Helberg Barbecue Is Ready for Prime Time
There is an overwhelming choice of barbecue joints in Texas, with over twenty iterations in Waco alone. How to choose? Do you like your brisket lean or capped with gooey fat? Do you prefer a spiced rub or a puddle of sticky sauce? What kind of sauce? Spicy, sweet, vinegary, mustardy—and what kind of sides with that, shug?
If you like marbled pork brimming with juices, freshly-made pickles, creamy street corn packed with cilantro, and a hefty dose of black pepper crusting on your brisket and ribs, Helberg Barbecue is the spot for you.
Melt-In-Your-Mouth Meat (& Damn Good Pickles)
You may remember the Helberg food truck from the early days, when Phillip and Yvette Helberg were just getting started at their first spot in front of Pinewood Coffee Bar. Painted with a happy cow holding a rose alongside their slogan, “Salt. Pepper. And a whole lot of prayer,” the truck gained a reputation for tasty sausages and brisket, but it was just a stepping stone for the Helberg’s brick-and-mortar location on Highway 6 northwest of Waco.
You’ll spy an enormous billboard featuring Helberg’s be-flowered cow right before you turn into the restaurant’s parking lot on your way out of town. Tall ceilings, picnic tables, and a large sketch of Dolly and Willie hanging behind the drinks station create an airy, down-home atmosphere in which to scarf your smokey meats.
Turkey might not be at the top of your barbecue wish list, but Helberg’s smoked bird is stellar: a juicy, lightly-smoked breast wrapped around a bright herby pesto, thickly sliced and, if you get the $10 sandwich, nestled between a fluffy Martin’s potato roll. Slap a little of their white sauce on your buns (it’s like a runnier, less herby ranch with a significant vinegar punch), add a few house-made pickles, and you’ve got a perfect lunch—satisfying enough to hold you over until dinner, but not so heavy as to necessitate a post-lunch nap on your keyboard.
If you’re ready to go whole hog, then the pork steak is a must. It has elements of a good fatty brisket—the shreddy-grained meat, the melting fat—but this pork butt isn’t just capped with fat, it is marbled throughout. Thick slabs of meat laced with melting, half-rendered fat make every tender bite decadent, and you’ll want some of Helberg’s excellent tomato or mustard-and-Lone Star-based barbecue sauces (neither are too sweet nor too sour) to offset the richness of the meat.
The pork ribs are enormous, up to 8 inches long and, like most of the meats at Helberg, encrusted thickly with a black pepper rub. These aren’t your fall-off-the-bone variety, so you will have the pleasure of prizing strips of pink, smokey pork off the bone with your teeth, occasionally freeing up a hand to stuff a few pickles and a spoonful of corn into your waiting mouth.
And let’s not forget those pickles. Helberg’s pickles fall into the category of super fresh and barely cooked—crunchy, tart, fresh, and dilly. Pickled cucumbers, rose-colored pickled onions, and surprisingly spicy pickled jalapenos and carrots are available as sides and in jars to take home. Don’t skimp. Nothing complements a large platter of rich meat like a mess of vinegary produce.
Except, perhaps, a side of street corn. The menu featured braised collard greens while the growing season lasted, but when the sun began to blaze and the collards became bitter, Helberg’s kitchen manager, David Ferlet, swapped them out for a delicious-sounding charred cauliflower steak. The mac and cheese is good, gooey, classic fare, and the mustard potato salad is excellent—barely sweet, seriously mustardy, and flecked with diced pickles—but the street corn is the show-stealer. It is creamy, laden with finely diced cilantro, heavily dusted on top with sharp cotija cheese and chili lime salt, and infused with a slight jalapeño kick. It isn’t light—none of the sides are—but it is the perfect goopy accompaniment to your barbecue spread: rich, herby, and corn-crunchy.
The Peaks & Valleys of Learning the Trade
Neither Phillip nor Yvette Helberg had food industry experience before opening their food truck in 2018, and they have run the gauntlet to get to where they are now, with a successful brick-and-mortar producing triple the volume they started with, a growing catering clientele, and a soon-to-be-completed event space in the old Amsler Building in downtown Crawford. In 2021, Helberg Barbecue made Texas Monthy’s list of top 50 barbecue joints.
