Interview: Al Plaskoff of Big Al’s Smokehouse
Owner: Big Al’s Smokehouse, Opened 1973
Smoker: Wood-fired rotisserie
I sat down with Al and his daughter Lauran Weiner to talk about the history of Big Al’s, the Plaskoff family and a little Dallas barbecue history. Al Plaskoff fell into the barbecue business. He wasn’t from a storied barbecue family, but rather came from a background in meat sales. Lauran’s mother is a Rosenthal and is related to Manny Rosenthal. The Rosenthal Meat Center at Texas A&M is named after him, and he is in the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for his work at Standard Meat Company in Fort Worth. Al wasn’t destined to become a meat magnate, but he supplied the folks who would become his competition after he opened Big Al’s Smokehouse in Dallas forty years ago. Many of those meat customers would go on to become household names in the Texas barbecue world.
Daniel Vaughn: You’ve been open for forty years now. It seems like a lot of your staff has been with you for much of that time. Is that the case?
Al Plaskoff: Scott [Collard] has been here thirty-four years. Pedro has been here the same amount of time. If you want to give him a title you can call him pitmaster, but we call him Pedro.
DV: I’ve never seen anyone other than Pedro cutting the meat when I’ve been here.
AP: That’s what he does. He’ll push anyone else away. That’s what he likes to do. He came here as a busboy from Mexico.
Lauran Weiner [Al’s daughter]: He was sixteen or seventeen years old.
A customer sat near us with a large plate of beef ribs.
LW: Dad told me something today that I’d never known. He was the first one in Dallas to serve beef ribs.
DV: Is that right, Al?
AP: I believe I was, but I’m not 100% sure. The reason is very simple. My history was as a meat salesman. I sold meat to everyone in town. My regulars were Travis Dickey, Red Bryan, Ferris, Bell’s, Gus’s, Moore Brothers, Bob White’s…there were so many of them around. The only thing I could sell was brisket and hamburgers because I didn’t know one cut from another. I did okay. I knew all these guys and I started hanging around them. I got to know them. So when I opened this place I started selling beef ribs. It was something I could sell as a special and not hurt anyone’s feelings because nobody else was selling them. I’m selling everybody ribs, briskets, navel plates…do you know about navel plates?
DV: Tell me.
AP: Navel plates are what they make pastrami out of. Delis still use it for corned beef. It’s shaped like a square and it’s about twenty pounds. You could get it for twenty-five cents a pound back then. Brisket was only fifty or sixty cents.
DV: Who did you work for?
AP: Farmer’s Meat Market. The funny thing is, back then there was Farmer’s Meat Market sitting right next to Standard Produce. Now that site is where Pecan Lodge is now. I used to park my car where his pit is now.
DV: What years were you selling meat?
AP: In the sixties until eighty-something.
DV: And no one was buying beef ribs for barbecue?
AP: Are you kidding me? Nobody had heard of beef ribs, at least around here. Maybe they heard about them up north, but not in Texas.
DV: What did this area look like when you opened?
AP: When we opened up here, Dallas ended at Royal Lane. There was nothing north of that. Bewley did everything for me in those days. I bought a half dozen pits from him. I have one of his here now and the other is from J&R.
DV: Did you use Bewley pits in all of the locations you had open?
AP: I bought a Hardeman’s off of I-30 and Ferguson. It was a beautiful place. They had a gorgeous red brick pit. It took me two weeks to figure out what to do with it, and I finally had them come in and demolish it. Bewley’s folks tore it down and put in a rotisserie.
DV: Why didn’t you use the brick pit?
AP: The risk of flare-ups are just too great with immature people working it. We didn’t have pitmasters in all the locations. We had a lot of kids working for us and the rotisseries are just safer. We didn’t want to start a fire and deal with insurance.
DV: Is it hard to get insurance on a barbecue joint?
AP: Not really. We always had insurance. The rotisserie pits weren’t very expensive back then either. Bewley was a good guy to work with too.
LW: I’ve known Mr. Bewley since I was a child. He wore those same overalls any time I ever met him. He came out when we had to replace the pit at the old location. We had a little ceremony when we pulled the old pit out.
AP: It deserved a ceremony. That pit put Lauran through college.
LW: It’s so great to hear these stories. I didn’t know about the beef ribs, but I do know he was the first to do the stuffed baked potato.
AP: We had a restaurant downtown that would serve 125 of them a day. That was in the seventies.
LW: A baked potato was $1.95 and with meat it was $2.50.
