Pitmaster Pioneers

Zain Shafi’s brightly colored barbecue trailer is a popular destination in a bustling micropark in Fort Worth’s South Main Village. Sabar’s mobile smoker came from friends and former co-workers at Goldee’s Barbecue in Arlington. Open Saturday mornings only, Shafi smokes lamb ribs, halal sausage and other Pakistani-influenced dishes.

Fire-and-Smoke Tamers with a Passion Offer a New Take On Texas Barbecue.

Yearby’s photos by Daniel Cunningham
Smoke & Ash and Sabar photos by Teresa Rafidi

It might not be the official dish of the Lone Star state (Texas chili has held that moniker since 1977), but Texas-style barbecue is arguably the cuisine that best defines us as Texans. It’s so popular that it can, in fact, be found from coast to coast, with restaurants spanning from New York to L.A.

A primer: while it incorporates sausages, pork ribs and poultry, traditional Texas barbecue is anchored in pepper-rubbed beef brisket, the tough, fatty chest muscle. Though it was once considered a less desirable cut, pitmasters have perfected its preparation, typically smoking it at low temperatures to render much of the fatty tissue, resulting in the mouthwatering, tender and full-flavored cut which is iconically Texan.

Of course, pitmasters across the state have put their own spin on what they deem true Texas barbecue, with slight differences evolving from East to West Texas, from the panhandle through Central Texas and across the Gulf coast.

Here in North Central Texas, the population just soared past eight million, and we live in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas not only in the state but in the country. Much to the benefit of our local cuisine, the diversity of food and cultures represented are as vast as the grand landscapes of our great state.

With no further ado, here are pitmasters, from all walks of life and across cultural backgrounds, sparking new twists on Texas “Q.”

(top left) At Smoke ‘N Ash, a mix of spices imported from Ethiopia infuse everything from brisket to ribs; (bottom left) At Yearby’s, the gospel of barbecue draws fans to the Pilot Point restaurant
(left) Yearby’s is popular for its halal menu, which includes no pork, but top-notch brisket; (right) Patrick and Fasicka Hicks, founders of Smoke ‘N Ash BBQ, offer a Tex-Ethiopian menu and full bar with cocktails inspired by both America and Ethiopia


Halal Texas Barbecue with a New Orleans/ Philadelphia Twist

CJ and Sabrina Henley are the owners and pitmasters of what they proudly proclaim to be the “first Black-owned halal barbecue joint to provide a completely halal menu.” Halal food adheres to Islamic law. The word halal literally means “permissible,” referring to how the animals are humanely slaughtered, handled and prepared. Pork products cannot be eaten by most practicing Muslims, so navigating traditional barbecue restaurants that serve pork (and utilize pork products in the same kitchen) can be tricky.

“By providing this style menu, it gives our halal-seeking customers a worry-free dining experience. Our customer service is very personable and driven to provide our customers with a positive, memorable moment,” says CJ.

As the parents of six children, the Henleys first started serving barbecue by giving out free brisket sandwiches at their son’s football games. At the time, CJ was a corporate IT professional and Sabrina owned a clothing boutique. In 2021 they bought a food trailer and began focusing on creating their version of Texas barbecue. Its success allowed them to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2023.

CJ and Sabrina do not serve pork. But their beef brisket is top tier, recently catching the attention of Texas Monthly’s BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn. The husband-and-wife team were also named “Preserve the Pit” fellows in the charcoal company Kingsford’s program aimed at “celebrating and investing in the future of black barbecue culture.” In addition to a monetary grant, this program connects pitmasters who have new businesses with those that are more seasoned, providing immersive culinary training, mentorships and council from business advisers.

In addition to Texas-style brisket, CJ also prepares a unique smoked meatloaf, brisket nachos, beef ribs, house-made hotlinks and smoked chicken—each adhering to strict halal preparation.

Sabrina creates mouthwatering sides, building on recipes passed down from each of their families. They serve smoked mac and cheese and green beans with potatoes in addition to street corn in a bowl.

You might be wondering what the “and Waterice” refers to in their business name. In CJ’s hometown of Philadelphia, water ice is an iconic summer dessert made using water, sugar, and fresh fruit. Imagine an icy treat with a texture smoother than a snow cone and soer than Italian ice. It’s the best of both worlds.

At the heart of their mission is a desire to create a welcoming space where locals and visitors can savor authentic Texas barbecue—with a twist.

“We believe in preserving rich tradition while embracing innovation and inclusivity,” says CJ. “We envision Texas barbecue continuing to showcase its [craft, while] drawing inspiration from diverse barbecue styles around the world,” Sabrina adds.

Because 100 percent halal menus (especially barbecue) are scarce in

North Texas, the Henleys are humbled by customers who drive long distances to visit their restaurant.

“It’s a reminder of the power food holds in bringing people together, regardless of geographical boundaries,” says Sabrina.

“As we continue to serve our patrons, we’re continually inspired by their unwavering support and their willingness to go the extra mile— quite literally—for a taste of what we have to oer,” adds CJ.

209 S Washington St.
Pilot Point, TX 76258
FB & IG @yearbysbbq

(left) CJ and Sabrina Henley started their barbecue career by giving away sandwiches at their son’s football games. They share the cooking duties, opening their brick-and-mortar in 2023.


Tex-Ethiopian Barbecue with Vegan Sides

Pitmasters Patrick and Fasicka Hicks have received high marks from Texas Monthly and e New York Times (in addition to many others) for their unique take: a fusion of Texas-style barbecue and Ethiopian cuisine.

