Peggy Sue BBQ in University Park closed for good last month. The Dallas mainstay hadn’t been open since the owners announced a temporary closure for renovations back in January. The building, perched on a prominent corner of Snider Plaza across from the SMU campus, had housed a barbecue joint for nearly 75 years. (The restaurant’s predecessor, Peggy’s Beef Bar, opened in 1946.) Peggy Sue is also where I ate my very first barbecue meal after moving to Dallas in 2001.
I remember the slices of smoked brisket, a cut of beef I had only eaten as corned beef before then. The spare ribs were red from the rub, with a smoky flavor I couldn’t quite identify, and they had a tender texture I’d never achieved with the ribs I’d cooked back in my native Ohio. The folks at Peggy Sue could have showed me their smoker, and I would have guessed it was an industrial-sized dishwasher. The point is, I knew nothing about barbecue then, but I knew there was something new and exciting about the food I was eating at Peggy Sue BBQ.
In the nearly twenty years since, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Peggy Sue. I took my parents there the first time they visited my new home. The first apartment I rented was one of the few inexpensive apartments in University Park, just a few blocks from the restaurant. Always looking for good dining deals, I noticed the take-home special at Peggy Sue, which included buns, a massive serving of chopped brisket, and barbecue sauce. I ate one of those sandwiches every day for five days straight. After the first night, the sauce had solidified in the fridge. It was alarming. Animal fats weren’t an ingredient in the grocery-store barbecue sauces I was used to eating.
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At the restaurant, you could choose mild or spicy sauce. The spicy version was served in a warm pitcher on the side (keeping the buttery sauce easily pourable), and I slathered it on everything. I recently called Marc Hall, who owned Peggy Sue BBQ with his wife, Susan, from 1989 to 2017. I asked for the sauce recipe, which he politely declined to share. Hall had a good reason: when he and Susan sold the restaurant (along with Amore and Cisco Grill, also in Snider Plaza) to move to their ranch on Cedar Creek Lake, they also sold the recipes.
Hall and I discussed my fond memories, but also my criticisms of the place. In 2011, one of my first published barbecue joint reviews was of Peggy Sue BBQ in D Magazine. I praised the hoppin’ John—one of Marc and Susan’s favorite dishes—but noted, “the dry and overtrimmed sliced brisket is not the restaurant’s strong suit.” When it came to smoked meats, Peggy Sue customers didn’t ask for fatty brisket and didn’t mind that the staff reheated their leftovers. Marc said that he and Susan felt it was more important to never run out of a menu item.
As for the sides and desserts, Peggy Sue BBQ was in a class of its own, way ahead of other Dallas barbecue joints pre-2010. Susan developed recipes for squash casserole, lemony sautéed spinach, mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese. Her fried pies were legendary, always brought out scalding hot from the deep fryer. Marc said the previous owners were also known for their fried pies, but didn’t share the recipe. Susan worked through several batches with little success, until a eureka moment: “If you want to do a fried pie, you need to freeze the damn things,” Marc told me, laughing.
The decor of the restaurant was decidedly fifties kitsch. The Halls wanted you humming along to Buddy Holly when you walked in the door. They also wanted that nostalgic connection to their predecessor, Peggy’s Beef Bar. That burger and barbecue buffet originally opened in 1946 as Howard and Peggy’s in the same building, a former Sinclair gas station. Peggy ditched Howard, then renamed the place Peggy’s Beef Bar. A 1987 Dallas Morning News article noted that “Diners entering the Beef Bar are greeted by pictures of Murphy and Garcia, two large cardboard steers who hang over the serving area.”
Two years later, the Halls opened up. They found the letters from the old sign on the roof. The “Peggy” portion was still in good shape. Susan became “Sue,” and they added BBQ to complete the name. An old J&R Oyler smoker was left on site, and they got lessons from the folks at J&R Manufacturing on how to operate it before they opened. Oak wood was their choice after an inspirational Central Texas barbecue road trip to Luling, Lockhart, and other barbecue meccas.
Peggy Sue BBQ opened in November 1989. Marc recalled, “A couple of months after we opened, the main food critic for the [Dallas] Morning News, Waltrina Stovall, gave us a really glowing review.” That story doubled sales. When Stovall included the restaurant in her list of the ten best new restaurants in Dallas, sales doubled again. Peggy Sue was beloved, and was routinely named the best barbecue joint in Dallas.
But there was a turning point in 2011, when the Dallas Observer released its “Best of Dallas” list. The reader’s choice for barbecue was Lockhart Smokehouse, while the editors picked Pecan Lodge. I noted a shift in the barbecue tastes of Dallasites that year, thanks to the openings of this new class of barbecue joints that would come to be revered around the state over the following decade. Peggy Sue’s Dallas barbecue reign was over, and barbecue in Dallas would never be the same. Marc remembers watching the barbecue landscape shifting around them. “I wasn’t going to change much. We had had our run,” he said.
The Halls ended their run officially at Peggy Sue BBQ a few years back, and Marc is happy to be out of the restaurant business now. “I’m glad I’m not facing that,” he said, referring to the restaurants struggling through the pandemic, and he doesn’t miss the critics either. Marc laughed when I brought up some of my past reviews. “We thought your assessment of Peggy Sue was accurate,” he said, and added, “It warms our hearts to know that we were part of your epiphany.” As for me, I’ll wait patiently until I can get that spicy barbecue sauce recipe to warm my stomach.