She won’t talk trash, Idaho. But Texas BBQ ‘duchess’ to open ‘proper’ Meridian restaurant

Tonya Chandler has tasted Idaho barbecue.

Some places offer lots of different sauces, she’s noticed. And maybe attempt to duplicate multiple regional styles.

“I can respect that,” Chandler says, “but I don’t necessarily eat that.”

Pretty soon, Meridian will be able to feast on what she does eat. With Tonya running day-to-day operations, she and her husband, Larry, plan to open Smokin’ Iron BBQ, a small restaurant at 520 S. Meridian Road. It’s in the former Los Mariachis restaurant across from Meridian Speedway.

Smokin’ Iron will serve “proper Texas BBQ,” its logo proclaims.

That is not a dig at Idaho ‘cue. “I do not want to be insulting to anybody or what they do,” Chandler says with a friendly laugh. “I just won’t do it!”

“It’s more the method,” she explains. “Very, very low and slow.” It’s also the flavor profile: Smoke-forward. With a “kick.”

“I keep it very simple,” she says. “... We have a process. It took me many, many years.”

Tonya and Larry grew up in Magnolia, Texas. Back when it was cow country. With roadside pitmasters. Where meat smoked in the back of honky tonks. “Some of the best pitmasters you ever met in your life,” she remembers.

Tonya owned bars and restaurants for decades in New York and Texas before she divested, retired (supposedly) and wound up in Idaho in 2017, she says.

Smokin’ Iron BBQ will serve up meat with a smoky, bold flavor.
Smokin’ Iron BBQ will serve up meat with a smoky, bold flavor.

Ten years ago, she owned a huge Texas barbecue-and-beer garden. After that, she and Larry moved to Wyoming for a year. “When I built (a) barbecue place for Hotel Jackson in Jackson Hole in 2016, I won the Jackson Hole Chili Cookoff with my brisket chili,” Chandler recalls enthusiastically. Hers even topped a bison chili from perennial favorite the Wort Hotel, Tonya adds. “So my brisket chili is killer. Absolutely killer. I’ve done a lot of stuff in life, but that rates right up there!”

Does she consider herself a bona fide, card-carrying “pitmaster”? “I don’t really know what that definition is,” she muses. “I gave myself a nickname. Can you give yourself a nickname? I’m the ‘duchess of brisket.’

“There’s only one queen of barbecue,” she adds. “It’s Tootsie Tomanetz from Snow’s BBQ in Texas.”

The hope is to launch Smokin’ Iron BBQ around Memorial Day. At about 1,500 square feet, it will be “tight in there,” Tonya says. Maybe 14 tables. Should seat around 50.

“I’ll open that kitchen up,” she says. “You can pretty much see what we’re doing, how I’m doing it. When you’re getting served, you’re going to get that experience of an old meat market a little bit. I pull that meat out right in front of you, it gets butchered right in front of you, it gets plated right in front of you.”

If you’re lucky, Larry might even sneak into the kitchen once in awhile.

“We could call him the ‘duke of brisket,’ I guess,” Tonya says with a chuckle. “I will give him credit. We smoke a wing that is just absolutely spectacular. And I will give him 100% props on that recipe and that method.”

Chandler intends to open more than one location when all is said and done.

But, for now, she’s looking forward to giving Idahoans the opportunity to savor some high-quality, authentic Texas barbecue. The kind she grew up appreciating.

“I cannot speak highly enough of Idaho and how much we love it,” she says. “We’re planting our roots here. This is it.”