Both Hickses have fond childhood memories rooted in their geographically different upbringings, and each gives credit to time spent preparing food with family as the foundation of their success. Patrick recalls helping his mom season—and eat—brisket aer church in their Waco, Texas home, and Fasicka remembers listening to her mom tell stories as they peeled garlic in their Ethiopian kitchen. Their idea to combine those two cultures is a complementary marriage—in terms of companionship and cuisines. The husband-and-wife team started by making small plates of their favorite foods for friends and colleagues out of their home kitchen.

Patrick had a passion for Central Texas barbecue and Fasicka loved to share the Ethiopian comfort foods of her roots. Bolstered by an outpouring of community support, they branched out into catering, and in 2012 launched a barbecue-based Ethiopian fusion food truck. And the rest is history.

Today they have a spacious brick-and-mortar restaurant in which Patrick prepares traditional Texas brisket using a mix of 15 spices imported from Ethiopia. They also serve pork rib tips and pork-based sausages with Tex-Ethiopian fused flavors, in addition to lamb chops which are reminiscent of the re-cooked lamb and goat of Fasicka’s childhood. Fasicka focuses on a bevy of sides, most of which are traditionally Ethiopian. They are proud to oer many vegan options, such as lentils, cabbage and carrots, or a medley of potatoes and beets enhanced with the flavors of garlic and ginger. They each take pride in catering to different dietary restrictions and passing on the love of comfort food—one plate at a time.

Depending on your preference, those plates might look like a typical Texas barbecue tray or be served over injera, the large, round Ethiopian flatbread.

Fasicka says that many of their customers, although familiar with Texas barbecue, are new to Ethiopian cuisine.

“After guys that are typically meat lovers first hesitantly try the authentic Ethiopian sides, they are hooked! Many customers come back and specifically ask for them time after time, which warms my heart,” says Fasicka.

“We have also been supported by the Ethiopian community across North Texas, who often order the Texas -style barbecue meats in addition to the traditional Ethiopian dishes,” adds Patrick. Smoke ‘N Ash also offers a full bar with both American and Ethiopian influenced cocktails in addition to live music, karaoke, and poetry readings.

5904 S Cooper St., Suite 110
Arlington, TX 76017
FB & IG @smokenashbbq

At Sabar, barbecue, including butter-bathed turkey cooked over post oak, comes with naan. Refreshing cucumber-tomato-onion salad, fruit chaat and a sweet carrot pudding help balance the meaty menu.


Pakistani-Influenced Texas Barbecue

Owner/pitmaster Zain Shafi (with the help of friends and fellow pitmasters Peter Cho and Osama Chaudhry) left his family’s Grand Prairie furniture business and opened a Pakistani-influenced halal barbecue food truck in Fort Worth in November 2023. That new venture was recently named one of the best barbecue restaurants in Fort Worth by both Texas Monthly and Forbes. And that’s quite an accolade, as Shafi’s former employer, Goldee’s, currently sits atop the throne of Texas Monthly’s 2021 listing of Best Barbecue in Texas.

Shafi credits his Pakistani upbringing and his memories of family gatherings around the open re for igniting his passion to create his twist on Texas barbecue as well as his desire to build community around his extraordinarily thoughtful cuisine at Sabar.

“There’s so many Pakistani dishes and sides that people have never had, and it’s one of the most populous countries in the world. It’s very under-represented in food and culture in America, or really even outside of Pakistan,” says Shafi. One such Pakistani-influenced barbecued meat is his house-made halal sausage inspired by the seekh kebabs (or meat skewers) of his childhood. Shafi uses not only onions, garlic and chiles, which are common in both Pakistani and Texas-style barbecue, but also incorporates cumin, coriander and cardamom to meld the two cuisines in spectacular fashion.

“That’s the very firs dish that kind of clicked and it was like, ‘You know, what? is could actually work!’ And so it just started from there and grew into what we are right now,” says Shafi.

Another dish combines the traditional spices of Pakistani tandoori chicken, but features turkey as the base protein, which is often a more common poultry selection in Texas barbecue circles.

“I don’t want to really say it’s fusion, because I feel like just because you put a rub on something, it doesn’t really make it fusion. But it is a really good marriage of those flavors: turkey like we cook them in Texas over post oak with butter,” Shafi explains.

Shafi also serves traditionally prepared Texas-style brisket, infusing Pakistani spices in its rub, and extraordinary curry-based brisket burnt ends served over fresh naan. Instead of pork ribs (prohibited in halal cuisine), Sabar’s pitmasters have created lamb ribs. In an effort to pay homage to Chinese Muslims, these ribs are cooked over flame with a rub that incorporates Chinese Schezwan peppercorns as is common in the Xinjiang region of China. The sides at Safar BBQ balance the menu and provide lighter fare, with traditional Pakistani daal chawal, a lentil- and rice-based dish that Shafi describes as the ultimate comfort food, a refreshing fruit chaat with seasonal fruits and a tangy spice mix, along with a fresh kachumber (cucumber) salad.

194 Bryan Ave.
Fort Worth, TX 76104
FB & IG’ @sabarbbq

Peter Cho, pitmaster and friend to Sabar’s Zain Shafi, holds a tray of the popular halal sausage.
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Daniel Cunningham, Horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife's Water University program. His primary focus is a holistic approach to landscaping and food production systems. Cunningham specializes in Texas native plants and trees, vegetable gardening, edible landscaping, rainwater harvesting and is passionate about utilizing landscapes as habitat for benecial wildlife. For more gardening advice om Daniel, tune in to NBC DFW (Channel 5) on Sunday mornings or ask @TxPlantGuy on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.