This is a hard blog post to write and share. I’ve gone back and forth on what to write and whether I should even be sharing this. I’m still in shock by everything that happened, and the grief from the loss of my uncle almost two years ago resurfaces because it seems so similar. Different forms of cancer, but just the rapidity of the disease seems similar. It’s surreal and awful to see someone in such pain and knowing that the cancer just keeps consuming them and you just pray and wait.
But we can’t get stuck in the sadness and the anger and the unfairness of it all because Jon Heidelberg leaves behind a warm, loving family and an incredible food legacy.
It was 4 years ago that I first heard about Jonbalaya when the food lineup for Chalk the Block was announced. The Nashville Scene described him as a “bearded, burly meatmeister” who set up a competition-grade smoker on Saturdays at a farmers’ market in Coleman Park. Other accolades included best bbq and being voted number 31 out of the top 100 chefs in Nashville. I couldn’t believe that this snazzy food truck was in El Paso, and I was jealous that meateaters got to enjoy Cajun classics.
I wasn’t jealous for long, because success had birthed a brick and mortar restaurant in the northeast with an expanded menu. And, in that hidden restaurant lay the best fried okra and tofu I had ever eaten. The tofu puffy tacos were not just a vegetarian option afterthought. The same care that Chef placed in preparing meat was placed in the tofu as well. It was marinated, smoked, and finished on the grill, giving it a good texture and an even better flavor.
Best of all, the times that I ordered from the truck or at the restaurant, Jon and his family were always so friendly and nice. It was a family affair at the restaurant and you could tell how passionate and proud they were of their food. Chef Jon’s cuisine was much needed in El Paso and was a true gem in the northeast. I am grateful to have eaten such good food and to have met even better people.
The following is an article that I wrote back in 2016 for the Border Eats section in What’s Up weekly, along with some photos I took.
It was 2014 at Chalk the Block when El Paso was first introduced to pork parfait from a festive food truck manned by an equally entertaining chef calling out orders through a loudspeaker in a Louisiana drawl. El Paso had never experienced such a truck and it was love at first bite after bite of layered pulled pork, mashed potatoes and baked beans.
Jonbalaya food truck had just rolled in from Tennessee after dominating Nashville’s culinary scene, including winning best ribs in town. With roots in El Paso and Louisiana, Chef Jon Heidelberg moved back to be closer to family, and within two years, he opened a sit-down restaurant located near the Western Tech college in the northeast.
Every menu item has something up its sleeve, right down to the refreshing sweet tea accented with the warmth of ginger. All the NOLA standards are served here, from jambalaya to etouffee, to po’boys and a gumbo loaded with the holy trinity of vegetables, chicken and andouille sausage in an aromatic roux over rice. Southern favorites are not to be missed, like the chicken & waffles that can be made southern fried or Nashville hot, grits made with not one, but seven cheeses, bacon mac and cheese and the best fried okra you’ve ever had due to Cajun seasoning and a double-fried breading.
Unique to our area, but not Texas, are the puffy tacos served with parboiled Cajun rice. Flash fried flour tortillas puff up, but still have room to hold a good amount of meat or even tofu that’s been marinated, baked and finished off on the grill and topped with pineapple-habanero slaw, Sriracha, house-made remoulade and thinly shaved house-pickled jalapenos.
But it’s the Tiger wings (aka crack wings) everyone raves about, slathered in a tangy, hot and sweet house-made sauce and served atop Cajun tater tots. The meat sweats are totally worth getting when you can choose up to three meats served with a side, buttered garlic bread and a drink. Brisket, pork, chicken, turkey, ribs and sausage are often available if not sold out and all smoked low and slow to perfection.
As if it couldn’t get any better, breakfast is now served all day featuring biscuits and gravy, grits and grillades, omelettes, french toast, Belgian waffles and create-your-own “sammiches” or burritos.
Nowhere else in town will you find authentic Cajun-Creole-BBQ with genuine hospitality to match. Save room for an array of rotating made-from-scratch desserts like bread pudding, seasonal fruit pies and praline pecan sweet potato hand pies.