Cattle Driving for BBQ
Finding smoked meat and history along the Red River
I cursed the Dallas traffic as I tried to get out of town on a rainy Tuesday morning. Secluded fields and old river crossings were my destination, and I was eager to leave the city behind me. I wanted to find the best barbecue along North Texas’s historic cattle trails. What was supposed to be a pleasant and scenic drive was literally clouded with a light but relentless drizzle covering the windshield. My hopes that the overcast sky would burn off were dwindling as I arrived at my first destination, Nocona, around 10:00 a.m.
As I drove around the small town, I saw the same name—the Fenoglios—nearly everywhere. The family came to Montague County in 1880, right around the end of the Chisolm Trail days, and their name (pronounced with a silent “g”) is all around town, in the form of plaques at the local Tales ‘N Trails Museum and the two-decade-old Fenoglio’s Bar-B-Q on the west side of town. The small counter at Fenoglio’s fills quickly. You can also place your order at the counter and find a seat in the small dining area. The menu is mainly diner fare, along with options for a “Full, Half or Lite” barbecue plate. The Full plate with brisket and sausage is a whopping $6.75. That includes a ho-hum mayo slaw, a decent bowl of beans, and some fantastic onion rings. You need to serve cheap sausage to have those kind of prices, so there were no surprises. The brisket was pre-sliced and stacked into a warming try. That it was dry was a foregone conclusion, but it had a good smokiness to it from the hulking steel pit out back.
I was about to pay when I saw the girl behind the counter forming hamburger patties destined for a griddle that’s probably older than the restaurant. One to go…all the way…with cheese. After picking through my plate in the booth, I now tore into the cheeseburger in the front seat of my car. Halfway through I remember the many barbecue stops that lay ahead. I wrapped it up and kept it in the backseat to perfume the car. Every cabin re-entry until I finally tossed the sandwich that evening would bring good memories of the day’s first meal.
Toward the end of a visit to the local Tales ‘N Trails Museum on the other side of town, the docent asked where I was headed. Red River Station was my answer. She gave me a concerned look. “Do you know how to find it?” I’d done some research. Hopefully the back roads weren’t too muddy. Before driving off I noticed a squared-off concrete pole in the ground behind the museum. It was a marker for the Chisholm Trail, which used to run through town. I was already on the right track.
The spot where all those cattle on the Chisholm Trail crossed the Red River was several miles northeast. After the paved road gave way to gravel there were a few jogs and turns until I reached an open gate and a cattle guard. The historical marker is not only remote, but it’s also on private property. I’d been assured that crossing these cattle guards was kosher. A few miles later there was a good test of my car’s four-wheel drive, but I found the marker. The brush was so thick I couldn’t see the Red River, but I knew it was there. I spent a few hours getting to this point from Dallas, but reminded myself that even a fast moving herd of cattle would have spent more than a week to get this far on a similar route. I had made it to the most remote historical maker I’ve come across, but Instagram geo-tagging wasn’t going to cooperate out here.
There is no such thing as the Chisholm Trail in Texas. A series of feeder trails crisscrossed the state, mostly funneled through Fort Worth, and eventually led to Red River Station. The Chisholm Trail proper began on the Oklahoma side of the river. The trail saw its peak traffic in the twenty years or so after the Civil War. Before then the major route for getting cattle to the northern rail lines was up the Shawnee Trail. It followed the old Preston Road through Dallas up to Grayson County and crossed the Red River at Preston, Texas. That site is now underwater, but in a cove at the edge of Lake Texoma you can still see the natural ramp that once funneled tens of thousands of cattle into the river. A high-rise condo now looks over the spot and a gated community prohibits access by land.
Just down the road is Hannah’s BBQ where you can find serviceable barbecue. Long-time favorite Doc’s BBQ in Pottsboro just a few more miles down the old Preston Road closed after three decades and a quirky ramshackle joint Bone on the Grill has been erased from the landscape just a few more miles south. The Texas terminus of the Shawnee Trail is light on barbecue options.
Headed the other direction from Nocona, I was in search of the Great Western Trail. Doan’s Crossing just north of Vernon became the preferred cattle crossing point over the Red River once the Chisholm Trail gave way to the Great Western Trail in the early 1880’s. The sky was clearing up as I floored it along the empty Highway 82, but first I had a couple stops in Wichita Falls.
