An image of a cowboy in a white apron ringing a dinner bell towers high above Commerce Street in Brownwood. His name is Elmo, and he has beckoned diners into Underwood’s Cafeteria for decades, though the restaurant’s 1946 founding predates him by several years. This location, now run by the third generation of Underwoods, is the only one remaining of dozens of Underwood’s barbecue restaurants that spanned much of Texas and two other states.

“Today marks the opening of Underwood’s Cafeteria number 36 in the Underwood family,” the Denton Chronicle wrote in March 1966. It was a high point in the expansion of the family name, but calling the outlets a chain would have been a stretch. Several Underwood brothers opened regional pods of restaurants, and each pod operated independently from the others. Millard Underwood had just added Denton to his thirteen other locations in North Texas and southern Oklahoma. Jimmy Underwood was thriving in Abilene and the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Morris Underwood was holding things down in Lubbock, while Warren Underwood managed the westernmost outpost in Albuquerque. Back in Brownwood, at the original, the youngest brother, Leonard Underwood, helped his parents run the restaurant that started it all.

Founder Millard Elmo “M. E.” Underwood was a butcher from Brady. The family lore is that he and his wife, Frances Pearl “Mama” Underwood, sold barbecue door-to-door in the Central Texas town in the late 1930s. After World War II, the couple moved to Brownwood, about 45 miles northeast of Brady, and opened Underwood’s Pit Bar-B-Q in a shack with covered outdoor seating. (It was across Commerce Street from the present-day Underwood’s, which moved in 1951.)

In 1950, their son Morris branched out over two hundred miles away in Lubbock with an Underwood’s Bar-B-Q of his own. He added a cafeteria line to serve a simple menu of smoked chicken, pork ribs, sausage, and the signature barbecue beef steak. By 1953, the restaurant already needed a major renovation to add capacity. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported from the reopening that “the barbecue pit is the largest in the Southwest with a capacity to handle 6,000 pounds of meat daily.” Morris also opened a frozen food plant the following year, which allowed Underwood’s to sell barbecue in the grocery store freezer section. At first it was beef by the pound, then chicken, then complete TV dinners. Some shoppers experienced sticker shock when they saw that the cooked, frozen beef was more expensive than the same amount of raw beef, so Underwood’s put out ads to address that. “I found that one pound of Underwood’s Bar-B-Q is equivalent to two pounds of meat in the raw!” one read, which sounds a lot like today’s pitmasters explaining their brisket prices.

The cowboy named Elmo invites patrons to the Brownwood restaurant. Courtesy of Underwood’s Cafeteria
Barbecue beef steak and fried chicken platters at Underwood’s Cafeteria. Courtesy of Underwood’s Cafeteria
Left: The cowboy named Elmo invites patrons to the Brownwood restaurant. Courtesy of Underwood’s Cafeteria
Top: Barbecue beef steak and fried chicken platters at Underwood’s Cafeteria. Courtesy of Underwood’s Cafeteria

“He was the real innovator,” Paul Underwood said of his uncle Morris. Paul operates the remaining Underwood’s in Brownwood with his brother Leo. They followed in the footsteps of their father, Leonard. Paul said Morris first introduced the yeast rolls and the cobbler that are so closely associated with the restaurant these days (more on those later). The cowboy sign that’s the symbol of Underwood’s was also Morris’s idea. “My dad said that changed his business overnight,” Paul said.

Their father raised the cowboy above the Brownwood restaurant sometime in the late 1960s. He paid $1,000 for it. The red shirt hasn’t faded because it’s made of porcelain enamel rather than painted metal. It even survived a ferocious thunderstorm in 1971. Later, Leonard erected a larger sign that also advertised barbecue and Mama Underwood’s fried chicken. But the fried chicken actually didn’t originate with Mama Underwood.

“If it was Mama’s fried chicken it would have had more pepper on it,” Paul said of his grandmother Pearl. He remembers her more for cooking squirrel, skinning deer, and trying to get him and Leo to eat her liver and onions. The fried chicken recipe was first introduced to the chain by another Underwood, Jimmy.

Jimmy started his Underwood’s venture in Abilene in 1952. In San Angelo, two years later, he opened the first location with the name Underwood’s Cafeteria instead of Underwood’s Bar-B-Q, and the new name stuck. By the 1960s he had a grip on the Dallas–Fort Worth area with five locations, where he first promoted “Mama Underwood’s” fried chicken along with an expanded menu that included chicken-fried steak, cowboy stew, and au gratin potatoes. Mama would have been proud when the liver and onions made it onto the specials board several years later.

