George “Slim” Miller didn’t like the welding job he’d taken right out of trade school. It was hot work running beads inside diesel tanks, so he quit. The lady at the unemployment office on Ledbetter in Dallas told him to walk across the street to a row of businesses and ask for a job. George Hardeman Sr. had him washing dishes just after the lunch rush, and Miller has worked for Hardeman’s BBQ ever since. That was in 1978.
Miller runs two hickory-fueled offset smokers parked behind the Hardeman’s BBQ at Kiest and Hampton in South Dallas. Siblings Gloria Hardeman and George Hardeman Jr. opened this spot in 2012, but the Hardeman’s name has been a force in the Dallas barbecue scene for decades. It’s one of three Hardeman’s locations still operating in town, and my favorite for the ribs and hot plate lunches.
Depending on the day, George might be cooking turkey necks, pig’s feet, or spaghetti. I try to time my visits around the braised oxtails or smothered pork chops. The oxtails come three to an order, and the rich, fatty meat easily falls away from the bone. The salty gravy spooned over a side of rice and a bowl of savory greens make it a meal. I’ve never had pork chops so tender as George’s. They’re doubled up on a platter, and if you pack one up to take home, you’ll likely nibble on it during the ride home.
Miller said he’s never tried smoking the oxtails. His specialty, or at least the most popular item on the menu, is pork ribs. I inquired about his rub, and he told me, “I don’t rub nothing. I shake it on there.” The seasoning isn’t complicated. “It’s just cayenne pepper and salt,” he said, and of course some hickory smoke.
He’s had to get used to the offset smokers because he learned on the massive brick cabinet-style pits built into the walls at the earlier Hardeman’s locations. I’d say he’s doing fine. These spares don’t have the heft or the heavy rub of some other local spots. There’s no secret ingredient or anything sweet to distract from the taste of good, clean barbecue. The pork flavor is forward, followed by salt and smoke. The heat from the cayenne is barely discernible. I prefer the full spares to the more expensive small-end ribs because I like the fatty rib tips. A rib sandwich will get you three whole ones, two slices of bread, pickles, onions, and sauce for $7.
I asked Miller what he’d learned about barbecue over the last forty years, and he gave me a surprising answer:
Nobody has probably told you this, but I’m gonna tell you. You can season your meat, you can build you a fire, and you can put that meat on that fire, but if that meat don’t feel you, and you don’t feel that meat, ain’t nobody gonna enjoy it. I feels my meat. I sing to my meat. I do. I have lots of love for what I do.
He’s serious about the singing. Miller belts out the Isley Brothers or gospel tunes. “On Sundays, it’s like having church out here,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the alley behind the strip center that houses the restaurant. This is Miller’s refuge when he’s not working the cleaver on the chopping block in the kitchen. “I don’t like using a knife,” he said, explaining that a cleaver can do it all, especially cutting through rib tips with ease.