When they met, Phillip was working on a Hawaiian cruise ship and Yvette was a passenger vacationing with her family. They were in their early twenties—both are not yet thirty now—and they were smitten. Phillip was plotting all sorts of potential career paths, while Yvette was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at Biola University, a private Christian school in Southern California. They kept in touch, fell in love, married, and moved to Southern California for a short time before picking up and relocating to Waco, Texas.
Phillip hails from Houston, Yvette from California’s Central Valley, and neither had ties to Waco, save for Phillip’s two step-sisters who were Baylor University alums. But they fell in love with Waco after visiting, when Phillip had already begun dreaming of opening a Texas barbecue joint. Having experimented with a home smoker during his stay in Southern California and studied the trade by researching barbecue titans like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Phillip was ready to embark on his own BBQ odyssey.
As newcomers to Waco, Phillip and Yvette struggled to drum up clientele without the built-in fan base that many other local entrepreneurs inherit, either through Baylor, a local church, or generations of family connections. But the bigger challenges lay in transitioning from home cooks to high-volume chefs and learning how to lead a team. In the early days, the business wasn’t getting the order volume it needed to stay afloat. What did that mean for the Helbergs?
“It means your bank account overdraws when you buy ice,” chuckles Yvette. “You don’t know what to do and all you do is pray.”
“We did a lot more than that too,” says Phillip. “We didn’t just say a prayer and everything just turned around. We’ve always been very prayerful about our business and our faith is central to what we do, but we had to have a hard talk with ourselves. We had no backup plan, so we knew we had to make this work.”
The Helbergs took stock of their business and made some tough decisions in order to regain control of their bottom line and tighten up their processes.
“We had to take inventory of what ideas we needed to let go of to make things work,” continues Phillip. “We made hard decisions. We ended up having to lay some people off and change the way we had relationships with employees because it was all very casual in the beginning. We were all friends. And we always wanted to be the best people we can be and conduct ourselves like people we wanted to work for. But at the end of the day, we were so focused on their contentment and happiness because we knew how much we were relying on them, but we failed to look at our bottom line.”
The Helbergs streamlined their team and went back to basics, taking over many of the tasks they had initially delegated to others in order to hone in on problem areas and tighten up their spending. Their new motto became “trust but verify.”
In 2020 Phillip took over the pits while Yvette took over the administrative work, with their infant son, Wayne, in a pack ‘n’ play by her desk.
“Honestly, I didn’t have the experience cooking barbecue at volume,” says Phillip, “not day after day. That was when I really cut my teeth and earned my stripes on the pits. I did that for a solid year—3 am firing up those smokers, learning a lot, experimenting. We were in the restaurant every day, 15–16 hours. And we cycled through management a couple times until we figured out how to manage our managers. I set up our leadership teams for failure a couple of times, just because of the things I didn’t know or wasn’t willing to admit.”
Once they began to tighten up the daily operations, profit margins increased, and Phillip and Yvette were able to rebuild their team. They took on catering gigs and began renovating the Amsler Building in downtown Crawford, which will eventually be an event space as well as Helberg’s sausage production facility. When they raised their prices slightly last year, it was to ensure they could pay their staff competitive wages and offer health insurance.
“We’ve got really dedicated staff members now that are very professional and motivated,” says Phillip. “They do a good job of holding each other accountable, and we’ve got a really great culture. We listen to people and what’s important to them.”
Dialing It In & Sharing the Knowledge
Ask Phillip about barbecue and you can practically see the pit fire burning in his eyes. This man loves what he does and is eager to share his knowledge of the craft. He has learned studiously from his successes and failures and is happy to share his wisdom with any who express interest.
So, the key to making it in a barbecue-saturated food scene?
“It doesn’t sound sexy or anything,” says Phillip, “but it’s consistency. The number one thing with barbecue that will set a restaurant apart is consistency because it’s difficult. Cooking barbecue is very difficult because when you get down to it, no two briskets are the same. Like generally, you learn the rules, and over the years of cooking thousands of briskets, those briskets are mostly going to behave in the same way. But, you know, a cow might have used one leg to prop itself up more than the other, and so that brisket is going to be tougher on that side. It might take an hour extra in the smoker.”
