I rolled into the small town of Speegleville about forty-five minutes before Helberg BBQ opened for lunch. I actually passed the driveway the first time I drove by, not realizing I’d already arrived. With the reputation Helberg has established online, I half-expected to find the kind of joint you see in Austin: an old building adorned with barnwood, neon signs, and mile-long lines.
Instead, I found a roadside gem: a small metal building across the highway from a corn field.
I pulled into the already-filling parking lot and spent the next couple of minutes preparing myself for what would be my first ever BBQ interview. When I thought I was ready, I hopped out and let my nose guide me to the front door. They weren’t open yet, but a quick text to the owner, Phillip Helberg, got me access inside.
I guess journalism does have its perks.
When we walked through the door, I was greeted by Creedence Clearwater, mouthwatering aromas, and a tender sampling of pork steak straight off the cutting block.
I joined Phillip in his office and pulled out my BBQ interview notebook: a small planner I’d been given during Welcome Week. I glanced over my notes and got to it.
“I’d say we didn’t really intend on getting into this.”
Phillip said that, as a kid, he mostly ate barbecue at the chain places north of Houston. Occasionally, when they were visiting family near San Antonio, he’d get a chance to eat great barbecue at City Market in Luling. He told me he has fond memories of eating there with his mom as a child. Other than that, Phillip had no real experience in the barbecue world.
He did, however, develop a passion for cooking.
He grew up with a single mom who worked two and three jobs just to make ends meet. When his mom wasn’t home, he’d cook meals for himself. However, it would take many years before he finally started rolling smoke.
Yvette Helberg poked into the room to grab her husband’s wallet. “I’ll be right back,” she hollered as she closed the office door.
Yvette is Helberg BBQ’s better half.
The two met on a Hawaiian cruise ship and hit it off. “Yvette and her family were actually passengers on the ship I worked on. We hung out that week whenever I had time off the ship, which is totally against the rules. But I didn’t really care. I was still pretty new there, anyway,” Phillip said. They stayed in touch afterwards, and when Phillip finished up ship life, he moved to California and into a house with Yvette.
“We’d never had a backyard before, so we got our first smoker from my mother-in-law as a house-warming gift. It was on sale for a hundred bucks at Home Depot.”
Once he started cooking with fire, he fell in love.
Like any self-respecting backyard BBQ-er, Phillip bought Aaron Franklin’s legendary how-to book and read it cover to cover. He became obsessed with mastering Central Texas-Style barbecue—brisket and pork ribs, dry rubbed with liberal amounts of salt and black pepper, smoked to perfection with seasoned post oak wood.
The idea of owning their own joint began smoldering in the minds of the Helbergs.
When they “escaped” California in early 2018, they came to Central Texas. After a road trip around the state with a Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ list in hand, the Helbergs were certain they wanted to start something here.
Three months after receiving the keys to their Crawford, Texas ranch, the Helberg BBQ food trailer was born.
Phillip explained that those first 12 months were hard. The food trailer, which was a vintage Shasta camper that had been renovated into a kitchen on wheels, wasn’t in a prime location. With low visibility and no real connections to the city of Waco, it was a struggle just to get people to show up and eat their food.
“It was a long time before we were able to sell more than one brisket and one rack of ribs a day. We just lost money every single day,” Phillip told me.
“Our success is their success … being able to see our employees get new cars or get approved for loans to get a new house and get raises and get more responsibility and authority — that stuff motivates us.”
Yvette was able to escape from the hustle out front and joined us in the office.
Phillip continued: “We held on a little too long there waiting for business to pick up,” and the Helbergs drained their life savings in the process.
However, things slowly began turning around.
Late that summer, Texas Monthly BBQ editor, Daniel Vaughn, dropped in for a visit. After a positive review, Helberg BBQ began picking up business. In 2019, Helberg’s was voted one of the Top 25 new BBQ joints in Texas by Texas Monthly. A few weeks later, the Helbergs moved into a brick-and-mortar location on Highway 6.
I glanced down at my notes, “So, what’s the biggest motivator for y’all in this business?”
