Seguin, Texas is a small agricultural community, one of the oldest in Texas, populated by a melting pot of Anglo settlers, local Tejanos, African Americans and German immigrants who thrived for decades on cotton and cattle. This is where, after years working in Fredericksburg restaurants and as as a butcher and sausage maker in Luling, Raul Davila opened shop in an old abandoned school house in 1959. Davila’s BBQrestaurant opened for business with no decorations and no cash register, with the Davila family making their home in the two back rooms of the building. Sixty years and three generations later, Davila’s is still going strong.
Third generation pitmaster Adrian Davila leads the restaurant and continues the family legacy with recipes passed down through generations. He celebrates culinary traditions of Mexico and Texas, infusing brisket, ribs and sausage with Mexican flavors and ingredients. His signature dishes, such as mesquite smoked lamb ribs, trace their culinary roots back to the vaqueros — cowboys who once roamed the plains of Texas and Mexico and developed a unique style of cooking that adapted to their nomadic lifestyle. Davila considers them as the first pitmasters since they dug actual pits to slow-smoke whole animals while herding their cattle.
Davila is a lively, friendly man with a glimmer in his eye and a permanent smile, who greets regular customers like family and treats newcomers as long-time friends. His father, Edward, helps around where needed — at the register, stoking the pits or receiving orders. Davila explains that his dad hardly ever leaves the restaurant. “He considers it his home, since he grew up in the back of the original building,” he says. “Even after we moved to the new location, it is still home.” The passion and pride for his family’s legacy is palpable from the first exchange.
My grandfather’s techniques come from learning sausage making, meat processing and meat smoking at a young age,” says Davila. “In his earlier years he worked as a butcher at the local meat processing plant where he learned to break down whole animals into various cuts of meat, forming sausages and smoking briskets, and to cook the meats that require slower cooking to break down the muscle, such as the shoulder clod and brisket.”
Davila says the vaquero cooking style would have been a natural influence on his grandfather because of his upbringing and the cooking with which he was raised. “They had a resourceful way of using all cuts of meats such as sweetbreads, beef tongue, and tripas (tripe),” he says. These would have been grilled or smoked, put inside a tortilla, topped with a freshly charred salsa, and served with rice and beans.
He shows me around the counter to the back where the pits smolder 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The room is blackened from smoke from floor to ceiling, and the heat makes it difficult to linger for long. I can’t imagine how that feels like at the peak of summer. The original pit, built by his grandfather, is made from simple cinder blocks and uses bakery racks that are wheeled in and out as needed, with brisket and sausage laid on metal trays. This pit is for an indirect style of smoking and can cook 80-90 briskets or 1,500 sausages at one time.
“The lazy Susan-style pit allows us to walk the line between direct and indirect smoking, which gives our cooking a flame kissed style,” says Davila. “We cook our shorter-time meats such as lamb, pork ribs, turkey legs, chicken, and the occasional fajitas in this pit.” The lamb ribs were tender and smokey and as good as promised, and the house-made sausage would make Grandpa Raul proud. I subscribe to the no-sauce BBQ school, yet it was impossible to pass up Davila’s spicy version, spiked with Cayenne pepper and maybe a touch of pickled jalapeño brine. At Davila’s, your BBQ order doesn’t come with store-bought white bread, either. It’s served with homemade corn and flour tortillas, like the old vaqueros would have had around the firepit.
Last year Davila released his first cookbook, Cowboy Barbecue: Fire & Smoke from the Original Texas Vaqueros. Aside from recipes for slow-smoking a brisket, mastering asado-style grilling and Mexican-style barbacoa — beef head or lamb wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in an underground pit — Davila offers various techniques for smoking, cooking directly on embers and on a spit. The book also includes Mexican classic such as pozole and mole de olla, as well as recipes from grandma Davila’s repertoire, such as chili con carne and tamales.
While researching the book, Davila delved deep into his roots. He discovered that his family hails from Avila, in Spain (of course — Davila means “from Avila”) and that they started emigrating to the New World in the 1600s, making their way from Peru all the way up to South Texas. Turns out they were Jewish horse traders who likely dealt with the vaqueros who made their living herding cattle through the plains, so Davila’s fascination with South Texas’ vaquero cuisine comes from deeper than he would have imagined.
Davila is also a natural in front of an audience and has appeared on NBC’s Today, on The Kitchen and Great American BBQ Showdown on Food Network, and will be featured this weekend at the Foodways Texas Symposium. He will be competing in a new BBQ show soon to be announced by the Food Network, where he hopes to continue sharing the BBQ techniques that he has learned from his grandfather and father and keep their traditions alive. As I leave the restaurant, he signs my new copy of the book: “To Claudia: cocina con pasión” — cook with passion. To which I replied: “you are preaching to the choir, amigo.”