Tucked away in a far corner of the Houston Barbecue Festival stood a pit master with a Franklin Barbecue pedigree. While festival attendees waited in long lines for big names like Killen's Barbecue, Corkscrew BBQ and Louie Mueller Barbecue, John Avila only fed a few folks at a time. Avila was at it again Monday night at The Flat, serving barbecue and other dishes as a preview for a new restaurant called El Burro & the Bull, which he intends to open in the Second Ward.
While even the hardcore barbecue fans at the festival may have overlooked Avila, El Burro & Bull has lots of potential. Avila tells CultureMap the new restaurant will pay tribute to the diverse array of food he grew up eating.
"It wouldn't be true to who we are to make it a smokehouse," Avila says. The menu will include some barbecue items alongside tamales, Frito pie, tortas and desserts inspired by Mexican pastries. At Monday's pop-up, expertly smoked pork ribs shared a menu with a kale and apple salad. Sides include familiar barbecue beans but also Mexican elote.
"I've passed up home so many times. This seems like the right time."
The menu may sound diverse, but all of the dishes will be united by what Avila describes as a respect "old school" ways of doing things. "If I'm honest about what I'm doing, I'll be alright," he offers.
In addition to his food, Avila's resume offers further reasons for optimism. He began his career in barbecue at Austin's celebrated Frankin Barbecue where he prepared meats and tended the pits. From there, he helped Torchy's launch its successful Houston expansion before going to Brooklyn to open The Elbow Room, a mac and cheese concept. He got back into a pit at Morgan's Barbecue in Brooklyn, which earned praise from Eater critic Robert Sietsema.
After all the traveling, he and his wife Veronica Hernandez are ready to come home. They bought a house off Navigation and are "looking aggressively" for a space for El Burro & Bull, which he'd like to open by the end of the year.
"I've passed up home so many times," Avila says. "This seems like the right time."
Still, Avila is considering one more opportunity that could push back Burro & Bull. A London-based restaurant group wants him to consult on a chain of barbecue restaurants that would spread across Europe. He's spending four days there this week to meet with the investors and consider the possibility. If he does, his Houston restaurant would be delayed for a year, but Avila isn't sure he wants to wait.
"It's going to take a lot from London," he says. "Houston feels meant to be."