“I mean this business is literally our name,” Yvette said. “Yeah, I would say reputation is a big motivator,” Phillip added.
“Our name is on it, so it’s a lot more personal, and this is what our family survives off of. We don’t have a backup plan to this. That’s why we work as much as we do. We have a 2-year-old son who is also sucked into this with us. That’s a motivator,” Yvette said.
For the Helbergs, this translates into wanting to provide the very best for their customers. Everything you’ll have at Helberg BBQ is homemade, with the exception of the sandwich buns and the Coca-Cola.
Another motivator for the Helbergs is the opportunity to see their employees flourish.
“Our success is their success … being able to see our employees get new cars or get approved for loans to get a new house and get raises and get more responsibility and authority — that stuff motivates us,” Phillip said.
Yvette said that everything they do leads back to the Bible verse they’ve attached to their business, 1 Peter 4:10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
The three of us spent the next twenty minutes just shooting the breeze. We talked about the rest of the barbecue community in Texas, and they gave me a list of places to check out in the future. I asked what their favorite things on their menu are. For Yvette, it’s the pork steak. For Phillip, it’s the smoked-fried chicken, which — you guessed it — is a chicken that they smoke and then fry.
We talked Baylor and blues, COVID and country music. We talked about how we could get all these college kids to make the drive out to Speegleville. We just had a good time talking.
After a while, my stomach let me know the interview was over. I grabbed a handful of Helberg BBQ stickers off the table and followed Phillip outside to meet the stars of the show: Norman and Fiona.
Norman and Fiona are the two 1,000-gallon Moberg smokers Helberg uses to make the magic happen. I met Dave Ferlet, the pitmaster as he was tending to the fire. He didn’t have much to say, but his barbecue would do the talking for him.
As we walked back inside, Phillip stopped to talk to a few of his guests. I remembered him telling me that the people were his favorite part of the business. I ordered the Quarterback: a quarter pound of every meat and then one of every side and a banana pudding. Then I took a seat at one of the picnic tables. When the food came out, I realized I should have brought a friend. Or two.
I dug into the platter, starting first with the pork steak, and then the smoked-fried chicken. I can see why those are their favorites. The pork steak was full of flavor, and the chicken was super moist with a crispy skin.
The brisket was juicy and tender. No sauce needed.
The pork ribs were some of the best I’ve had. However, the star on the platter was the jalapeño-gouda smoked sausage. The sausage is by far my favorite thing on the menu. It has just enough heat, and the gouda balances it out nicely.
The sides were also great, my favorite being the ranch beans and the collard greens. The smoked mac & cheese, street corn salad, potato salad, and coleslaw were pretty good, too.
After all that, I was stuffed, and I knew there would be a nap waiting for me when I got back to Baylor. However, I can always make room for dessert, especially when it’s Helberg’s banana pudding.
When I had eaten as much as I could eat and taken all the notes I could take, I loaded up what was left into to-go boxes — which was a lot.
I thanked Phillip and Yvette for their hospitality, snapped a couple pictures, and hopped in my car. When I got back to my dorm, I messaged a couple of the Yankee kids to come down to the common room to come get some real Texas barbecue.
They were hooked.
If any of y’all ever make it over to Helberg BBQ — and you should — grab me a sliced brisket sandwich, a couple links of jalapeño-gouda sausage, and a quart of banana pudding, and tell them who sent you.
I visited Helberg BBQ and wrote this review back in September, before Texas Monthly listed the Waco restaurant as one of the Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas. I have returned to Helberg a few times since it made “The List,” and not much has changed. The line might be a bit longer and you might end up sharing a picnic table with a stranger or two if it gets a little crowded. But, the barbecue is still top notch. In fact, it might even be a little better.
Jackson Woodruff is a Junior from Greenville, Texas studying corporate communications. Jackson is a Christmas tree farmer, Guy Clark fan, and an avid barbecue connoisseur. When he’s not in class, you can find Jackson sitting in a booth at a hole-in-the-wall eatery or in the stern seat of a canoe, exploring the sights, sounds, and tastes of Texas.