Running a successful barbecue business takes passion for the food in the smoker. But mainly it requires spending more hours at your restaurant than away from it. Overnight cooking is a fact of life, so if you bring up work-life balance to a pitmaster you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. That’s why Gabriel and Kasie Ritter don’t want their children didn’t carry on the family business.
All three of their kids worked at least part-time at the Ritters’ Bodacious Bar-B-Que location in Hallsville. “The reason I brought them up here to work is so they’d go to college,” Gabriel told me over a tray of his life’s work. That tactic worked. He’s got two children in college and a third who will begin higher education in the fall.
And barbecue got the kids there. Ritter started cooking barbecue for Bodacious twenty-five years ago at the Marshall location, then went on to work with founder Roland Lindsey at the original location in Longview for six years. In 2003 he finally had his own Bodacious location, but he had problems with a lease negotiation a decade in. “We basically packed up overnight and ended up here,” Ritter told me as we sat in the former tanning salon-barber shop that his business has called home since 2013. It’s sparse on decoration, but it has essentials like a wood-burning smoker and a pile of post oak.
Gabriel and Kasie share the cooking duties, which is done more by feel than with gauges. With no thermometer to guide him, Gabriel builds a fire specifically for each cut. I trusted him completely after the first bite of brisket. They recently switched from a Choice grade beef to Prime beef a few months back, and compared to what I’d eaten here last year it was like barbecue from a different restaurant. Lucious fat was suspended between tender beef and a bark that crackled with each bite. He had started me off with fatty brisket, but I asked for a few more slices of lean. It was equally spectacular, even giving the number four barbecue joint in Texas—just ten short miles down the road—a run for its money.
Ribs were St. Louis cut the day I visited thanks to recent rib tips special that had robbed the spare ribs of their meaty ends. The small ribs were tender and had just a little bite from the cracked black pepper in the rub. A link of commercially-made boudin had just a hint of smoke, but a swipe through a puddle of hot sauce livened it up. On the side, potato salad, slaw, and beans were basic, but satisfying.
Ritter doesn’t make the boudin (yet), but his sausage-making has improved tremendously in only a couple of years. This pork and beef version was juicy and pleasantly salty with a nice snap. The special of the day—the reason I’d driven to Hallsville—was the crawfish and cheese sausage. It starts with a pork base, and large crawfish tails are added. Although I found the cheese superfluous, the flavor of this unique sausage was like the best bites of a crawfish boil. They have other tricks up their sleeve, which makes their Instagram account worth a follow. For example, I was a day late for smoked burgers, and a day early for smoked frog legs.
The Ritters said they need those daily specials to bring folks in, especially during the slow lunch hour when the nearby high school isn’t in session. “The [Hallsville] population sign says 3,500, and probably 2,500 of them are in Longview this time of day during the summer,” Gabriel said. He should be frustrated at his lunch crowd, especially given the quality of barbecue they’re putting out. Surely there should more local demand than just the six briskets they cook per day, but some locals are hard to convince. “I had a customer who told me I was going to go out of business for serving it with the fat on there,” Ritter recalled with a laugh.
This meal was far better than a visit last year. I had to ask the Ritter what had changed. Obviously the brisket had been upgraded, but he hesitated before answering. “We’re running the place open-to-close every day now,” he explained. Their last child is now done with high school, and the Ritters were done with all the responsibilities and the time commitments related to having a kid at the house. They no longer had to hire help that may or may not be as dedicated to cooking great barbecue. For better or worse, Gabriel and Kasie can now dedicate all that extra free-time to barbecue, even if they don’t want their kids to do the same. Stop by and let them know they’re spending it wisely.