Leo Chavez was working in a university’s finance office when his father, Edward T. Chavez, fell ill. He leaned over from his chair and said he wished his son would do something he loved.
“I did not like the corporate world anymore,” Chavez says.
“I was unhappy, and he got sick and he’s like, ‘You’re passionate about your food, so why don’t you pursue it?’”
His father died in September 2017, and Chavez figured it was “now or never.” The Tempe High School graduate went for it and opened the now-successful Herb ’n’ Smoke food trailer at the end of 2017.
“I went into the office one morning and called my wife. I said, ‘I am quitting this morning, and I gave my notice.’ Well, as you can imagine, there was no response on the other end. I thought I lost the call.
“Then I heard her say, ‘Well, what is your plan?’ I said I would just make it work. She said she would stand by me.”
On February 6 of this year, he took another chance. Chavez unveiled the brick-and-mortar Herb ’n’ Smoke in Downtown Mesa.
“I’m hoping we become a staple here in Downtown Mesa,” Chavez says. “We would like to keep expanding. I don’t want to franchise it. I want to open other Herb ’n’ Smoke locations that family members can run. I want to help them out. I really want to keep it in the family.
“I’m hoping my kids will take it over for me at some point and just keep it going. It’s good food, comfort food, and I want customers to keep coming back.”
So far, guests have returned for his brisket fries ($14), slow-smoked brisket and cheddar cheese sauce served on fresh-cut fries, as well as the burgers ($8 to $14), brisket sandwiches ($12) and barbecue chicken sandwiches ($9).
“I absolutely love the brisket fries,” he says. “That’s my favorite, because I’m a potato and brisket guy. It’s just amazing. I just love that. It’s mouthwatering.”
New to Herb ’n’ Smoke is the smoked gouda bites appetizer ($4.50), which are gooey mac and cheese smoked bites. They’re served with Sriracha cream and chipotle barbecue sauce for dipping.
He has vegetarians in mind, too, with smoked tofu ($9), which is washed with smoke and covered in barbecue sauce. Then, there are the spiced cauliflower wings ($6.50), which are dipped in tabasco-inspired batter and served with Sriracha cream and chipotle barbecue sauce.
Chavez says Herb ’n’ Smoke sets itself apart by using proprietary spices and woods that are native to Arizona in the smoker. He takes his father’s recipes and throws it in the smoker.
“I literally copied every single recipe,” Chavez says. “His recipes were always in his head. We’d just walk it through, and I’d watch.
“That’s how I learned how to cook. I still do it to this day. My wife keeps telling me I need to measure things. I said, ‘Why? It works. This is what I do — here’s a pinch of this, here’s a pinch of that.’”
Chavez calls his style a diversion from typical barbecue. It’s not Kansas City or Tennessee style.
“It’s just me,” he says with a smile. “I try to put everything into this restaurant that we’ve done on the food trailer.”
Aesthetically, Herb ’n’ Smoke provides a comfortable setting for guests. Chavez says he decorated the small restaurant so it made him cozy as well.
Chavez’s tattoos are just as meaningful. He literally wears his loves on his sleeve — his father’s name and a cleaver, which symbolizes his passion for cooking.
“The knife is a symbol of my dad,” he says. “It was the cleaver that I can always remember that he always had and used. It was the ‘everything’ knife. So, now he cooks with me.”
Herb ’n’ Smoke means so much to Chavez. He says he proved the naysayers wrong.
“When I opened the door to this building and I just looked at the inside of it, it was a moment in my life that really made me reflect on how good we have it now,” Chavez says. “I say that we’re truly blessed at this point.”
Herb ’n’ Smoke
123 W. Main Street, Mesa