There was $47 left in North Texas Smoke’s bank account after owner Derek Degenhardt paid for the last food delivery. If the joint sells all of that food within the next two weeks, Degenhardt can keep living his barbecue dream in Decatur, a town northwest of Fort Worth. Degenhardt opened his North Texas Smoke truck in a gravel lot next to a car dealership in January after several months of pop-ups. He’s still out $5,000 from the down payment on a smoker he expected months ago but still isn’t complete. He’s borrowing one from a friend who just had to put his weekend barbecue business on hiatus. “I’ve been through some really hard things in my life,” said Degenhardt, an Army veteran, “but it’s different when you’re thirty-nine and have a house and a wife and a fifteen- and nine-year-old.”
Degenhardt grew up in Claflin, Kansas, a tiny town in the middle of the state. After his service, he moved to Weatherford, met a girl, and got married. He was a truck driver hauling oversized equipment: excavators, D10 bulldozers, and parts for drilling rigs and windmills. Besides barbecue, he said, “the only other thing that I enjoy doing is hauling ridiculously big things down the road, and making everybody stop and look.”
After watching the first season of reality competition show BBQ Pitmasters, Degenhardt was hooked on backyard cooking, though he didn’t smoke his first brisket until six years ago. Starting with a Yoder pellet smoker, made near his hometown, his aim was to enter barbecue competitions. After graduating to a 250-gallon offset he bought from Brendan Lamb, who most recently ran the now-closed Smiley’s Barbecue in Roanoke, Degenhardt decided folks might want to buy what he was smoking. His wife, Courtney, urged him to pursue barbecue as a career after seeing his hobby consume every bit of his free time, and his boss supported the decision. In fact, Thomas Ivy, who owns Southern Transport, where Degenhardt worked, lent him the money to buy a food truck from a barbecue business that had closed in Eugene, Oregon.
After a long road trip with his son to haul the truck back to Texas, he had six days to get it ready for service. After leaving his job and the income it provided, Degenhardt knew North Texas Smoke needed to start making money immediately. “I didn’t know how to turn the hot-water heater on; I didn’t know how to turn the air conditioner on,” he said of that first day serving to the public, but they got food out the window.
I stopped in last week just after Degenhardt pared the menu down. He said he made a choice to focus on what the locals were asking for instead of trying to compete with what he was seeing on Instagram. He had already switched to Choice-grade briskets after the price of the Prime ones went up months earlier. He served me two thick brisket slices alongside tender, sweet-glazed ribs in one of my two-meat plates. The brisket was tender, with great smoke, and even the lean side was incredibly juicy.
Whatever Degenhardt didn’t learn from trial and error, he learned from YouTube. He credits the sausage videos from Chuds for pointing him in the right direction for his house-made beef and jalapeño-cheese sausages. Plump, bursting with juice, and with a great snap on the casing, the links from North Texas Smoke were excellent versions of the Texas classic. Slices of peppery turkey breast had just the right amount of oak smoke, and they were great dipped in the tomato- and mustard-based barbecue sauces. The pork shoulder was served minced rather than pulled, and it came out mushy, making it the only dud I tried. Degenhardt said he hadn’t served it in a while, and he didn’t like the result enough to do it again anytime soon. The crisp bacon surrounding a beautifully smoked jalapeño stuffed with brisket and cream cheese made up for it.
The side recipes went through plenty of iterations before they were ready. “Three weeks ago, I finally made a recipe that my daughter will eat,” Degenhardt said of his creamy mac and cheese topped with toasted bread crumbs. Go for the elote if you want a little spice, or the broccoli salad if you crave something lighter, but don’t leave without the potato salad. Degenhardt hates most potato salads, but he loves a loaded baked potato, so his version includes chunks of bacon, green onion, and cheese held together by a sour-cream dressing. It mimicked a loaded baked potato better than most other versions I’ve tried.
Degenhardt said my visit came on the heels of two bad weeks that were made tougher by how well the month prior had been for business. In recent days, he’d had loads of meats and sides that hadn’t sold, so he donated the extras to local churches, police stations, and fire departments. The point is to sell the barbecue, but “I made it to put a smile on somebody’s face,” Degenhardt said. Donating was the next best thing.
Hopefully things turn around for North Texas Smoke soon. Its barbecue is great, which should earn Degenhardt some staying power in an area without many great barbecue options. Still, he wondered, “At the end of the day, how far do you go?” He has seen folks he considered mentors close their businesses, including Lamb and Dustin Treviño, who just shuttered Treviño’s Craft Smokehouse in Jacksboro. When TND Barbecue in Weatherford announced it was closing late last month on social media, Degenhardt told his wife the news and admitted, “I could make that post right now.” He said one of his friends who recently closed their barbecue operation told him they did so after realizing they were a backyard hobbyist with a dream and had spent way too much money chasing it. Degenhardt said he can identify with that, but for now, he’s still happy to keep chasing the dream. “I don’t want to be sixty saying I wish I would have tried it.”