Doug Pickering had to flip a few burgers before he finally got his own barbecue joint, but he probably never thought he’d be have a literal carnival ride in its backyard. You’ll probably see the Ferris wheel poking above the roofline before you notice the sign for Ferris Wheelers Backyard & BBQ. The ride operational, at least on the weekends, which has made a few Tuesday diners unhappy. Pickering notes that it requires three people to operate, including security (sober riders only), but it runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night for Dallasites who don’t get their fill of Ferris wheels at the State Fair.
It also takes a three-person team to run the Ole Hickory smoker, which Pickering refers to as a Ferris wheel for smoked meat. John Woodson and Tyler Hutt also watch over the smoker, which takes extra attention overnight since they turn off the gas flame and rely only on post oak during the smoking process. Hutt came over from the Smoky Rose in Dallas, where Pickering was planning to cook before he got the offer of greater menu control from the owners at Ferris Wheelers. They needed a pitmaster after Graham Dodds left the project to run the Statler Hotel’s food program. It’s been a bit of a pitmaster merry-go-round.
Pickering was brought on in November when the space was still the burger joint Buck’s Prime. He was on salary, so they told him he’d be managing the burger place until they could change it over into the barbecue operation. “That was not the highlight of my culinary career,” Pickering jokes. He already had kitchen experience from his time at WORK bar in Deep Ellum, where he cooked the well-received barbecue menu in 2014. I ate only once at WORK, and the brisket was undercooked and bit too springy. The first slice I got at Ferris Wheelers was almost an exact replica, but it was only their second day. Seven weeks later, things have improved. Although I preferred the juicy lean brisket on a recent trip to the thick-cut, overcooked fatty brisket on a follow-up visit, this is brisket with solid potential.
The St. Louis cut ribs have been far more consistent. Heavily seasoned with a proprietary rub and sweet glaze, they come on the tray as double-boned rib portions. Prepare to throw down some money and get messy. A $12 half rack is the minimum order, and they’re a $4 upcharge on the two meat, one side platter that’s normally $15. The platter is the most economical way to enjoy the juicy jalapeño-cheese sausage link ($8 à la carte), which is my favorite meat on the menu. It’s produced at Rudolph’s Meat Market in Deep Ellum from a recipe developed by Pickering. Pair a link up with peppery slices of smoked turkey and a side of fried okra so good it’s in contention for the best in town.
Pulled pork is described as Lexington-style (as in North Carolina), which is a misnomer. Rather than being chopped, it’s shredded into long strands and mixed with its own fat and a sauce with too much sweetness to come from the Piedmont. It’s better on a sandwich with the crunchy bacon/jalapeño slaw and side of the crisp waffle fries. They’re great to dip into the Texas Gold sauce, a mix of tomato and mustard that was the best of the four offered. The fried sides were a better bet than both the meaty beans, which had an odd sour taste, and the potato salad that’s loaded with cilantro, cumin, corn, and red peppers.
The smoked green beans grew on me. The flavor from the smoker and a dab of barbecue sauce is so unusual, the first bite is jarring, but a few bites in and I was hooked. The current menu calls them “French-style” green beans, which Pickering said has been confusing, so look for “smoked green beans” on the next menu roll out. For dessert, they couldn’t get more classic than the banana pudding. If it’s on the special board, snag a serving.
Ferris Wheelers is one one the few Dallas barbecue joints open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, which is a tough way to come out of the gates. “The biggest challenge is predicting the dinner demand,” Pickering says. They cook two batches of most meats, but all the briskets go on at 6 p.m. for the following day. “You‘ve gotta become an amateur meteorologist,” he adds. They’re getting those quantities dialed in along with their barbecue. Pickering looked a bit dazed from the grueling schedule, but he’s putting out barbecue to be proud of. And where else in Dallas can you ride Ferris wheel in November?