Danny DeLuna. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Danny DeLuna. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Even with the heat coming off the grill his father built for him and the smoke that is blowing in his face, it seems like pit master Danny DeLuna could not be happier, tending to his barbecue in the parking lot of The Barn in Tres Pinos as he waits for the customers to arrive.

“I love to cook,” he said. “Good food is such a universal way of communicating, and I want my food to tell a story. I love that I can serve my barbecue to people I don’t know and, based on that alone, have them walk away as great new friends.”

Before opening his own business, DeLuna cooked at private parties and for his friends, using a grill and smoker that his father, Hollister American Legion Commander Robert DeLuna built for him. Early on, he picked up the basics from watching family members in the kitchen.

“I have always been around people who are cooking,” he said. “I was literally that kid at the counter. ‘Why are you putting that in there? Why are you doing this? Can I try it?’ I was learning how to cook foods that are authentic.”

The breakthrough came at 12 years old when he was helping his mother at a high school benefit and could not help himself from joining in.

“Someone was cooking ground beef for enchiladas,” he said. “And I got it into my head that they were not doing it right. I kept asking if I could help and I ended up running five separate pans, getting into the rhythm and the speed. I was having to think critically about cooking times and things like that. And I loved it.”  

With his father having worked as a truck driver and his mother driving a school bus, DeLuna had been in and out of big vehicles his entire life. Becoming a truck driver himself was a natural choice—but not the first choice.

“I’ve always been good at doing physical things,” he said, “But I was always wanting to cook, always wanting to BBQ. So I would cook for my family and friends, and it was just always fun. But I never really pursued it, mostly out of fear of failure.”

As he got more experience with barbecuing, he started looking to upgrade the tools of the trade.

“I always wanted an open pit,” he said. “My dad had gotten a big pipe from work, and when he brought it home he said, ‘You know, I thought this would make a great smoker.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Yeah.’ I had him cut it in half, we put it on a small trailer, and I suddenly had a Santa Fe-style barbecue pit.”

Over the years, DeLuna had found occasional work as a bartender during breaks from driving, including a stint at the 19th Hole in Tres Pinos—and found he could not stay away from the kitchen.

“One restaurant actually had an indoor barbecue,” he said. “So, of course, that intrigued me and I was always watching that chef cook. I told him, “I’m gonna question you, and it’s not because I’m questioning your judgment. I just want to know the theory behind why you are doing what you are doing.” 

When he lost his job as a driver in October of last year, DeLuna decided to go into cooking full-time.

“I just was getting burned out from the traffic and the constant accidents and everything that’s happening on the road,” he said. “And I just didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. My sister kept telling me I should start my own barbecue business, so I signed up for the Farmers’ Market, and it has just blown up since.”

Now, besides the market, he has established a three-times-a-week residency at The Barn, cooking chicken, tri-tip, and pork ribs with the help of his family, Julian and Stella Ramos and Adam Luna.

“I would not be doing this without their support,” he said. “They have been encouraging me ever since I decided to start this business.”

DeLuna’s basic menu occasionally has add-ons like sausages and grilled squash and zucchini. Everything is seasoned with a special blend of spices that he developed over 15 years.

“When I started out,” he said. “I tried a lot of different things that didn’t work until I read a cookbook by Aaron Franklin. I decided to do a brisket exactly like he made it, with just kosher salt and pepper, in the exact same measurements he had in the book. It was the best brisket I ever had, and I worked out my own seasoning from there by trial and error. I wanted a specific look, and I wanted a specific flavor.”

DeLuna also makes a standard tomato-based barbecue sauce and a vinegar-forward mustard-based dipping sauce but recommends they be used sparingly.

“The star of the show is the meat, not the sauce,” he said. “I mean if it’s a sauce competition, fine, but if you are coming to get chicken, you want to taste chicken. And the same with the rest. You want to taste beef, you want to taste pork. The one thing that I really want to make sure comes first is the flavor of the meat.”

Danny’s Smoke and Grill is featured at the Hollister Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and at The Barn in Tres Pinos on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and alternating Sundays.

The Foods of Danny’s Smoke N’ Grill Barbecue

Tri-tip Nachos – A rainbow of colors and flavors, with green jalapenos and cilantro, red tomato and onions, yellow tortilla chips and nacho cheese, all topped with sour cream, this dish can be ordered with diced tri-tip or chicken. The portion size is huge and could most likely satisfy a table of two or three people. I have to admit I am a very cautious nacho fan because I find most are prepared with cloying and bland cheese, but I would order these any day. The quantity and mix of veggies make every bite distinctive and the generous amount of meat guarantees you will get some on every chip. It is a tough call between the menu options because the meat by itself is so good, but I think these are a must-try.

Ranch Beans – Combining pinto, black, and kidney beans with ground beef and diced tomatoes, the secret ingredient here is a can of beer, which is mixed in as everything simmers for an hour and a half. “They are just kind of basic,” he said, “and that is what I am going for. Like you are on the ranch, out in the field building a fence, and you are throwing them together for everybody who comes over to help.” It is an enticingly colorful dish, with the fresh-tasting bite of the tomato harmonizing with the three colors of the beans. And it is a small feast of nicely balanced flavors and textures as well, with an easily managed heat. It comes as a side dish with the platters but is worth ordering on its own as a hearty entree.

Quarter-Chicken – “I put the chicken skin first side down on the grill,” he said. “Then I add the seasoning, and every so often I spray it with red wine. I am listening to the sizzle most of all—that’s the thing that is telling me how the food is cooking. I cook it nice and slow and give it the respect of time.” Whatever he is doing works because his chicken is moist, tender, and beautifully flavorful with a little caramelization from the wine. It also harmonizes with the mustard sauce, which, while being assertive, works perfectly and does not overwhelm the taste of the chicken. 

Ribs –  “I am too competitive,” he said. “I think my ribs are better than anybody else’s so if anybody beats me, I think they’re cheating. With a lot of other ribs, you just have a crazy amount of sweetness on there, and it’s just too much. I want you to taste good food not just candy on the bone.” The ribs are both prepared and finished with brown sugar, DeLuna’s seasoning blend, and honey but they manage to be flavorful without hitting that candy threshold as the sugars used in preparation caramelize to a deep molasses flavor. They come off the cooker with a deep variegated scarlet color that almost seems painted on. These are not “fall off the bone tender” ribs—there is some pull that translates to a good firm texture when you bite down on them. Pairing these with some of DeLuna’s coleslaw, I could eat them all day.

Tri-tip – “My secret is that I trim off all the excess fat and take off the silver skin,” he said. “The silver skin doesn’t allow the smoke to break through and doesn’t allow the seasoning to break through. I want every piece of everything to have a great flavor all the way through it. It’s cliche, but you’ve got to do it right or don’t do it at all.” And this tri-tip is done right—the cut I had was thin sliced and perfectly tender. I tried it with the mustard sauce and stood up to it very well, but the meat is so flavorful with a hint of smoke that it seems a waste to adulterate it with anything other than perhaps a little pepper. DeLuna uses it for sandwiches as well, and if you order ahead of time, you can get a whole one to take home. Excellent tri-tip—I could not stop nibbling at it. My favorite item of the day.    

Recommendations for future Eat, Drink, Savor articles can be emailed to roberteliason@benitolink.com.

BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.