When Cameron Haley decided to open a barbecue joint, he had only ever cooked about fifteen briskets. Last year, he was living a comfortable life: working a well-paid sales job, raising two kids with his wife, Kourtney, in Royse City, and enjoying his backyard barbecue hobby. But last June, he entered a charity barbecue competition hosted by Backstory Brewery in Sulphur Springs. His brisket squared off against that of 24 other teams and won second place. He didn’t rank in the other barbecue categories, but it was still enough of a confidence boost for him to declare to his wife, “I think this is what I want to do for a living.” Haley desperately wanted to own a barbecue joint, even if it meant making some irrational decisions to get there.
Kourtney was less sure about the decision, and rightfully so. Haley quit his job anyway, which is like deciding to be a freelance photographer because your picture got the blue ribbon at the county fair—except Haley didn’t get a blue ribbon, and he wasn’t even mentioned in the local paper’s story about the competition results. Let’s just say opening Smoak Town BBQ in Royse City last November was a gamble. Six months later, the bet is paying off.
Haley got some help from his family. “My parents are the investors,” he says. They financed the trailer, and it sits on property owned by his father-in-law. The address may be in Royse City, but the trailer is parked between Interstates 20 and 30, just down the road from the old Smoke Sessions Barbecue location. You can’t miss it: just look for the orange Futuro House, which is shaped like a UFO, right next door. “[Cooking alone] at night, it’s just eerie out here next to a spaceship,” Haley says.
The staff are family and friends, which keeps labor costs low. You’ll find either Sherrie or Erica Haley, Cameron’s mom and sister, working the ordering window, and his dad Rob checking on diners at the picnic tables spread around the gravel lot. The tables are well distanced from one another, but mask wearing isn’t encouraged on-site, and the staff do not wear masks.
The menu at Smoak Town doesn’t stray far from the basics of Texas barbecue. On two recent visits, lean and fatty briskets were both well smoked. The coating of black pepper was too generous. It didn’t allow for much bark to form, and the porous coating soaked up a heavy dose of the vinegar spritz from the smoking process. The fatty slices were too fatty. I know that’s a strange knock on fatty brisket, but Haley noticed it too, and the day after my second visit he had already switched to a new beef supplier. To Haley’s credit, all that bountiful fat was rendered well, and the slices were tender. He said his food supplier had also delivered the wrong black pepper, and luckily any of my gripes about the brisket are easy to remedy. Pork ribs have also been a struggle for Haley. He switched rib suppliers between my visits, and wasn’t really happy with either, so they’re a work in progress. Haley’s determined to get it right. The slices of smoked turkey were juicy and smoky, but had the same heavy pepper issue. Haley serves smoked sausage from HeartBrand, made with Wagyu beef. It was good and juicy with plenty of cheesy bits.
Sherrie developed the sides recipes with her son. Her mac and cheese is spectacularly cheesy, with a nice layer of melted cheddar on top. On the Saturday I visited, a crawfish truck was parked next to the barbecue trailer, and the joints collaborated on a heavenly crawfish mac and cheese. There are plenty of brisket chunks in the pinto beans, which are well seasoned—I would’ve been happy drinking the flavorful bean juice alone. Smoak Town also serves a rich, loaded baked potato salad, tender greens, and sweet cream corn. The dessert menu is still in development.
These days, Haley’s 350-gallon steel offset smoker can hardly cook enough meat to accommodate the demand. Served Wednesday through Saturday, the barbecue is usually gone two hours after the joint’s opening, and even earlier on Saturday. A larger smoker is under construction, but it won’t arrive for a couple of months, so get there early.
I asked Haley if he feels vindicated in his decision to pursue his barbecue passion. He says his wife came around to the idea soon after Smoak Town opened. “She saw the line start forming and was hearing everyone’s feedback,” he says. Haley swears he never had a doubt, which is probably the attitude required to pull off such a life change. He feels that positive energy every day simply because, he says, “I like watching other people enjoy what I cook.”
9631 Texas Highway 276, Royse City
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 11–4
Pitmaster: Cameron Haley
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2020