Mario Dominguez is a believer in the Central Texas style – and oak is the key.
He starts the flame every Tuesday night at his hometown barbecue restaurant in Mercedes. It will then burn steady and sure for the next five days at The Smoking Oak. The line of customers starts forming before the noon hour at the BBQ restaurant on 546 Hidalgo Street. The oak burns slow, thus giving the meat a milder flavor, with selections that are worth the wait.
“That’s the Central Texas style,” Dominguez said. “It’s simple and it takes longer. It doesn’t have the heavier flavor of mesquite (burn).”
The flavor of Smoking Oak BBQ won words of praise from a Texas Monthly reviewer, Greg Rosen. He said the Mercedes establishment’s brisket and pork ribs “are right up there in our top five, easily.”
Barbecue is a Texas passion and The Smoking Oak has developed its own signature and fan base. May is National Barbecue Month. In the midst of dealing with the coronavirus crisis, restaurants have seen closure of their dine-in services and are trying to endure through drive-through and delivery options. The Smoking Oak has a loyal customer base it will rely on in coming back from these challenging months.
It starts at home in Mercedes. The community roots run deep for Dominguez and his brother Santana on Hidalgo Street. The site of their restaurant is where their grandmother’s house once stood. The back yard where they grew up playing is where they built new additions to their growing restaurant.
“There’s nothing like being home and being connected to this neighborhood,” Mario Dominguez said.
The Smoking Oak is a popular stop-off point for both Border Patrol agents and state troopers traveling up and down the Rio Grande Valley on nearby Expressway 77/83. The restaurant is also popular with Winter Texans along with its loyal customer base in the Mid-Valley.
“We have customers come in from one end of the Valley to the other, so being in Mercedes, in the middle (of RGV), has worked out for us,” Dominguez said.
Making The Dream Happen
The Smoking Oak was a lengthy process in the making for the Dominguez family. Mario B. Dominguez, the father of the two brothers, ran and owned a successful insurance business in Mercedes for many years. The younger Mario was part of that business after returning from college at the University of North Texas in Denton. It was the long trips up and down Interstate 35 when he and family members began making stops along the way at BBQ establishments in Central Texas.
It was during that time when the younger Dominguez began getting a taste to someday have his own BBQ business. He started in 2015 with the first version of Smoking Oak at his grandmother’s home site. He began with limited hours and only a handful days as he also stayed connected to the insurance business. A surge in business convinced him to go full time into BBQ with his brother Santana.
In 2017, they began expanding the business and would move to being open during midday hours, Wednesday through Sunday. On Tuesday nights, Mario Dominguez gets the fire going. It will then stay on for five days, the brick smoker going, at the hometown BBQ with a regional appeal.
“When you talk about being local, that’s us, and we’re proud of it,” Dominguez said.