Eighty-eight years is a long lifespan for any business, but it’s very special for a family-run barbecue joint. Allen Prine is the third generation to own Prine’s BBQ, a diminutive yellow concrete block building along 13th Street in Wichita Falls. To put that legacy in perspective, Black’s BBQ in Lockhart has a longstanding claim to fame that they are “Texas’ oldest major barbecue restaurant continuously owned by the same family.” They opened in 1932. Prine’s opened seven years earlier in 1925 by Harry Prine Sr. Their specialties are briskets and bone-in hams which are smoked over oak in custom built brick pits out in front of the building. Both meats are smoky, and the dry brisket is helped by the throwback sauce that is a thin mix of mustard and vinegar. I could eat the ham all day alongside the homemade potato salad made up of silky smooth mashed potatoes with a bite from dill pickles and white pepper. They also make a mean pimento cheese, but we’ll get to that later.
Just a couple blocks up 13th Street is Bar-L Drive Inn. A large neon arrow reads “BEER” which says a lot more about the virtues of this joint than the barbecue menu posted on the wall. I knew to order a “red draw,” which is half light beer and half tomato juice. The novelty of being able to drink it in my vehicle kept me from finding a seat inside. I sat under the awning in my car where my barbecue combo plate arrived quickly. There wasn’t much worth returning for. A unique sauce that tasted like a mix of Worcestershire and molasses was memorable, but the red draw is the reason to stop here.
Well fortified in Wichita Falls, I drove right through Vernon and headed north on 283. After a right turn onto FM 2916, it took just over a mile to reach Doan’s Crossing. A giant granite monument covered with engraved cattle brands marks the spot where 6,000,000 cattle crossed on their way up the Great Western Trail. A dirt road trails off toward the Red River, but again I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the water through the brush.
After rushing back to Vernon I found out that Tuesday isn’t a big day for barbecue in town. Mic’s BBQ had workers on site completing their addition, but the pits wouldn’t be fired up until the following day. Unless Duncan’s Smokehouse had stopped using their residential oven to cook barbecue, I wasn’t going to venture another visit. Todd’s Smokehouse just opened last May, but they were also closed on Tuesdays. At this point I realized it was too late to beat the closing time at Vernon’s Red River Valley Museum. It has a collection of art, Native American artifacts, and stuffed big game animals. There is also information on the Great Western Trail, but the future plans of the museum are larger. They’re raising funds for an addition that will house the Great Western Trail Heritage Center. I might have missed it, but I now have an excuse to come back once the addition is completed, I’ll just have to do it on a Wednesday through Saturday if I want some local barbecue.
On the drive back to Dallas I was hungry again, and I had an epiphany. I walked into Prine’s for the second time that day and asked Allan if he could add some of his homemade pimento cheese onto a chopped brisket sandwich. Not a problem. “People ask for it all the time,” he responded. Pimento cheese is having something of a moment in the South, with many variations being concocted in fancy restaurants. But it’s probably safe to say that Prine’s isn’t glomming on to the latest trend or fad. Their pimento cheese is an obvious staple of the menu, a recipe that’s likely been around for a good long while. Allan chopped up some brisket, added some of that thin sauce, then scooped it all onto a toasted bun. He heaped a generous portion of pimento cheese onto the meat and tossed on a few jalapeno slices for good measure. He then wrapped it in paper and popped it in the microwave. Normally I cringe at the sound of that microwave ding, but it served a purpose here. When I unwrapped it out in the car the meat and cheese had become one. Call it want you want—a bastardization, an abomination, a mess—but it tasted fantastic. I see the start of a new trend.
If you’re interested in finding the markers along any of the major cattle trails in Texas, we’ve created a map for that. Click below and it will take you to the interactive version. The map is mainly comprised of historical markers erected by the Texas Historical Commission. We’ll be updating the map with new informational as we find it. Feel free to comment below if we missed anything.
510 W. Hwy 82
Nocona, Texas 76255
Open M-Sat 6:00 – 2:30
Tales ‘N Trails Museum
1522 E. Hwy 82
Nocona, TX, 76255
Open M-Sat 10-5Free
83493 N. SH 289
Pottsboro, Texas 75076
Open Sat-Sun 11-6
1209 13th St.
Wichita Falls, Texas 76301
Open Tues-Sat 8-6:50
Bar-L Drive Inn
908 13th St
Wichita Falls, Texas 76301
Open M-Sat 10:00-11:00ish (later on Friday)
Red River Valley Museum
4600 College Drive
Vernon, Texas 76384
Open Tues-Sun 1-5