Jimmy was the marketing showman of the family. He took out ads in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that were written as if he were a folksy columnist. He warned readers with a fear of lip-smackin’ to stay away from Underwood’s because people eating their pork ribs did so much of it. In 1961, he claimed there were sixteen Underwood’s locations serving 200,000 pounds of beef per month. And to guarantee the cleanliness of the restaurants, Jimmy invited customers to personally inspect the kitchens. Some time in the 1960s, the restaurant released a thirty-second jingle. It was included on a 2001 album by Austin Cunningham titled Where I Come From, which is the only place I’ve found it mentioned. I’m not sure who wrote it, but it sounds like a Jimmy Underwood special:

I like Underwood’s
I like Underwood’s barbecue
Beef, ham, chicken, and ribs
And all the trimmings too

I like Underwood’s
I like Underwood’s barbecue
The best fried chicken in the world
Is Mama Underwood’s

Jimmy called his version of Underwood’s “a West Texas smorgasbord at the barbecue level.” And that’s an apt description of the Brownwood location today. It eventually adopted many of the successful innovations the other brothers introduced around the state, including the cafeteria line, fried chicken, cobblers, and yeast rolls that remain staples today—the last to Leonard’s chagrin. He couldn’t keep up with demand for the rolls as customers passed through the line, so he’d have to deliver them to tables as they came out of the oven. A restaurant reviewer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote in 1987 that Leonard was still delivering the rolls, and that another woman followed with a bowl of whipped cream to spoon over the cobbler. Those practices continue today.

The most memorable part of a trip to Underwood’s is the cart that’s pushed around the dining room by members of the waitstaff. They offer dishes of apple, cherry, or peach cobbler if you forgot those when you went through the line. More fresh rolls, butter, water, napkins, and to-go boxes are also available. It’s surprising service for a fried chicken dinner that cost $13.49 and comes with any or all of the sides on the line. Yes, you can get a bowl of every side as long as it all fits on your tray. I loved the simple potato salad that includes salad dressing, sweet pickle relish, celery, onion, and a proprietary seasoning, which contains enough paprika to tint the whole thing orange. The salad is even better dipped into the old-school barbecue sauce, which is heavy on mustard, Worcestershire, and beef drippings.

There’s also barbecue, such as sausage and great-looking smoked chicken halves. Sadly, the customer ahead of me in line took the last chicken, and it was a fifteen-minute wait for the next batch. That’s how you know they’re fresh. The famous barbecue beef steak is where things get interesting. It’s by far the best-selling item, according to Paul and Leo, but it doesn’t look like the barbecue beef we’re accustomed to in Texas. When the server slides the spatula under a sauce-covered slice, it looks more like fruit leather. But who can argue with success? They’ve been serving this longer than most barbecue joints in Texas have existed.

Paul and Leo use beef shoulder clod rather than brisket, and go through about a ton of it per week. The whole clods are seasoned and roasted in the oven. The center portion is then sliced thick and placed in a single layer on metal grates that resemble cooling racks. The racks stack on top of one another, and several are plunged into a vat of barbecue sauce so each slice gets fully coated. Those racks of sauced, sliced beef then go into a massive chamber smoker and bathe in live oak smoke for an hour until they’re ready to be served. If you eat the barbecue beef steak expecting it to rival sliced brisket, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, think of it like a fork-tender roast beef dipped into savory barbecue sauce.

The Brownwood location in 1951.Courtesy of Underwood’s Cafeteria

The brothers don’t intend to change much about the way Underwood’s runs or alter its recipes. They didn’t really plan on being in the position to keep the family business going in the first place. Paul attended Baylor with the aspiration of becoming a banker. “I didn’t know what a banker did, but he didn’t come home smelling like barbecue all the time,” Paul said. He had a change of heart and moved back to Brownwood to help his dad and longtime manager Eugene Hawkins run the original. Leo also attended Baylor, and after graduating decided to build a new location of Underwood’s in Waco in 1988. When it was time for Leonard to retire, Leo closed the Waco restaurant in 2001 to help his brother at the last remaining Underwood’s Cafeteria.

By that time, all the other Underwood’s restaurants had faded into history. Jimmy’s obituary said the last of his restaurants closed in 1986. Leo said Morris was successful until he overextended himself with an expansion into Austin that eventually ruined him, calling it “a true rags-to-riches-to-rags story.” The massive 1979 tornado in Wichita Falls destroyed one of Millard’s stores. He rebuilt, but four years later Millard directed the business to file for bankruptcy a second time. He pivoted to selling an Underwood’s seasoning line with his brother Warren.

Leo, 59, Paul, 57, are now the caretakers of the Underwood’s Cafeteria name. It’s not a position they envisioned for themselves, but they’re proud to keep the tradition alive. Their situation is not much different than their father’s. “You know, when I went to college [at Texas A&M] I was going to be successful,” Leonard told the Star-Telegram in 1987, “but I wasn’t going into the barbecue business.” The death in a car accident of his older brother Ronnie, who was a manager in Brownwood at the time, changed Leonard’s mind about his role in the family business.

Paul and Leo need a similar change of heart from their own children, but they’re not expecting it. “It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a fourth generation,” Paul said. The brothers don’t have any plans to retire or close the restaurant, but “it’s coming to the end of the line,” Leo added. So if you haven’t made it out to Brownwood yet, stop into Underwood’s soon for some fried chicken, barbecue beef steak, and a yeast roll or two.