The fact that the barbecue business requires passion has become a cliché, but how else do you explain the existence of Bare Barbecue in Cleburne? Justin Earley runs it with his brother-in-law Steven Bailey, and they serve every other Saturday. Earley is a CPA, and Bailey sells industrial parts the rest of the week. They both have families to support, but also have a good deal of cash wrapped up in a barbecue operation that doesn’t operate often. What began as a sporadic pop-up in early 2018 has turned into a food trailer serving twice a month, since last July. With only about a dozen services under their belts, the pair is smoking a full line-up of impressive barbecue.
I first met Earley and Bailey in May of last year, when they beat me in a barbecue competition in Dallas. Their pop-up had just been shut down by the health department, but they were excited about their then-upcoming venture. They cooked on the 500-gallon offset they now use for Bare Barbecue. It’s the third smoker Early has purchased. “I spent so much money on that pit, I knew that I had to start making money eventually,” he told me later. Then he bought the food trailer. It sits in the parking lot of Earley’s office and plugs into an outlet on the back of the building. The trailer-mounted, wood-fired smoker nearby doesn’t plug into anything.
Earley and Bailey start the fire at 6 a.m. Friday ahead of the weekends that Bare Barbecue operates. They have just the one pit for the whole menu (Earley is already eyeing a new 1000-gallon smoker), so they fill it with briskets, usually sixteen, for the first run. A hired hand watches the pit most of the day until the pair can re-focus on barbecue after work. The briskets come off to rest and hold, and the ribs go on at 2 a.m. Saturday. “We’re cooking all night, Earley said. “We probably sleep an hour and a half.” Their wives, Haley Earley and Meagan Bailey, help with the sides and with running the trailer.
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There was already a line when I arrived just after the 11 a.m. two Saturdays ago. Whole pork steaks were on the menu for just $10 a piece, and I ordered one expecting a thin cut. It wasn’t. I savored a few slices of the thick steak on its own, then dunked the next few in the bright green chimichurri that came on the side. The combination made me question the existence of regular old barbecue sauce. I wanted to pour that stuff over the whole tray, and for $10 a piece for over a pound of smoked pork, I took two more of those pork steaks home with me. I asked how they were making any money off the cut. Earley said they needed to make sure they offered good values on the menu in Cleburne, then Bailey interjected, “That’s a Saturday morning at 9 a.m. idea right there.”
But Earley was being sincere about needing a value or two on the menu. “We’re cooking different barbecue than has ever been cooked here,” Earley said of his and Bailey’s hometown. They’re buying Prime briskets from 44 Farms and charging $20 per pound for it. It’s the most expensive in town by a long shot, but it’s also the best. A slice from the lean side was perfectly juicy and tender. A fatty slice was enveloped by a fluffy flour tortilla made by Bailey’s stepmother and topped by a spicy salsa verde. That’s barbecue unlike Cleburne is accustomed to.
Basics like spare ribs and smoked chicken are also done well. The former has a punch from garlic powder in the rub. The chicken skin was crisp, but a chicken that large is difficult when it comes to keeping the breast moist. It wasn’t, but that was easy to fix with a little more chimichurri. The green elixir also comes on the Firebox sandwich along with slices of fatty brisket and fresh jalapeños. It’s a seemingly simple sandwich that packs a lot of flavor. Earley said that sandwich is what he prefers to eat at the end of a shift, but admits, “It honestly doesn’t sell that well.”
For sides, they trade simple pinto beans for sweet smoked “baked” beans. Street corn comes with cotija and lime, and the serrano cheese grits bring the spice. Desserts vary from month to month. They often buy pies from the Purple Turnip restaurant, which also acts as the commissary kitchen for Bare Barbecue. On the day I visited, an excellent slice of pecan pie had been made by Earley’s grandmother. It really is a family operation.
Earley and Bailey understand that the investment they’ve made in the business isn’t being matched by the income it brings in on their current schedule. They plan to open every Saturday at some point this year, but that’ll mean no free time for either of them. Earley would like to make barbecue his full-time job, but he isn’t sure how he’ll be able to transition into it. When he started the venture he told himself, “I wasn’t gonna quit until either we made it or, I guess, ran out of money.” Well, they’re still smoking at Bare Barbecue, and it was worth my hour drive from Dallas. Their next day serving will be January 4, if you’d like to find out for yourself.