Staff Photographer Steve Klise and I traveled to El Paso, Texas, to try Desert Oak Barbecue's well-sought-after beef ribs. They're sold only on Saturdays, and with good reason: the labor of love involved in cooking them. While we were visiting, owner Richard Funk showed us where the magic takes place and shared with us a few important tips that helped with the development of our own Texas-Style Smoked Beef Ribs.
I arrive at Desert Oak Barbecue in El Paso, Texas, promptly at 6:00 a.m., which is when owner Richard Funk says the beef ribs will be ready to come off the cooker. I park around back, a few feet behind a trailer that houses the wood and supplies needed for the custom-built 1,000-gallon cooker a few feet away.
Richard's wife, Suzanne, introduced him to a charcoal grill while the couple was living in Michigan. It was love at first fire. Without a proper mentor, Richard tinkered with recipes and techniques almost nonstop. “It was torture for my family at first because I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “The first brisket I ever made is still by far the worst brisket I've ever eaten.”
In 2012, after they had returned to El Paso, Suzanne urged Richard to embrace his passion and try to make a living from it. He thought the idea was ridiculous. “I didn't know if people in El Paso would like [my barbecue], other than our friends and family who were just being nice.” He started with a food truck, a relatively low-risk venture. It took off.
Richard pulls the beef ribs off the cooker with gloved hands and sprays each rack with a solution of red wine vinegar and water to keep them moist once they're wrapped in butcher paper. The ribs rest at room temperature for 45 minutes and then go into a warming box to await customers. The ideal serving temperature, Richard says, is comfortable enough for a pit master to touch with bare hands but still hot and juicy, about 140 degrees.
The dining room is a combination of raw wood planks and corrugated tin. Hanging every few feet are snapshots of the Funk family standing in front of the great barbecue landmarks of central Texas. Other families might post pictures of Disney vacations, but the Funks plan their travels around barbecue.
I order a little of everything: two links of sausage made by Richard and his son, Marcelo; half a pound of brisket; a few thin slices of turkey; a scoop of pulled pork; three pork ribs; and a giant beef rib. I ignore the bottle of sauce on the table and dig right in. I switch between the politeness of a fork and knife and the appropriateness of fingers and napkins.
Richard refers to his barbecue as “central Texas–style,” which is typically cooked with oak. But oak isn't native to El Paso, so he has it shipped in, which tightens his margins. The beef ribs, sold only on Saturdays, also shrink those margins because of their wholesale cost and the labor involved in cooking them.
“[Beef ribs] are hard to love,” Richard says. “But I love cutting them. Take out that first rack, carve into it, slap it on the scale, and everyone's eyes just pop out of their heads. It's awesome. And they pop out even further once they see the price at the register. I just keep my head down and keep going.”
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