Barbecue is in John Avila’s blood. The Morgan’s (267 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-622-2224) pitmaster grew up in Texas watching his grandparents run a restaurant dedicated to the Lone Star State’s smoked brisket, absorbing what it meant to live the life of a cook as he helped out his family. Avila’s parents and grandparents worked hard to ensure that he wouldn’t have to choose that same life, but after an ultimately unfulfilling career in accounting, he came back to the kitchen.
He landed a job with Melissa Brinckman, a pastry chef who was then launching Cake & Spoon Bakery from a commissary kitchen in Austin. “It was really great formal training,” he says. “I learned the brass tacks of how to work in a kitchen and be good at it.” And despite the fact that his friends thought he was crazy for abandoning his salary for a $10-per-hour gig, he says he knew almost immediately that he was exactly where he wanted to be.
Soon after he jumped aboard with Brinckman, he became acquainted with Aaron and Stacy Franklin, who were sharing Brinckman’s commissary kitchen as they got rolling on Franklin Barbecue. Avila’s connection to Aaron ran deep: “His grandparents had a record store in Bryant, and my grandparents would buy sheet music from them, and his grandparents bought barbecue from my grandparents,” Avila says. Aaron soon inquired whether Avila might have time to help them out, and Avila started cooking for the couple while continuing to help Brinckman.
It wasn’t long before the Franklins were ready to launch a brick-and-mortar operation, and so Avila bid adieu to the commissary to join the restaurant’s kitchen along with John Lewis, another ‘cue star. Franklins soon became a star on the Austin scene, a local staple and a must-visit for culinary tourists that would command hours-long lines.
Some time after that, Avila decided to move back to Houston, where his daughter lives, and he signed on with the team behind Torchy’s Tacos, another beloved Austin institution, to expand into a new market. It was during that phase that he met Chris Morgan. The pair started talking about barbecue — and Morgan’s desire to open a Texas-style barbecue joint in New York City. Avila did a tasting for Morgan and his business partner Joe Bolden, and they hired him the same night.
When Morgans opened its doors in Prospect Heights last year, Avila used a number of his grandfather’s recipes plus technique he’d learned at Franklins.
Here, Avila talks about the history of the Texas style, how to tell if you’re eating good barbecue, and why NYC is a great barbecue town.
What was your intent for the food at this restaurant?
Chris and I are on the same page with this: Texas is a large place, and it’s so different in the east, the west, the north, and the central part of the state. We hope to represent Texas regionally. In Dallas, you get ranches, steaks, and beef. In the east, you get Cajun food because it’s close to Louisiana. In Houston, you have a heavy Mexican influence and heavy Vietnamese influence, believe it or not. Out west, it’s ranches, farms, and vegetables. And central, it’s very European and Mexican: You get a collision of German smoking and ranches, which is how you get barbecue. We hope to represent the barbecue, but we also have Cajun dishes from east Texas, steak specials, and queso from Houston. We hope to show everyone that these foods are very different, but they all come from the same place, which is Texas.
Texas barbecue seems to be having a long moment in New York City. Any thoughts on that?
People tend to love the Texas style (my opinion, of course!). I think that’s because Texas is so physically far away from the East Coast. It’s easy to get Carolina and Memphis barbecue here. Houston is so far south that it’s foreign to a lot of people.
Talk to me more generally about the Texas style.
Texas barbecue is so utilitarian. Briskets are made with a big, dark crust with a dry rub and a lot of salt on the outside so you could take it out, wrap it in a piece of cloth, cut a piece off of the end, and then put it away and keep the rest of it fresh. That’d work if you were traveling, whether you were going across Texas or go to California — you wanted to be able to travel and feed your family with it. Brisket is not a prime cut, and it takes a long time to make it tender — it wasn’t a prime piece of meat. But you don’t have to cover it with sauce. We have one sauce on the table — but we hope that everyone likes the meat so much that they don’t have time to go back to the sauce. The style comes from wanting to pack a crust on and save the meat for a long time. That’s Texas style — it’s as close to caveman fire and flesh as you can get.
How would someone with no clue determine what good Texas barbecue is?
Our slogan: It ain’t right if ain’t smoked all night. Our brisket roasts for 16 to 18 hours. We go the longer way. You’ll know by how tender it is, how well-cooked, and how thoroughly cooked. We use a champion’s trim, which is different from everyone. It’s an old-timer’s cut. It costs us more in the long-run, but it makes a better product.
So is it sacrilege to use sauce?
No. We have one sauce on the table here, and we take as much pride in it as anything else. The question is, why are you making it? We believe you’re adding flavor, but you’re not covering anything up.
