BECKLEY — They’re not on the menu, but Joel Sullivan keeps hot dogs in the kitchen at his street taco eatery, Poncho & Lefty’s in Beckley.
“Every now and then we get guys who come by,” Sullivan said, smiling.
The 35-year-old Raleigh county native said it’s usually the same type of guy — a big, no-nonsense man in work clothes and boots.
“They don’t look at the menu,” Sullivan said. “They don’t really care and that’s what they want, so we keep some hot dogs around.”
The hot dogs are a very special order in a place that offers up messy, two-handed tacos made with fried or grilled fish, beef, pork and chicken served on corn or wheat tortillas.
The tacos aren’t shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and cheese, but typically come with Carolina slaw and special sauces like Chinese buffet favorite, General Tso’s, or moon sauce — a Cambodian-inspired sauce served by street vendors in Pittsburgh, where Sullivan went to culinary school.
He keeps homemade and hand-labeled bottles of hot pepper dust and sauce on the table, including some with well-known peppers like serrano and habanero, but also some with exotic peppers like piri piri, a small pepper from the African country of Mozambique that has a sweet taste that slowly turns hot over your entire tongue.
“They’re a pain to work with,” Sullivan said. “But so worth it.”
So much of Poncho & Lefty’s touches are special. The secret hot dogs on the menu are deliberately ordinary.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a hot dog, the chef and restaurant owner added with a shrug.
“A guy wants what he wants,” he said.
It’s a casual, accommodating view, but Sullivan said all kinds of people come through the door of the repurposed gas station.
Outside, traffic along Harper Road leading up from downtown Beckley and coming down from the exit from Interstate 77 moves steadily in the middle of the afternoon.
“I probably get as many people who are just passing through as live here,” Sullivan said. “Maybe more. When you’re traveling somewhere, maybe you look for new things to try or just something different. If it’s in your own backyard.” He shrugged.
Maybe you order a hot dog.
Out-of-town customers aren’t a bad thing, Sullivan knows.
People just passing through put fresh dollars into the local economy and a little, off-the-wall taco place playing rock or punk music on the radio, decorated with a liberal dose of Day of the Dead merchandise, might be a healthy challenge to preconceptions about Beckley, Raleigh County or West Virginia.
Sullivan hopes so. He loves his hometown and like a lot of places in the state, it’s suffered with the decline of coal jobs and a national public health crisis.
A chef with training from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Sullivan said most of his real culinary education came from working with talented chefs around Pittsburgh.
He could still be doing that or working in fine dining in a major city, but just doesn’t want to.
Life in a kitchen isn’t always that great for raising a family.
“I don’t want to do endless 75-hour weeks,” he said.
Beckley was home.
Before he had the restaurant, Sullivan had a food truck.
Five years ago, nobody much was doing street tacos or fish tacos locally. He drove all over the place for fairs and festivals and then business really took off.
Sullivan didn’t need to find places to take his truck. Fair and festival organizers called him, but the work meant a lot of weekends and holidays away from his wife and kids, so he parked the truck.
“I still get calls to come out,” he said.
Sullivan decided he wanted to bring his outdoor street food business indoors and he said he really couldn’t beat the location — it was within walking distance of where he grew up, part of the old neighborhood, but the old gas station wasn’t in great shape.
“Every piece of glass was busted out of this place,” he said. “There was a tree growing inside.”
Contractors told him it would be easier and cheaper to knock the whole place down and build something else, but Sullivan liked the shape of the place, liked the idea of reclaiming something that had been part of the neighborhood and putting it to new use.
The restaurant gets its name from the old Townes Van Zandt song about the final acts of a couple of worn-down bandits in Mexico. The song became a signature hit for Willie Nelson, but the spelling for the restaurant is wrong.
The song is “Pancho and Lefty.” Poncho is a type of rain gear.
Every now and then someone will point that out to him, but Sullivan said he just couldn’t stand the thought of people coming in and calling it, Pant-cho.
“And it was going to happen,” he said.
Sullivan also said you’d be surprised at how many ways you can say quesadilla.
They keep it simple at Poncho & Lefty’s, he said. The ingredients are fresh. The restaurant doesn’t have a walk-in cooler, he said, so nothing sticks around very long. They shop locally for everything, smoke their own meat and make as much of what they can by hand.
“We make food every day,” he said. “We go out and talk to people every day.”
Poncho & Lefty’s is mostly a warmer-month type of place.
There’s plenty of outdoor seating, including a rooftop deck, and they can open up the front garage doors to let out the heat and let in the breeze.
When it gets cold, the restaurant has a couple of heaters to warm up the dining area, but Sullivan said he doesn’t fight the cold for too long. He closes in January and February, during the most bitter part of winter.
Shutting down isn’t a problem, he said. They do well enough the rest of the year.
“We’re looking at expanding,” he added.—
Sullivan said he’s been scouting locations in Charleston.