Walk through the doors of Ernie’s Pit Barbeque, in Greenville, and you’ll notice a row of school desks. Dallasites might recognize them as a nod to the famous seats at the original Sonny Bryan’s, but the inspiration goes further back. After he got out of the Navy, Ernie Carroll worked in Dallas for Shoemaker’s Barbecue, a group of now-defunct barbecue joints founded in 1926 that once dotted downtown Dallas. When he opened his eponymous barbecue joint in 1948, Carroll borrowed their look, with only school desks for seating and a scant menu of barbecue sandwiches.
Carroll passed away in 1991, and his daughter Shannon Routh eventually took the place over with her husband, Frank Routh Jr., and their business partner, Howard Barrow. Shannon remembers when sliced beef, ham, and sausage were the only meats in the old brick pit. The popular Ernie Burger was a brisket sandwich topped with barbecue sauce, yellow mustard, and sweet pickle relish. She misses the old downtown location that burned down after the 1985 tornado in Greenville and lamented when the health department made them remove the sawdust from the floor in their new location, which is closer to the interstate. After Shannon sold the restaurant to Barrow in 2013, he expanded the dining room and added tables and chairs. Barbecue plates became part of the menu. With every change, Ernie’s was looking less and less like the Shoemaker’s model. And then last year it was sold again, this time to Josh and Krysten Thomas.
The customers who line up for sliced brisket, smoked boudin, and pork belly burnt ends don’t seem to mind the Ernie’s evolution. The Thomases have worked to adjust the menu to their tastes while still honoring Carroll’s legacy. They kept on long-time pitmaster Allen Riedel, who has been running the brick pit for over a decade. I asked him how the change in ownership has affected his cooking style. “I’m still just cooking,” he said, while fetching a load of oak wood from a neatly stacked pile. “It doesn’t matter to me because I’ve learned how to work that pit.” It requires skill to manage the heat and smoke inside a custom-built smoker that takes up some considerable real estate in the kitchen. He also doesn’t begrudge the Thomases for wanting to update the menu, saying, “Josh, he’s bringing it into the modern times.”
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Josh Thomas grew up in Sulphur Springs and worked for six years at the Bodacious Bar-B-Que location in town. “When I first started, I loved barbecue,” he said, “but I didn’t want that to be the only thing I ever done in life.” He left Bodacious in 2006 to work for food and beverage distributor Ben E. Keith. He worked his way up in the company and was David Slaughter’s manager when Slaughter’s BBQ Oasis opened in Sulphur Springs. The barbecue operation stirred up some memories for Thomas. “It kinda brought the itch back,” he said, so he went looking for an opportunity to be his own boss.
After finding an online listing for Ernie’s, Krysten and Josh spent months talking each other out of opening a barbecue joint of their own. There were so many risks, but the barbecue muse wouldn’t give up. Josh ate at Stanley’s in Tyler and marveled that he didn’t need to use the barbecue sauce. Then he and Krysten traveled to Longview to the original Bodacious Bar-B-Que location in 2017. The barbecue was incredible, and Josh said, “On the way back, she was like, ‘let’s do it.'” The couple took over Ernie’s in February 2018. Regular customers asked them not to change anything, but Thomas was frustrated with the old recipe for the brisket. Another visit to a different barbecue legend, Franklin Barbecue in Austin, gave them the confidence to do it their own way. “That first bite of that [Franklin] brisket, I was like ‘holy crap!'” Josh remembered. He said to Krysten, “When we get back, we’re doing our own thing.”
They made some changes. With the firebox centered beneath the cooking chamber, the middle of the brick pit heats up quickly, meaning there isn’t even distribution of the heat, which can cause some briskets to dry out. “The pit wasn’t going to change, [so] we had to change,” Thomas said. They began wrapping the briskets—now seasoned only with salt, pepper, and white sugar—in butcher paper during the cook. To keep them moist, Riedel doused the paper-wrapped briskets with a spray mixture of apple cider vinegar and apple juice. The brisket now is incredibly juicy and tender. There’s plenty of smoke on each slice, and the Ernie Burger doesn’t rely on the sauce for moisture anymore.
The ribs have changed a bit as well. Thomas uses a heavy coating of the Bodacious rub, giving them a sweet, salty, and spicy flavor. On Wednesdays he trades out the regular ribs for Butterfinger ribs, coated with the crumbled candy bar. I prefer the regular ribs, which are perfectly tender with a great bark. The smoked sausage is also a bit different. They order it from Miiller’s in Llano, and on Thursdays, boudin from Zummo in Beaumont comes out of the smokers.
Jalapeño cheese grits are certainly new to the menu and provide the comfort one might expect from macaroni and cheese. The potato salad comes from a tub, which is hard to comprehend given the work that goes into everything else. Thomas said he’d like to switch over to the old Ernie’s recipe, and he should. He uses Ernie’s slaw dressing recipe, and it’s applied sparingly to crisp shredded cabbage. The slaw pairs well with the juicy pulled pork, especially on a sandwich. The sandwich basket with fresh-cut french fries is still a menu favorite, and it can be dressed with pickled jalapeños, peperoncini, raw onions, dill pickles, or sweet pickle relish from the back table, just like they offered at Shoemaker’s.
I was taken with the pinto beans, which are Riedel’s specialty. He said the old Ernie’s recipe was built to mimic Ranch Style Beans, but he has changed things up. Riedel starts with dry beans, water, and a little leftover ham. “Go slow, as much as anything, so it doesn’t blow out the beans,” he said of his method. After they boil and have taken up most of the water, Riedel adds some spices and a bit of the spicy barbecue sauce, then he lets them sit with the lid cracked off the pot overnight. “I call it steeping the beans,” he said, and it has the same effect of serving yesterday’s beans, which like chili and tomato sauce, are always better the next day.
Josh said 2018 was the “fastest year of my life.” He and Krysten had the task of updating the cooking methods of a legendary barbecue joint. They held on to the nostalgia where they could, but I ate at Ernie’s a few years back, and I’m happy to find new energy going into the old business. Two visits in the past few weeks have shown me a rare thing: a great new Texas barbecue joint that’s 71 years old. Things might be a little different at Ernie’s, but there are still plenty of Ernie Burger baskets being enjoyed in those old-school desks. Who’s to blame the Thomases if the brisket inside is a little juicier?