Is there anything special about the pit?
A smoker is a smoker is a smoker. I’ve seen my uncles cook food in a hole in the ground. We use only oak wood — that’s what we use in Texas. It gives us the flavor we want, which is that white-smoked flavor. That’s super important to making it authentic Texas-style. And the dry rub is super important.
Is it challenging to do that style here? What are the barriers?
The first thing we ran into was that we had a custom-built smoker shipped up here from Houston, and we found out when it got here that we couldn’t use it because of city regulations. I’d been planning on this machine and working out how we were going to make it happen. Then three weeks before we opened the door, we found out we needed a new smoker. We found this one in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I’d never used a smoker like this. It took about six days to figure it out. Other than that, we found a good oak source, but briskets were a challenge for us. We worked it out.
On the next page, Avila explains why New York is a good barbecue town.
Talk to me about Texas BBQ culture.
It’s super serious — families are broken up over it down there. People have been doing it for generations, all related to families. In Lockhart, there’s a family with two places across the street form one another — they separated somewhere along the line, and now they’re rivals. The culture is mostly focused in central Texas because there are a lot of German people there; Lockhart is the mecca.
In the last year, there’s been a lot of talk that NYC is a great barbecue town. Thoughts?
I think it’s a great barbecue town. There’s a lot of fresh blood that’s really working hard. The vibe and culture is good in Texas, but brands are very stale — they’ve been there for a long time. Here, there are a bunch of guys aggressively looking to make the best barbecue possible. They’re looking to impress each other. There are great guys grinding it out, and every place is telling their story.
What do you like most about doing this?
I’m happy that I’m able to prove what my grandparents did is good and right. I’m always really proud of the stories, when I get to say, “Oh yeah, you like that? That happens to be my grandfather’s recipe.” That, and the instant gratification of people telling me that they like my work. People are just as passionate about eating barbecue as we are about cooking it, and this is what we cook for — to get some kind of emotion out of it. And the family thing. All four of my grandparents worked for themselves — I don’t know if I even have a choice in the matter. It just feels so good. I’m here seven days a week. My grandfather used to say that he had the best job in the world because he’d turn all the lights on and all his friends were there. I’m trying to build that here. I’m trying to build something that serves people well and serves my daughter in the future.
What’s the best thing on the menu?
The brisket, and right behind that, the pork ribs. I’m really proud of the smoked turkey — people always think it’s going to be dry. The mac is super good; it’s super creamy and slightly tangy. My guilty pleasure is potato salad with barbecue sauce.
What about a favorite story behind a dish?
When I think of the brisket, I think of my grandfather. He’d get up in the middle of the night and go across the street to check on the brisket. Pork makes me think of my uncle’s ranch, when he dug a hole in the ground and smoked a pig. As for the Frito pie, we ate Frito pie like crazy. Reminds me of being a little boy.
Any surprises in opening a restaurant in the New York industry?
Just how welcoming everyone is and how you can tell that there are a lot of people here who want to have a close community. I didn’t expect that.
Anything you wish you could import from Texas?
Bluebell Ice Cream. Tamales. You can get tamales everywhere out there.
What are your goals?
We hope to set a brand that becomes the standard for Texas barbecue, and we hope when people think of great barbecue, they think of us. We want to spread the word and enjoy ourselves doing it. We all have children, so that seems to be the main focus. We want to leave something for them.
Up next, Avila talks about favorite spots in the city.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Best place for a drink or a beer:
I order the gin gin mule at Mayfields.
Bests special occasion restaurant:
Socarrat. I went with a group. It was a great time.
Best no occasion restaurant:
Favorite bbq spot in the city that’s not yours?
Mighty Quinn’s. It’s very stylish, and the brisket’s good, too.
Pressing industry issue:
The way that employees are handled. A lot of restaurants want to hire as many people as they can and sort of push them through. We like to give people responsibilities. The staff we have is smaller than a lot of places, and everyone is great. We want them to be happy everyday. That a lot of places don’t feel that way bothers me.
What’s the most challenging thing about operating here?
Finding people — and I mean vendors and customers — that understand what we’re doing and how. We’re teaching a lot of people about the food.
Who would you most like to cook for?
Bourdain. He’s so open-minded. I feel like I’d get the truth.
Who would you most like to have cook for you?
I really want to try Eric Ripert’s food. He’s one of my idols.
Who would you be most nervous about cooking for?
Bourdain. He doesn’t hold any punches.
A dish you could eat forever:
Frito pie. It’s a Texas fusion dish: Fritos, cowboy chili, cheese, and white onion. People started putting it all in the bag because it’s a thermal bag.