Editor’s Note: Daniel Vaughn, writing under the name BBQ Snob, runs the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog and will also be writing about barbecue for Texas Monthly. This is his first column.
Texas barbecue is having a moment. It seems like every time I turned around this summer, another national media outlet was stumbling over itself to name its own best BBQ joint in the state. Most of the adulation, of course, was pointed at Franklin Barbecue, the small Austin joint that has skyrocketed over the past two years from a humble little trailer on the side of I-35 to an eternally overcrowded restaurant that Bon Appétit declared, in July, to be the best BBQ joint in America. The incessant buzz (and incredibly long lines) even prompted a “Hitler reaction” parody, a sure sign that the joint’s success has penetrated to the far corners of the popular imagination. But it hasn’t been all Franklin. USA Today bucked the trend by naming the Salt Lick the best of the Central Texas bunch, and CNN sang the praises of City Meat Market in Giddings.
You will, by now, have noticed a common denominator. As is usual when the BBQ buzz machine starts running, most of the attention this summer has been on Austin and Central Texas. In the statewide discussion about smoked meats, there is one city whose offerings are routinely dismissed or derided, a city that, to judge from the attention it gets, you wouldn’t even know had any smoked meat within its limits. That city would be Dallas.
That the BBQ of Big D has enjoyed little renown for some time is mostly warranted. Until recently, Dallas was afflicted with a smoked meat malaise that allowed subpar barbecue to be praised based on days long passed. As recently as five years ago, the city’s food critics were giving top BBQ nods to the likes of Sonny Bryan’s and Dickey’s—joints that were rightly praised in their decades ago heyday, but which currently don’t even try to compete with the big boys in the state.
I am happy to report that change is afoot. In the past two years, almost while no one was looking, a full-fledged barbecue renaissance has taken root in neighborhoods all over Dallas. For the first time since Sonny Bryan was still manning his pits those many decades ago, Big D is making a bid to be taken seriously as a BBQ town. I’ve zeroed in on five restaurants as the torch bearers of this movement, which above all, is marked by a deeply traditional approach. Certain common themes bind these five joints together—they all use wood, not gas, and they all have prominent, thoughtful pitmasters. Their attention to detail and quality has bred a new population of connoisseurs, who, in turn, are raising expectations beyond good sauce and free soft serve.
Opened: Late 2009
Address: 901 Fort Worth Avenue
Best meat: Rabbit Sausage
Chef Tim Byres knew little about preparing Texas barbecue before he opened Smoke, so he embarked on an educational Southern BBQ journey and found his barbecue soul in Mississippi. When he returned to Dallas he knew that no gas-fired stainless steel cookers were going to suffice if real barbecue was the goal, so he and owners Chris Jeffers and Chris Zielke worked with Dallas based A. N. Bewley Fabricators to secure a wood-fired pit for the kitchen. While Chef Byres has garnered accolades for his prowess in the kitchen on items like pork jowl bacon, he had struggled with the most basic of Texas barbecue menu items—brisket. Of late, the brisket has improved to a respectable level, but it’s tough to shine sitting next to the stunning array of house made sausages. The subtly spiced rabbit sausage will make you think twice about bothering with simple pork and beef varieties, but do yourself a favor and order all three.
Meshack’s Bar-B-Que Shack
(Opened early 2009)
Address: 240 E. Ave. B, Garland
Best meat: Spare ribs
This little shack is easy to miss, tucked along the wrong side of a bend in State Highway 66 as it enters Garland from the east. But that fits the rest of the experience. Most, if not all, of the accommodations usually afforded the Dallas diner are missing. Credit cards are not accepted, there is no dining area, the gravel parking lot is better suited to a 4x4 than a Mercedes, there is no shade, and the wait can be very long and painfully slow. But it’s worth it. Behind the screened window, through which orders are shouted, sits Travis Mayes. He nurtures the legacy of the original and long ago closed Meshack’s in Dallas which carried his father-in-law’s name. After years working in a local factory [He has always just told me ‘factory’ and nothing more], he decided to bank on his nickname as “The Barbecue Man” and take over a vacant BBQ joint this first ring suburb. Regardless of the challenging setting, the line outside has held steady enough for the meat to sell out daily for the better part of two years. Try and beat the crowds to grab some of the fine pecan smoked brisket, thick but tender pork ribs and eternally juicy sausage links.
Opened: Early 2010
Address: 1010 South Pearl Expressway (Dallas Farmer’s Market Shed #2)
Best meat: Burnt ends and pulled pork
Little more than a well framed counter inside the Dallas Farmers Market, this joint has the widest menu of the five. Owners Justin and Diane Fourton traded in their management consulting careers for a restaurant life when they started their catering business two years ago. But neither one is new to the kitchen. When I asked him why he uses traditional cooking methods rather than a set-it-and-forget-it commercial smoker, Justin said, “We come from a long line of southern cooks on both sides of the family and this is the way Diane and I were both taught to cook. Our fried chicken is cooked to order and I stay up all night stoking the fire on the smoker. It takes longer, but the results are worth the wait. We don’t even own a microwave.” Praise has been heaped on Diane’s fried chicken, but it’s the mesquite smoked meats from her husband and pitmaster Justin Fourton that keeps this place packed at lunch time. Not satisfied with resting on their well deserved laurels for excellent brisket, ribs and highly sought after burnt ends, they have continued to expand the menu with an intensely smoky pork sausage and heavily spiced pulled pork. Don’t miss Diane’s banana pudding.
Opened: Late 2010
Address: 2933 Commerce St
Best meat: Chopped Beef
At the time of their opening, smoke belched continuously from a tow-behind barrel smoker on the street outside this Deep Ellum joint, but now the installation of their gleaming new Bewley pit is complete. While much of the new school of urban barbecue is about replicating the heavy smoke of Central Texas barbecue along with keeping sauce in the optional category, this joint leans more towards an East Texas style, where a well-flavored sauce over very tender meat is preferred. Despite their considerable investment in quality equipment, the sparsely decorated interior is sadly matched with a sparse lunch crowd most days. That just means there’s plenty of meat left come dinner time. In true East Texas style, it’s the chopped beef sandwiches that shine, along with two types of tender ribs. It seems like this joint employs all of the owner’s kinfolk, and it shows in the homemade soul food sides made from family recipes. They will surely get you out the beans and slaw rut, while the sweet potato pie alone will lure you back.
Opened: Early 2011
Address: 400 West Davis
Best meat: Sliced Brisket
More than any other of the places on this list, Lockhart Smokehouse has held firm to the ultra-traditional approach of Central Texas barbecue. In a daring move that sought to honor the famous rules of the legendary Lockhart joints from which it takes its inspiration, Lockhart Smokehouse initially forced Dallas eaters to forgo plates, forks, and sauce (not without getting their share of customer belly-aching, which, ultimately, led to some modifications). Owners Jeff and Jill Bergus are from, respectively, Desoto and Temple, and they see their restaurant as a vessel for old roots and traditions. As Jill puts it, “Dallas was lacking the kind of BBQ I grew up with, the get-down-and-dirty-with-your-hands, communal meat-fests I remembered from visiting my grandparents.“ At Lockhart, they have created the atmosphere for just that. The opaque, brown butcher paper quickly runs clear with the melted fat from a pile of moist and tender brisket. The slices always display a line of perfectly rendered fat for a true indulgence, and sausage comes from none other than Lockhart’s own Kreuz Market. Chef Tim McLaughlin even spent a few days as a Kreuz apprentice before bringing his skills back to Dallas to man the fire engine red Bewley pit. A grease soaked “game worn” apron from Kreuz’s pitmaster Roy Perez hangs on the wall as a reminder to the tradition they aim to uphold.
This new crop of pitmasters are no doubt driven to create Texas barbecue in its truest sense, and their existence as a group will continue to drive them towards barbecue perfection. As Pecan Lodge’s Justin Fourton says, “Healthy competition improves everyone’s game, whether in sports or food, and keeps complacency from taking root.” Given the new level of competition, Dallas diners hopefully will soon demand nothing short of great BBQ, and this renaissance will continue to glow like the embers in a well tended pit.