Pitmaster Dan Woods credits his father’s late-night brisket cooks for sparking his interest in barbecue. “I remember the excitement of trying to stay up when I would cook with him,” Woods, who grew up in Weatherford, tells me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to learn all the lessons. His dad died when Woods was just eleven years old. As soon as Woods was sold enough to buy a smoker of his own, he did so—and started on a streak of pretty awful briskets. “I got so frustrated with brisket. I’d given up on it,” he says. But a great sale on brisket at the grocery store beckoned, leading to one more try. Woods put it on the smoker and monitored it carefully. But when it was getting close to done, he dozed off. When he woke up, the internal temperature had hit 209 degrees. (Brisket is typically considered done at a temperature around 200.) He thought he’d overcooked the meat and ruined yet another brisket, but the juicy and incredibly tender beef turned into a confidence booster.
After a string of great brisket scores on the barbecue competition circuit in 2019, Woods finally felt it was time to open a spot of his own. He planned to open a Saturday-only joint and slowly build up enough business to end his twenty-year career as a diesel mechanic. He bought Panther City BBQ‘s old food truck, which had previously been the home of Heim Barbecue in Fort Worth, and opened Tailgaters BBQ in February of 2020. After just one service, the pandemic hit, but Woods didn’t want to give up easily. “We had to reevaluate our business plan,” he says. Tailgaters took preorders throughout the week for vacuum-sealed meats and prepackaged sides that customers picked up every Saturday. It kept the business alive, but not exactly flourishing. Then the pandemic provided an opportunity.
In September, soon after state requirements allowed bars to reopen if they could operate as restaurants, Woods got a call from the owner of the Antebellum Ale House in Weatherford. The state allowed for bars to partner with a mobile food operator to provide the meals on premises, and Antebellum needed a truck. Woods agreed, and the bar owner requested that he be open four days a week. It was the break Woods was looking for to finally make barbecue his full-time job. “[The bar owner] called me on a Wednesday night and asked me if I was interested. I talked to my wife, and I quit that next day,” he says. “We were open on Friday.”
Now Woods serves from Wednesday to Saturday starting at 11:30 a.m. He describes his barbecue as a blend of Texas-style and competition-style barbecue: “We’re not strict salt and pepper, but we’re not super sweet either.” If it’s competition-style barbecue you’re seeking, then start with the pork ribs. On the competition circuit, most teams use a heavy rub on their ribs, then add a sweet glaze and squeezable margarine before wrapping the meat in foil. The finished product is usually so sweet and salty that it’s hard to enjoy more than a few bites. At Tailgaters, Woods uses the same technique but deftly dials the flavor down a few notches. The foil helps get the desired tenderness, and the flavor is bold but not overpowering. The tops of the ribs are sweet from the glaze and glossy from a few pats of butter. The salt balances out the sweetness.
While on the circuit, Woods developed what he calls his “party rub,” and it goes on just about everything at Tailgaters. The mix contains garlic, onion powder, and Worcestershire sauce powder in addition to salt, black pepper, and brown sugar. It works well on the juicy slices of smoked turkey breast, which pop with flavor from the smoke and seasoning. Maybe it’s because the turkey and ribs are so vivid, but the last bites I took of the brisket seemed bland in comparison. It was adequately tender and juicy, though the foil wrapping softened the bark. Maybe it was just an off day for the beef.
There’s nothing bland about the street-corn side dish. Woods sautés the kernels in butter until tender, then blasts them with a torch to get some char and the smokiness that comes with it. Then the corn is mixed with cotija cheese, cilantro, jalapeño, hot sauce, and a squeeze of lime. For the mac and cheese, the entire pan is put into the smoker to take on the flavors of pecan smoke. Each serving is topped with a sprinkling of party rub. It’s a duo of carefully made side dishes that really makes an impression.
Woods said business is improving every week, but the truck’s early struggles were discouraging. He worked alone for several months and wasn’t getting much traffic. Now he’s able to hire a few staff members to help. Tailgaters also recently won an award for the street corn, which was voted 2021’s best side dish in Parker County. Woods said it felt rewarding, especially when he looks back on the business a year ago. “The mindset was to look forward.”
321 E. Oak, Weatherford
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 11:30–4
Pitmaster: Dan Woods
Method: Pecan in a reverse-flow smoker
Year opened: 2020