How do you transform a barbecue brand that’s been serving smoked meats for forty years? The strategy for Jeff Payne, president of Cousins BBQ, in Fort Worth, has been to not make all the changes at once.
A project that began in 2020 to make COVID-related renovations—like removing centralized condiment bars and utilizing mostly idle staff to update the three stand-alone brick-and-mortar locations—turned into a whole new look for Cousins.
“Freshening up turned into gutting the restaurants,” said Jason Cross, vice president of operations. In 2021, Cousins unveiled its newly renovated store in Crowley, a suburb south of Fort Worth, and a new logo. Early last year, it completed its update of the Cityview location on Bryant Irvin Road, in Fort Worth.
I hadn’t eaten at Cousins since trying its smoked and fried chicken wings two years ago at the original location on McCart Avenue. I loved them, but I hadn’t thought much about Cousins until it started making waves with its new menu options.
I stopped at the Cityview location recently to see the changes and to try the New School Tray of smoked meats and sides. The interior looks fresh, with modern light fixtures hanging next to the mounted head of a Longhorn. You can buy raw pork and beef, including the ribeye and strip steaks that have more recently been added to the menu.
The pit crew is on display through the large windows that show off the pit room. The crew members trim and season the meat in front of the new collection of M&M rotisserie smokers. “It made sense to look to our future with them,” Payne said of the smoker company from Tool, southeast of Dallas. Inside those smokers you’ll find Duroc pork ribs and shoulders from Creekstone. Soon all the briskets will also be pricey Creekstone Prime beef, though Payne doesn’t think customers can stomach anything more than the $29 per pound the restaurant currently charges.
I talked with Payne and Cross on the phone as they were pulling up to meet with Bill Dumas of Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue, in Pflugerville. Known as the “Sausage Sensei,” Dumas had offered some ways to improve their house-made sausages, and they were going back for more of his advice, “to work towards making a better link,” Cross said. Based on Dumas’s social media posts with Cousins last month, we may see a jalapeño-popper sausage in the future.
In that same vein, brisket poppers are a new item on the Cousins menu. “We wanted to evolve a little bit,” Cross said. Inspiration is drawn from going out for barbecue at least once every two weeks. Cross and/or Payne take different folks from their crew to show them how the rest of Texas is doing barbecue. “We want to see what’s out there to spur creativity,” Cross said.
Even though the joint is used to serving sandwiches and plates, it found barbecue trays worth adopting. “It’s fun. It’s interactive. It’s a shared experience,” Cross said. Cousins has added a trio of new tray options to the ever-changing menu. It changes so much, in fact, the joint replaced the fancy printed menus with descriptions written in black marker on butcher paper.
The first tray, meant for one diner, is the Deal ($26), which comes with brisket, a pork rib, smoked sausage, and Texas street corn. The Old School Tray ($36) includes a half pound of Prime brisket, two Duroc pork ribs, house-made German and jalapeño-cheddar sausages, and pulled pork. I went for the New School Tray ($46), introduced earlier this year, to see how Cousins interpreted that term.
The tray is similar to the Old School version, minus the German sausage and pulled pork. The other items that round out the platter are what’s newer to Cousins: smoked and fried wings, brisket poppers with perfectly cooked bacon, and mac-and-chorizo balls, which are fried mac and cheese balls with chorizo mixed in. The last are even better than they sound.
The two gigantic spareribs on my tray were well smoked, with a sweet and spicy rub. Thick slices of fatty brisket were both perfectly tender and very juicy, but Cousins needs to work on the new-school bark. I appreciate that the sausage is house-made, but the jalapeño flavor got lost in all the cheddar. Those chicken wings were just as good as the last time I tried them, and if you ask for the spicy option, make sure your glass of tea is full.
Some of the sides look different as well. Cousins has traded out broccoli rice casserole for Texas street corn, and a bacon potato salad takes the place of classic potato salad. Thankfully, the excellent hand-cut fries remain. “We don’t want to ostracize our past,” Cross said, while observing that making changes “without offending anyone is impossible.” The Texas street corn was more reminiscent of Kansas City–style cheesy corn than the elotes that are the stated target. Other than that, I was happy enough with Cousins’ new-school take and didn’t require the comfort of the old school, so I missed out on the pulled pork, which Payne said is the top seller at the two outposts in DFW Airport.
There’s a focus on quality at Cousins, but also a new one on quantity. The joint now offers the All You Can Meat (AYCM) option of unlimited portions of six different smoked meats and eight sides at all three stand-alone brick-and-mortar locations. It rolled out three days a week last month for $30 per person (no doggie bags), but it has since expanded to every day, and the price has been lowered to $25. “I’d say seventy-five percent get refills,” Cross said, including every member of the college football and lacrosse teams that have stopped in to take advantage of the deal.
Payne is the son of Cousins’ founders, the late Calvin “Boots” Payne and his wife, Beverly. Boots learned the barbecue business from the legendary Walter Jetton, and he took notes from visits to Angelo’s, so the roots of his knowledge went way back. Back in 2014, when I interviewed Jeff’s brother Cliff, who has since retired from running Cousins, he said of trying other barbecue joints, “I’m embarrassed for anybody to see me at another restaurant, so I just don’t do it anymore.”
Cliff was as old-school as his father. Jeff Payne has the opposite opinion, and it’s showing as Cousins implements what it’s learned from the rest of Texas. “You have to challenge yourself and you have to change,” Payne said. He left me with wisdom he said he often heard from his father: “Most things aren’t going to lock the doors, and people are pretty forgiving with change.”
910 S. Crowley Road, Suite 1, Crowley (817-297-0557)
5125 Bryant Irvin Road, Fort Worth (817-346-3999)
6262 McCart Avenue, Fort Worth (817-346-2511)
Hours: Monday–Saturday 11–9
Pitmaster: Jeff Payne
Method: Hickory in a wood-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 1983