The school year is winding down, prom season is just about done and graduations are the weekend’s must-go-to events. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the smell of smoked Oak (or Mesquite) from the fired-up grills penetrates the Valley air. This can only mean one thing; summer is just around the corner, nay, it's here in all its fiery glory.
If you are like any true Texan, but above all a Valley native, then you know barbecue is our official food throughout Spring, Summer, Fall...okay, it’s pretty much a year round deal for us. Forget baseball or apple pie, barbecuing is our area's favorite pastime. We love to light the pit, grill, grill some more and then eat some meat, and lots of it! However, if you are like us and can fully appreciate all the effort that goes into creating the perfect BBQ, without having to do it yourselves, then take a tip from us and start your new BBQ obsession today by visiting SMOKE: Texas BBQ & Watering Hole in Harlingen.
Now, dear readers, we know that we have featured our share of barbecue joints in this column (actually, exactly one summer ago, we visited Texas Monthly’s Top BBQ recommendations), but let us tell you that SMOKE is this year’s must-go-to BBQ place. We can definitely see it joining the ranks of the three Texas Monthly, established barbecue joints we have in our area. With its 1,000 gallon smoker, this place is ready to go “mano a mano” with the big boys.
Before moving to their current location, owner Eduardo Casas worked non-stop for about a year and half to establish a following. That sure did help because the crowd followed the BBQ, once he moved into the historic Rainbo Bakery located on Harrison Avenue in Harlingen, Texas. The once bread bakery is now home to Casas’ dream of preserving history and serving his community delicious food. The inside of the former bakery has been gutted and renovated with sleek, industrial furnishings. While there are stained, wooden tables, steel stools and modern lighting fixtures, the inside walls of the Rainbo building tell Harlingen’s story. Painted murals of Harlingen’s not so distant past, like the first “Bird Bowl” and the unscathed “Bimbo” and “Rainbo” logos, create a familiar atmosphere and invite SMOKE’s guests to feel at home.
As you walk into SMOKE, you are cheerfully welcomed by the staff standing behind what must be one of the largest counters we have ever encountered (See what we did there? Wink!). With up to four cashiers, the line moves fairly quickly, but do be warned that there may be a wait on their busiest days. Do not grow impatient... do the time in line. You won’t regret it.
If patiently waiting in line is not your thing, do not hesitate to take just a few steps over to the full service bar located right smack in the middle of the brick and mortar. Their $5 Texas Margarita, or an ice cold beer, will fix you right up. Make sure to ask for their $3 bottle “All Day Special”.
SIDE NOTE: SMOKE also has reverse Happy Hour from 10:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m., along with a bar menu to satisfy those late night munchies.
There are no fancy menus at SMOKE. Behind the larger-than-life counter, on the wall, hang three rolls of butcher paper where the daily cuts and pricings are written for all to see. With an average of 2,000 pounds of meat on a busy day, you can rest assured that they will have whatever your heart desires. Pitmaster Gabriel Rodriguez cooks up (or more like grills up) brisket, pork ribs, turkey, short ribs, pulled pork, dino ribs, sausage, and even half or whole chickens. Options for sides include: Charro Beans, Mac n Cheese, Potato Salad and “Pitmaster’s Pick of the Day”.
Prices are shown by half-pound servings, but don’t be discouraged from ordering whatever amount you’d like. However, do take some advice from us. At all costs, avoid going to this place “hangry”! You will want to order the entire menu and realize halfway through eating, what seems like 10 pounds of meat, that your eyes were definitely bigger than your stomach when you placed your food order. Don’t get overwhelmed with all the options. You can always go back to the counter and order more (as long as nothing has been 86’d).
We’re rather certain you already know this, but we totally did NOT follow our own advice. By the time five ravenous people sat down, every single piece of meat and poultry offered at SMOKE was on our table.
Gaby: I could not stop eating. Everything was SO delicious. The brisket smoke ring was on point, the meat fell off the ribs and every piece of carne melted in my mouth!
Trisha: No arguing the place is a carnivore’s “candy store”. That short rib was to die for! Seriously, like I’ll take “death by short rib” from SMOKE, any day. So incredibly tender, literally falling apart, while still achieving a crispy, flavorful with fatty notes exterior. Obscenely good!
Gaby: By far, my favorite was the Dino (beef) Rib. The rib fell apart. Seasoning was done perfectly and small hints of oak would come through in every single bite. It was a surprise in every bite. Speaking of surprises, much to my delight, the Mac n Cheese knocked it out of the park. You may think, “Had one Mac n Cheese, had them all”. Smoked pieces of bacon hidden in each bite make this side go from basic to A-Lister!
Trisha: That satisfying, sinfully tasty pulled pork and smoked sausage didn’t fall far behind on the list of favorites that day. Also, although Miss Gaby is not a general fan of this side dish, the potato salad was faultless! With just the right amount of mustard to mayonnaise ratio working in its favor.
SMOKE: Texas BBQ & Watering Hole is located at 1600 West Harrison Avenue, Harlingen, TX 78550. Their hours of operation are: Monday closed; Sunday and Tuesday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Wednesday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 11:00 a.m.-12:00 a.m. For more information, you can reach them at (956) 622-3128. Make sure to follow them on their social media platforms to learn more about daily off-menu items and “Pitmaster’s Picks” (or if you just want to drool at your screen). Facebook: @Smoke:Texas BBQ & Watering Hole. Twitter and Instagram: @texasbbqhgn. Make sure to tag your next SMOKE beefy adventure using the hashtag #Texasbbqhgn.
Gaby Jones and Trisha Watts work hand-in-hand with the service industry. Jones is in charge of craft and imported beer for L&F Distributors and Watts is the communications director for Visit McAllen. Each week they will have a new adventure and provide an opinion on various locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley.