TMBBQFest, “23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:” TC’s Ponderosa Barbeque
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Editor’s Note: Just two more days until the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival! As you surely know by now, we’ve been interviewing all the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog. Today we’re featuring Tom Hale, 59, of TC’s Ponderosa in Dickens. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com. What is the heat source you use at TC’s Ponderosa? We use a combination of wood and propane. It’s Southern Pride. I couldn’t keep up doing it old style with the wood alone, so we had to find someway to keep up with our customers. We had to go that route. Who did you learn your craft from? I learned from my family from my granddad and my dad. It’s something we used to do on weekends, and I picked up on it back in 2001 as a profession. What’s your signature meat? Brisket, I think like everybody else in Texas. Our brisket is good because of consistency and flavor. We use mesquite wood, and we make our barbecue the same everyday. We just use a dry rub on it and put it at a certain temperature everyday and put the right amount of smoke on it. Do you prefer sauce or no sauce? We don’t put sauce on the meat as we cook it. It’s on the side, and most people like the sauce. They don’t use a large amount of it or anything. We make our own sauce here. There’s nothing too special about it. We actually have a Smokin’ Hot, it’s what we call it. It’s pretty hot, and we smoke it in the pit ourselves. Do you make your own sausage? No, I buy it from a German guy about sixty miles from where I live. He’s well known all across the state, and he’s won a contest. The guy I bought this store from had been doing business with him, and I just sort of picked him up. We inherited him. Do you cook your meat slow and low or high and faster? Slow and low, I think you get a better taste. I think it’s more consistent, and it’s definitely more tender. We cook our meat at about 250 degrees. How many pounds of meat do you smoke a week? Counting all the meats I serve, I’d probably serve a ton of brisket and probably about five to six hundred pounds of sausage. We’re on a major highway, and we’re mostly to-go business. So it’s normally a whirlwind. We normally sell out of our meat too. Favorite BBQ in Texas other than your own? Maybe Underwood’s. The only one I know of that is left is in Brownwood, Texas. There used to be one in Lubbock, sixty miles to my west. We grew up eating there when we were kids, and that was kind of a family tradition. I just like their variety; it’s a buffet. Do you start a new fire each day or do you keep the same one going? We start a new fire everyday. When I start a fire, it puts out the right amount of smoke. And I don’t want to over-smoke the pit. We’re really specific about how much wood we use a day. Aluminum foil or butcher paper? More generally, what is the secret to holding great barbecue? We normally put it in a foil pan and wrap it in aluminum foil. It’s easy to haul, and we send a lot of it out that way. What should the home smoker look for when picking out a side of brisket from the market? Is grade or quality important or does smoking render them all equally delectable? You’ve got to have the best quality brisket you can find, and then don’t rush it. Take your time. What’s the one other piece of advice you’d give to someone smoking a brisket at home? Gosh, I don’t know what I’d tell somebody. Just don’t get in a hurry, and don’t be raising the lid on your smoker. Keep it consistent. That’s one of the main things. Do you use or have you considered using a gas- or electric-fired smoker, such as a Southern Pride, Ole Hickory, or J&R, for any of your meats? We only use wood and propane here. Ever have any Texas barbecue outside of Texas? I’ve seen advertising but I’ve never tried it. I don’t think there is such a thing as authentic barbecue up in Colorado or wherever else I’ve seen the advertisements. (Questions by Jason Cohen, Andrea Valdez, Pat Sharpe, Katy Vine, Sonia Smith, Daniel Vaughn, Jim Shahin, J.C. Reid, @stewlevine&@JoePerryinTX.)