You don’t want to mess with a Texan, especially when that Texan has a bit of Jersey blood.
Enrique Vega, a Trenton native, runs Cowboys BBQ & Rib Co. out of Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife, Lauren. Lauren’s parents, Dallas and Tahnya, ran the business for years before passing it on to their daughter and son-in-law.
Enrique joined the Cowboys team in 1996 when he was just 11 years old. He has traveled with Lauren’s family every summer since, entering BBQ competitions around the country. Now married, Lauren and Enrique carry on the family tradition, which includes returning to Jersey every year to compete against some of the country’s best rib masters.
From June 24-26, Augusta is hosting its annual Rock, Ribs and Ridges Music and Food Festival—which made New Jersey Monthly‘s summer festival guide—at the Sussex County Fairgrounds. In 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 festival was postponed due to the pandemic), Cowboys BBQ & Ribs took home the prize for Best Ribs. Now Enrique and Lauren are looking to do it again.
Attendees can sample the work of all the competitors and cast their vote for the “People’s Choice” award. Lauren and Enrique are looking to defend their title. “For my husband, as a New Jersey native, he’s always very competitive,” Lauren says.
How did you get started in BBQ?
Enrique Vega: I met Lauren’s dad when I was 11 years old. They were doing a festival at the Trenton Thunder and I ran by and asked if I could work the front counter. Now, I’ve worked for him for about 20 years and I bought the business.
Lauren Vega: My parents started Cowboys when I was 4, and many years later, Enrique and I married and we bought the business when my father retired. Every summer, we would travel around the U.S. I thought he was a dork at first but here we are!
What’s your favorite part about returning to New Jersey?
EV: Winning! Haha. I’m from Trenton, and there isn’t much there, so it feels really good coming back home as a success.
LV: The Jersey festival is such a good one. We just love to feed good, southern BBQ to the masses, and it’s not something super well known in the East or Midwest.
Tell me about your award-winning ribs.
LV: We bring the same thing every year. We use our Rio Grande rub and our original Cowboys sauces. We always say, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!” We do St. Louis cut ribs, smoke them, cook them low and slow and grill them. We’ve won over 400 national titles.
What are some important tips when making barbecue?
LV: When you cook a pork rib, you gotta cook it at a low temperature for a long time. If not, you’re going to get some chewy ribs. We always grill the ribs until it pops, and that’s how you know it’s done.
What are you looking forward to this year?
LV: We love the people and the camaraderie of the New Jersey festival. They’ve successfully put on a great show for years. The longer you’re at a festival, you build a lot of relationships and things like that. It’s Enrique’s home, so he definitely likes to take home a win!
What’s your favorite BBQ dish to cook?
EV: I’m a rib guy. I love cooking ribs. I’ve won best ribs and best sauce at the Rock, Ribs and Ridges festival. I know what they like in Jersey.