DV: How many Big Al’s locations did you have at the peak?
AP: We had five. There’s just one now and I’m enjoying life.
DV: What was the first location back in 1973?
AP: The one next door. Later it went to Richardson and Irving, then Casa Linda and Garland.
DV: What was the height of Big Al’s?
AP: When we had five locations going in the mid-eighties.
LW: When we were kids we go way out to Carrollton and eat at a place called Moore Brothers.
AP: That was one of my great meat customers. They helped me set up my barbecue business here. I was a meat salesman. I didn’t know what a register was when I decided to open a restaurant.
DV: What was in the building next door before you took it over?
AP: It was a barbecue. It was Loren Brown’s BBQ.
DV: Why did he sell it?
AP: It was the Wright Amendment. It was coming and they thought Love Field would close up and everything around here would die. I basically bought the restaurant over the phone one day when he called in his meat order.
“How many briskets do you want today, Loren?”
“Well, let me see…You know we’re thinking about selling the place?”
“I’ll buy it.”
“Yeah. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I went right over and bought it ten minutes later. That’s the way things were done then. He thought it was great to get out of there. He went over and opened near Parkland Hospital in the building where Mike Anderson’s is now. He starved over there and he wanted to give it to me. I didn’t want it. What ended up happening over here at Love Field was amazing. We had all these airplane renewal shops, transfer shops, engine shops…it really became industrialized. Then we got Haggar over here with six or seven hundred people. Kodak had four hundred people. Trinity Industries had two thousand people over on Maple, and all these people were my customers. We worked all their parties and open houses. There was a line at lunch every day that was forty-five minutes long. We’d pass out appetizers. My wife was a cashier. She’d take phone orders while she rang up your order, and she had a cigarette going at the same time. Jimmy Dean was her best friend. He had a place over on Turtle Creek five minutes from here. He’d come in with his entourage. They’d go through the line and he would come give her a hug. That would make her day. We’d have Herb Kelleher come in all the time too. Those were big days.
DV: You also catered a lot of big rock shows in town too. What were some of those?
AP: We did. We also had three kiosks in Reunion Arena. We did topping out parties too. In those days they’d have the architects and investors on the roof with champagne. You can’t do that anymore. We used to have all the t-shirts up, but we got smoked out one day. We had a bunch of smoke from a fire and lost a lot of memorabilia.
DV: The way your restaurant is laid out does follow a certain pattern that’s a lot like some other well know places in Dallas. The cafeteria line, the condiment bar and even the soft serve always seem to pop up in these joints in Dallas.
AP: We didn’t know any better. Our first major change from the norm was putting in sweet tea. We didn’t know how to make sweet tea. We had to get a recipe. Try the sauce too. Red Bryan had a place in Oak Cliff. Loren Brown worked for him. I think Mac from Mac’s BBQ, Ferris and James BBQ all worked from Red Bryan. Of course the big one was Travis Dickey. They went off and opened their own places. One thing you’ll notice is how similar the sauces are, including the one here. It’s a basic ketchup-based sauce. We make it three times a week. The average place that opens up these days just orders their sauce from Sysco.
DV: What did the menu look like when you opened?
AP: We didn’t have pulled pork, but it’s almost identical.
DV: Did you use Rudolph’s sausage from the beginning?
AP: Always. We knew the father and the grandfather. They make great stuff.
DV: What else?
AP: Brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, hot links…our mentality has also been to serve food until we close. It’s all about the steam table. You can’t run out of food. You gotta serve the folks on the late shift at the airport or the mom coming to get dinner on the way home. It’s all about how you hold the meat.
DV: When you decided to open more locations, did you go find existing barbecue joints and purchase them?
AP: That was the way to go. You could go into a place that was a loser and in a weekend you could clean it up. You could go to Canton and buy deer heads and Coca-Cola signs and make it into a different place. Put a banner over the sign…as long you had a place for a pit you were good.
LW: Not all of them were barbecue places, though.
AP: Fred’s was a great place we took over in Garland. Casa Linda and downtown weren’t barbecue joints. Gaston was a barbecue joint. Arapaho was the only one we built. Jupiter in Garland was across from E-Systems. It’s still running today. It’s called Rick’s. One of my old bus boys owns it now. It was nastier than hell when we took over. We put in a tile floor and made it clean. We took out the nasty old flat rack pit. We put in a Bewley rotisserie. It did really well. Everyone wanted to buy it from me. Rick came in and wanted to buy it. I said it wasn’t for sale, but he wrote an offer on a piece of paper. I looked at it and gave him the keys. He was a cowboy who wanted to own a barbecue. Tony, my busboy, bought him out ten years later. Another guy who worked for me took over a Loren Brown’s location in Athens. It’s called Danny’s now.
