Weslaco pitmaster changed careers to pursue passion

Joel Garcia now works for Smokin’ Moon & Beer Garden in Pharr recognized by Texas Monthly

Local pitmaster Joel Garcia works for Smokin’ Moon & Beer Garden. His brisket and the restaurant have been featured in Texas Monthly. (Daniel A. Flores | dflores@themonitor.com)

Smokin’ Moon & Beer Garden pitmaster Joel Garcia said his passion for barbecue blossomed while traveling around Texas, crossing off his list of the 2013 Texas Monthly top 50 barbecue joints.

For Garcia, this was an educational trip — studying the various methods used around the state.

The Weslaco High School graduate had moved to Austin after studying environmental science at Texas A&M University and worked at the Texas Capitol.

“I wasn’t happy working in an office,” he said, shaking an even coat of spices onto slabs of brisket. “Got a job in barbecue and I’ve never looked back since.”

After stints at acclaimed establishments, Freedmen’s and Terry Black’s BBQ, Garcia helped open Smokin’ Moon in Pharr last October.

Garcia arrives by 4 a.m. at the restaurant to prepare meats for the revolving shelves of the large smokers. It takes about an hour to get the fire going. Since briskets take at least 14 hours to cook, he works a day ahead.

“We’re not trying to rush it,” he said. “All the briskets we use are prime rib beef. So we treat them with as much care as we can.”

The brisket at Smokin’ Moon is the best seller, and they go through 15 to 20 briskets Monday through Thursday and between 30 and 40 on Friday and Saturday.

Growing up, Garcia said he was always barbecuing with family.

“There wasn’t a weekend that we weren’t grilling or cooking around the fire,” he said. “It was always either fajita or cabrito — something that involved cooking.

“It always appealed to me. I was never allowed to do it as a kid, not even when he was in high school.”

At school in College Station, Garcia said he was always eager to barbecue for friends. And when he moved to Austin, he started experimenting with whatever would fit in his small pit.

He’d grill “hot and fast,” he said, or try different glazes or wrapping meats.

“I got more serious because I started to see different styles and different regions in Texas, how they cook and how it differs in South and Central Texas,” he said of the Texas Monthly list.

Last November, the magazine’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, visited Smokin’ Moon.

“I knew who he was,” Garcia said of Vaughn, who ordered a little bit of everything. “I told the owner, and we were really excited he was here.”

A month later, Vaughn boasts the “massive, tender beef short ribs” at Smokin’ Moon “are worth the splurge,” and “the new joint offers some of the best barbecue in Hidalgo County.” Vaughn also included the beef rib as one of his best bites of the year.

“It’s one of the highest recognitions you can get in Texas barbecue,” Garcia said of being featured by the magazine that helped inspire him into the industry. “Just being in ‘Texas Monthly’ is surreal.”

Smokin’ Moon was also included in the magazine’s May 2019 list of “The Top 25 New Barbecue Joints in Texas.”

“It seems crazy to me that a place down here in the Valley could leave that much of an impression on the publication,” Garcia said. “I think it comes full circle that with hard work and a little bit of love into the food, you can go far.”

Garica said he was appreciative that his parents were supportive when he left his job that included insurance, benefits and retirement.

“They just wanted me to be happy,” he said. “I took that jump and it paid off.”

But working in a kitchen, he still gets the question: what is he doing cooking barbecue with a degree?

“It’s what I like to do, being around fire (and) the challenge everyday to make a consistent product,” Garcia said.