“It’s little things like that,” continues Phillip, “like what time of year the beef was harvested can affect the marbling. And there’s what time of year you’re cooking the meat and the humidity, the wind, the quality of the wood you’re using. The degree of dryness in the wood, or seasoning as we call it, is very important. If you get a green batch of wood, that’s going to affect your cook. So, all those factors come into play and make it difficult to produce consistent barbecue day in, day out. That’s what we’ve slaved over, experimenting with this, that, and the other to make things constant throughout the year.”
This is all good news for home barbecue enthusiasts because Phillip is officially teaching barbecue classes. Spend the better part of a day learning and lunching with the Helbergs, and you’ll take home Phillip’s insider tips and techniques for your next cookout. The next class in July will focus on brisket and ribs, two Texas staples that every smoked meat aficionado should have in their culinary tool belt.
This recipe comes straight from Phillip’s kitchen, and it’s a great way to use your leftover brisket or impress your dinner guests with minimal effort (buy some smoked brisket and the rest is a cinch). The main ingredient here is time—about one to two hours of simmering will achieve chili perfection. Toasting your chiles is optional, but it’s worth the extra step for the complex flavors it imparts.
Recipe serves 4.
Ingredients for chile paste
8 dried ancho chiles, very lightly toasted
8 dried guajillo chiles, very lightly toasted
1 (6-oz) can chipotles in adobo
1 (4-oz) can tomato paste
1 T + 1 tsp ground cumin
1 T kosher salt
⅓ c masa
Ingredients for chili
1 yellow onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
5 lbs cooked, cooled & cubed-up brisket chunks
2 ½ quarts of beef or veal stock
1 12-oz can of Shiner Bock
¼ apple cider vinegar
2 T brown sugar
Beef tallow or olive oil for cooking
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp cayenne pepper, optional
To make the chile paste, heat 1 tablespoon of beef tallow or olive oil in a large pan and toast the ancho and guajillo chiles, stirring constantly until very lightly toasted. (Be careful not to burn the chiles, or they will become bitter.) Fully submerge toasted chiles in water and soak for a minimum of 30 minutes or until softened. Remove chiles from water, remove seeds and stems, and place in blender. Add a ½ cup of veal or beef stock along with the chipotles, tomato paste, cumin, salt, and masa and blend until smooth, adding more stock as needed. Set aside.
In a large stock pot, sweat onions in beef tallow or olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper on medium heat until translucent, then add garlic and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
Add chile paste and lower to medium-low heat, stirring often for about 5 minutes. Add cubed brisket chunks to pot with chile paste and stir to coat for about 2 minutes, then add the beer and the remaining veal or beef stock. Simmer on low heat for 1 to 2 hours, stirring frequently. If mixture becomes too thick, add more stock.
Before serving, stir in apple cider vinegar and brown sugar to balance heat and add a bit of acidity. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary with salt and pepper. If you want your chili spicier, add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
Serve hot with cornbread or your favorite sides.
The Helbergs are fond of a line from a book called Habits of the Household, which Phillip describes as a “faith-based book about baking the liturgy into your daily routine and family life.” It reads, “There is no better place to begin than at the table, for the table is where we turn strangers into friends,” and for the Helbergs, it encapsulates their mission beyond perfecting the art of smoked meats. Consistent, excellent barbecue will draw in clientele, but it’s the communion between friends and strangers that they hope to foster at their restaurant.
“We very much understand,” says Phillip, “that it takes all kinds. We employ lots of people that don’t share similar views as us and that’s okay. Our job is to be polite and consistent and love on people no matter what, be they guests or employees.”
Helberg Barbecue is located at 8532 N. Highway 6, just past Speegleville. The restaurant is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 am to 7 pm, Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 8 pm, and Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm. Visit the website to inquire about catering and barbecue classes.
Keep up with Waco’s food scene on the Waco Insider podcast Eat, Drink, Repeat, hosted by Angelica Mazé.
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