Zavala’s Barbecue Runs Clinic on How to Take the Pain Out of Waiting

Worth the wait?
Worth the wait? Lauren Drewes Daniels
For some of us, it’s just how we’re wired. No matter how hard we try, we hate waiting.

But then there’s barbecue. It’s a fact that many of our great barbecue spots come with long lines. People stand and wait and stand and wait. And I’m always in awe of their fortitude.

Not all lines are equal, however. Does the line have integrity? Is the crew behind the counter displaying a sense of calm urgency, glad that people are willing to wait and doing what they can within reason to accommodate each guest quickly? Like once I was waiting a while for coffee at a local spot and all the workers suddenly stopped what they were doing to talk about if they should put the butter in the freezer.

Also, are customers ordering like they're in a place with other people waiting? Like the time at a Braum’s where a lady asked to sample the cookie dough ice cream. She wasn't sure even after the sample. She had to really think about it for a long time while 10 people behind her waited.

Some say waiting for barbecue is an intrinsic part of Texas barbeque culture. Even Kanye had to wait. Our very own Chris Wolfgang explained a few years ago why it's worth the wait:

“But there’s little a carnivore in need of his barbecue fix can do, other than get there early and make a friend in line. Just as it’s a struggle to create top-notch barbecue, it can be a struggle to get it on your plate as well. It’s simply part of the experience.”

Either way, on a recent Saturday I looked at my husband and said, “We should go to Zavala’s for lunch.” He answered with a silent nod and grabbed the keys.

Missing the parking lot on our initial approach — or scouting the line — we did a big circle around the block before parking in the grass lot behind the restaurant. We took our place in line, which was outside the door around a corner, actually, not bad at all.

I swore to the goddess of pink smoke rings I wouldn’t stalk the people ordering to see if they were “doing it right.” In my most grown-up voice, I told myself, This is their time. They’re paying a fair shake for a good meal at a local restaurant, so settle the f*ck down and don’t eyeball people.

(OK. Being honest, I did watch. The first group literally took forever, but after them, everyone handled business quickly.)

But after about five minutes of waiting, a person, who I think was owner Joe Zavala, sailed out of the side door — the one that leads to the kitchen — and walked along the line, starting at the back, offering everyone big chunks of burnt ends to sample. Blessed burnt ends. The tension level in the world went from a 7.5 to a 4. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth amazing.

Shuffling around to the front, my mouth teased with the smoke-infused peppery bark, some kids were playing on a large Yetti cooler. I didn’t pay much attention; I was in a burnt ends euphoria because by that time, Zavala had come around with another paper boat of samples.
click to enlarge This cooler just outside the door at Zavala's helps take the edge off the wait. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
This cooler just outside the door at Zavala's helps take the edge off the wait.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
But as I got closer I realized the cooler was full of Lone Star beer. And a sign on the top said I could have one (or two!). There were only six or so left, so my husband and I shared one. A guy came by and asked the guy behind me if he wanted a koozie for his beer. He was just being nice; invested in a stranger’s beer staying cold. This was a convivial line.

Joe Zavala says he’s had a cooler full of free beer by the line since his pop-up days.

“If you can wait in line, we can at least give you something to drink,” Zavala says. “People love it. Sometimes people just go buy more beer and put in there.”

He usually starts off with a case but will go buy another from a nearby convenience store if he needs to; they keep a stack set aside for him. Zavala says he also always makes sure music is playing.

Cattlelack also offers free beer to customers and goes through about a case a day. For them, this is easier than dealing with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Time went pretty quickly with our snacks and beer. When we got to the counter at Zavala’s the cashier was 100% attentive and the guy on the cutting block was about 120% attentive. Strong eye-contact game. We walked out the door with our tray of food about 25 minutes after arriving, which isn't much of a wait for any restaurant, particularly a barbecue spot in Texas where waiting is an intrinsic part of the process.

And so now I'm better at waiting. In this line at least. It may have ruined me. Because from here on out, if you're not giving away beer and samples of burnt ends, you're not doing it right.

Zavala's Barbecue, 421 W. Main St. (Grand Prairie). Open Thursday (Fajita Night) 4 p.m. to No Mas, Friday 11:30 a.m. to No Mas, 5 p.m. to No Mas (Burger or Crispito Night), Saturday 11 a.m. to No Mas.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.