DV: Was there a similar story with your other locations when they closed? Did somebody buy them out?
AP: No. I went through a divorce. I had to liquidate. You know how that goes. Once I got out I decided I liked it with the one location. I should have just franchised out like Dickey’s, but I wasn’t that smart.
DV: What happened to the downtown location?
AP: We burnt it down and took a place next door with it. We were at home. There was an ice storm. It broke the electric wires, and they fell and started the second floor on fire. We got there and the fire chief was cursing about another barbecue joint fire. We went back to look at the pit and it was perfect. The briskets weren’t even finished. I tried the show the chief. We didn’t have a camera. We told the insurance people, but it took two years of going to court. We finally won in court.
DV: Where was it?
AP: 1780-something Main St. [Comerica Bank Tower is on that site now]
LW: Grandma and grandpa ran it for years.
DV: Were you employing the whole family?
AP: Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? It’s been a fun bunch of years. It could be a lot worse. We’ve had a good family of employees and we’ve had a good time.
DV: With all of those former employees out there, you’ve got a legacy too.
LW: I don’t think he’s ever thought about that.
DV: What prompted the move to this newer location?
AP: The old place was too hard to deal with. We wanted to expand to the whole shopping center, but there a big sunken floor. The Cowboys used to have a big club there. We’d serve sandwiches to them through a hole in the wall. Then the City of Dallas bought the property. We had about three years of free rent, but we had to move. There was no place around here that I could find. I wanted to stay right around here. I didn’t know if I could succeed five blocks away. We found this garage here and converted it into a restaurant. Other than the parking, it’s fine.
DV: What have you changed since moving here?
AP: Making a change is difficult here. We’ve been here for forty years, and for thirty-nine years we did the same thing. For a long time we scalped our briskets. That’s the way we’d always done it. That brisket is my livelihood. All of a sudden I realized I wasn’t doing it right. All the bark and all the fat was good. Sonny Bryan taught me that. Back when Sonny was there, when they made a sandwich Sonny would take a bun in one hand and put the meat that he’d carved on there with a knife. On there was always a little of fat right in the middle. He’d put a little sauce on it and close the bun. If you didn’t like it, go somewhere else, but everybody liked it.
DV: You’ve got regulars that expect it a certain way. Why bother making changes if they like what you’re serving?
AP: Sure, but we did it anyway.
AP: We changed it up about four months ago. It was all about the bark. I wouldn’t eat a piece of tenderloin without bark, so why brisket? The only problem is all the fat that comes with bark, but I’m getting to understand it better. We’re getting a lot of good reviews, but I don’t know if we’re doing something good here. It’s still a difficult situation.
DV: What are you charging for that brisket per pound?
DV: When I go into a barbecue joint where they’re serving brisket for $10 per pound I just wonder how they’re making any money on it.
AP: I’d like to know too!
DV: How much are you paying for raw brisket?
AP: $1.85 per pound right now. It’s been down.
DV: Is that for Select?
AP: No way! We’re buying Angus that is Choice or better.
DV: I should have known from a meat man.
AP: We’ve never used anything less than Choice. I won’t cook those clods either. The only thing we ever did with clods is make stew meat or chili meat.
DV: You serve beef backs ribs. Have you ever considered doing beef short ribs?
AP: We had a case brought in here after I ate at Pecan Lodge. That’s the only box I’ve ever bought. It’s not for me. I don’t think I could sell them here.
At this point Scott brought over a couple slices of their new brisket with the crust and fat left on. I began eating it with my hands.
AP: [To Lauran, pointing at me] He thinks he’s in South Texas. He’s eating with his fingers.
DV: This is really good.
AP: I like that. Say that again. [laughing] I had a friend who came in here and tried it. He said “this is good. Not as good as Franklin, though.”
DV: There has to be some challenges convincing a guy who’s been here for over thirty years to start cooking this way.
LW: It’s hard for him to make any changes. A few years ago the food costs were out of control. He didn’t want to raise prices, so he went with a smaller bun. I think it lasted a week.
AP: It was during the recession. Everybody was going out of business. Barbecue isn’t the most profitable business. You have to have volume. I’ve always been afraid of raising prices, but you just have to eventually. We’re noted for big plates and big sandwiches, but there’s only so much that people can eat at lunch. You can’t please everybody.