "We have a great group of regulars at Chief's. Most of the people are from the immediate neighborhood, and even when they move away, they still come back for our food."
The barbecue at Chief's is smoked in one of two smokers – one that can handle 400 pounds, the other holding 700 pounds. They smoke over half oak and half mesquite and use just their own rub to season the meats – no basting here.
We tried the pork ribs ($8.99/pound, $8.19 plate) and found them to be wonderful: a nice spicy, smoky crust with moist, tender meat just starting to pull off of the bone. These are tasty ribs. The brisket ($8.99/pound, $7.19 plate) has a generous smoke ring, with a tender texture and just the right amount of fat. The sausage ($7.99/pound, $6.99 plate) is well-smoked, with a nice snappy casing, medium texture, and a zippy finish.
We've yet to sample the turkey or the ham (both $8.99/pound, $8.19 plate) or the barbecue bologna ($7.99/pound, $6.99 plate; I know it sounds weird, but they claim it's fantastic). Sides are fine: The slaw is crispy and lightly dressed, the beans rich and savory, the spud salad chunky and half-mustardy. They also have fried okra, corn on the cob, fries, beer-battered fries (really good dipped in mustard), baked potatoes, stuffed potatoes, and excellent hand-breaded thick onion rings. The sauce, as mentioned earlier, is well-balanced between vinegar and sweet, a garlicky note, with flecks of herbs visible, black pepper, and (I could be wrong here) a little celery salt. It complements the smoked meats.
Chief's has a burger that is well worth the cholesterol spike: the double meat cheese with grilled onions and grilled jalapeños ($4.79). This is a true belly buster of a burger, with that nice caramelized griddle flavor, kissed with a little meat grease; do not plan any strenuous activity for the next hour or so.
In the same vein is the Barney ($5.19), a burger bun enclosing a double chicken-fried steak with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, and grilled jalapeños. I never thought the double-double could be topped, but the Barney just shreds it on the cholesterol scale.
A menu item intrigued us: Joe Bob's Beans ($3.99). As it turns out, there was a regular at the Boyd location named Joe Bob who had to have a heart bypass operation. His doctor forbade him from eating the good stuff, so he took to ordering a large bowl of beans with chopped brisket and sausage, topped with a little barbecue sauce, chiles, cheese, and onions. The rest of the diners started asking for a bowl of beans like Joe Bob's, and a dish was born.
Turner and Gartzke still are mulling over which dishes they'll offer for this, their first time as food vendors at the Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. They know they'll have their barbecue and the basic sides, some wraps and sandwiches, and they just might throw in a surprise or two. When you see their booth, the wise choice would be to pay them a visit.
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