Barbecue at its Best in Southeast New Mexico

Words and Photo by Cristina Carreon

Lance Gardner and his son Maurice in front of the Au Jus BBQ food truck.

Southern-style barbecue is not relegated to the Deep South in the United States. After I wrote a story about the best barbecue places in Otero County, several readers sent emails asking why the hands-down best barbecue establishment in the area had not been included in my story.

So I went in search of Au Jus BBQ and owner Lance Gardner.

Au Jus BBQ isn’t a brick-and-mortar restaurant; it’s not a fancy food truck parked near well-traversed roads. Gardner’s barbecue is not made using the same techniques as famous Austin-based barbecue celebrity, Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue, or cooked using an expensive smoker, like some of the other BBQ joints in the area.

Gardner’s perfectly smoky brisket and the juiciest barbecue chicken and sausage can be found near the Sacramento Mountains in a quiet Air Force town containing more tumbleweeds than trees, an hour away from any city. Au Jus BBQ is cooked in do-it-yourself smokers made from old gas tanks and has been served out of a hand-built food trailer to the residents of Alamogordo for the last three years.

Outside an unassuming house in a suburban neighborhood one morning, I ate a plate piled high with mixed meats and beans and chatted with Gardner as he finished smoking up the meats that would later be sold to the lunch crowd somewhere in town. “This is my peace. One of them, anyway,” Gardner said, nodding at smoke rising from the large smoker that takes up a third of his food truck.

Gardner was a truck driver in Florida for fourteen years, but spent his free time honing his smoking and grilling skills. He and his father had plans to start a barbecue business together in Alamogordo, where the family was from originally. Sadly, his father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three years ago. Gardner then returned to Alamogordo and started his barbecue food truck business in his father’s memory. “So now we’re just doing it. I don’t care what’s going on. I’m going to make sure I do this,” Gardner said.

Gardner had many homegrown influences in learning the barbecue trade, which often stemmed from watching others cook barbecue during childhood. “I learned a little from [my father] and I learned a lot from the fathers around his neighborhood. I always loved to do it. You know, the pops in the neighborhood would grill and you just wanted to be the man on the grill.” He also learned from Mr. Jackson, his neighbor who lived across the street. Gardner said he and his friends would run around the neighborhood all day long and come back to find that Mr. Jackson’s meats were still on the smoker, not burned at all, but full of flavor.

“A lot of that rubbed off on me, just the technique of having it down pat,” Gardner said. He and his brothers kept the neighborhood tradition going, and he said cooking barbecue was a good way to stay out of trouble. “My dad told me I was crazy when I first started. We were running around the neighborhood all the time. Who was going to listen to a bunch of knuckleheads? But I kept with it, I just took it really personal and tried to be one of the best.”

Gardner built his original smokers out of old gas tanks when he was living in Florida, and he still uses them today. He cooks his barbecue at a high temperature while paying close attention to the meats as they cook.

“I call my stuff fire-smoked,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot of people that just put a lot of smoke on their barbecue and just let it smolder, there’s no fire in the box, and you can really taste that heavy smoke, but for me, I’m cooking at a high temperature from the start. Maybe in the middle I kind of tone it down a bit.”

“It’s an all-night thing,” he added. “I can’t rush.”

Gardner cut his teeth using mesquite wood, though he contends it is not a popular wood to use for barbecue because oak is more forgiving. “You shouldn’t really taste a lot of wood, you should taste the smoke but not the wood,” Gardner said. He also keeps his seasonings simple, with a hint of heat. “I want to keep the meat at what it really is.”

For Gardner, barbecue is not about using expensive cuts. It is about using technique to transform typically tough cuts of meat, such as brisket, into a quality meal. “Because that’s what it was in the first place; you didn’t have much, you just took this slab of meat and hoped for the best and that it turned into something nice.”

Au Jus BBQ offers barbecue standbys like brisket, sausage, and pork ribs, but at times, Gardner enjoys showing his culinary ambitions by selling barbecue tacos or smoked lamb.

Although businesses were allowed to reopen in June in New Mexico, Gardner said he planned to reopen in August. Even before the pandemic, he did not have plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “I like being outside,” he said. He has used the time off to have a second truck built with an even bigger smoker. Gardner’s big dreams and his mastery of high heat, warm spices, and no-nonsense advocacy of transforming affordable cuts into buttery meats with crisp skin assures big success for Au Jus BBQ.

Located in Alamogordo.