I heard just a few days ago that Neely’s, in Marshall, has closed for good. It has changed ownership several times over the years, but Neely’s has been serving its signature Brown Pig pork barbecue sandwiches for more than ninety years. Not much has changed about the sandwich, and it’s hard to imagine a new restaurant adding a similar one—topped with an unlikely trio of lettuce, mayonnaise, and barbecue sauce—to its menu. The Brown Pig was a holdover from the days of the Pig Sandwich served at Pig Stand drive-ins across Texas and the country. Besides Mary Ann’s Pig Stand in San Antonio (which is struggling), Neely’s was the only restaurant in the state that resembled the once-thriving chain.
When writing about restaurants is your work, you learn pretty quickly that they come and go, sometimes rapidly and unexpectedly. I guess I’m not supposed to get emotionally attached to any one business because food writers are meant to be impartial. I try to strike a balance, landing somewhere between sentimentality and cynicism. Besides, pining for lost restaurants could soon become a full-time job. I can’t say that I craved a sandwich from Neely’s often, but I tried to stop in whenever I was within sniffing distance, if only to get a bite of Texas barbecue history. Now that option is gone.
It’s a similar feeling to losing a historic meat market and barbecue joint like Prause Meat Market, in La Grange. After I shared the family’s tale of closing this year after more than a century in business, some readers reached out with their stories about the barbecue joints they miss most. They had sentimental connections to their favorite joints from Austin to Abilene, some of them long gone, and some more recently departed.
“It’s different than any other barbecue you’ve had,” one of our readers, Josh Duttlinger, told me about Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Abilene. One of my biggest regrets is not making it to Harold’s before it closed in 2011. Duttlinger figures he ate there north of a hundred times while growing up in Abilene. Whenever his family asked him where to eat, his answer was Harold’s. He lives in Dallas now, where brisket from Pecan Lodge has become a staple, but nothing compares to the barbecue sauce from Harold’s. “That was the big secret,” he said of the runny sauce that brought some sweetness and a tang that was hard to describe. Every time he returned home, his first stop was Harold’s, where he’d get a chopped beef sandwich covered in the sauce, then an extra side to use as a dipping sauce for dipping Harold’s hot water cornbread.
Duttlinger admits the barbecue at Harold’s wasn’t the best he’s eaten. But with the sauce, the atmosphere, and the memories combined, it was hard to beat as a barbecue experience. Owner Harold Christian, who passed away in 2016, would greet customers from behind the counter and serenade them with gospel singing while he chopped the barbecue. “He was really religious,” Duttlinger recalled, “and he just enjoyed singing gospel music and making everyone smile with his food.” Harold’s closed while Duttlinger was living in Midland, so he never got the chance for a final visit to pay his respects. Now he just wishes he had bought a few bottles of that sauce.
In Fort Worth, the food from Lady & the Pit touched Brandon Garcia’s soul. “It was our go-to for a comfort meal, a cheap meal, a hangover meal. You name it,” he said. Garcia and his wife, Amber, visited at least twenty times in the four years Natasha Smith ran the restaurant in Fort Worth (Lady & the Pit moved from Port Isabel to Fort Worth in 2015), but rarely did he arrive knowing what to order. “We’d go in there knowing that it would be a surprise what the special was,” and that’s what he’d order, whether it was meat loaf or fried pork chops. “My wife loves overcooked pork,” Garcia said, so she liked the incredibly tender pork ribs.
The Garcias drove up one day last year to find it closed. Smith said she had closed temporarily after the city health department had restricted the use of the restaurant’s barbecue smoker. The restaurant never reopened. Garcia isn’t sure what he’d order if he got to walk into Lady & the Pit one more time, and that’s by design. He said the special board would provide the answer, promising “it would definitely be dealer’s choice.”
Spencer Somerville left nothing to chance when he’d drive from his home in Waco to Whitney for a bite of Flores Barbecue. He’s a big barbecue fan, having lived in Austin and Dallas previously. He and his wife’s first date was a trip to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. His first visit to Flores Barbecue was on a Friday, when owner and pitmaster Michael Wyont would smoke pork butts for the carnitas taco special. “No lie, that might be the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” Somerville told me.
The next visit required some scheming. Somerville is the assistant head coach of the Robinson High School football team, and one of his duties is to drive the equipment bus for the Rockets to away games. The week Whitney was on the team’s schedule in 2018, he gathered some other assistant coaches to leave a bit early. They made it to Flores Barbecue in time for the carnitas tacos, and later won the game by a point. Somerville has gotten to choose their restaurant destinations ever since. His final trip to Flores was again on a Friday, this time with his father-in-law, who was impressed with the carnitas. “He trusts me a little bit more now,” Somerville joked. Flores moved to Fort Worth in 2019, and closed for good later that year, though Wyont has resurrected a portion of the business selling tortillas made with smoked brisket fat.
Few diners show as much allegiance to a single restaurant as California resident Todd Piccus had for Ruby’s BBQ in Austin. He was taken with the place while attending UT for business school and later law school. After graduation he moved back to Southern California, but he couldn’t shake his craving for Ruby’s. He’d often return to Austin, and would always stop at Ruby’s during his visits. In 2009 he bought a second home within walking distance of the restaurant. “I literally ate there every day … and sometimes twice a day,” Piccus said.
Piccus says he keeps to himself, so he didn’t get to know owner Pat Mares all that well, but she and the rest of the staff noticed his recent visits. Piccus said the order never varied. “Two black bean chicken tacos with no lettuce, and a pint of barbecue beans,” he recited to me, as if he was standing at the counter. Piccus ate his final meal at Ruby’s the week before it closed in 2018. He later asked Mares if he could buy the chalkboard menu. It now hangs in his Austin home, but he’s not sure for how much longer. Piccus said, “I realized once Ruby’s closed that it was a big draw for me” when it came to Austin. He also lost a good friend who had lived in the city. “I’m selling my vacation home there,” he said.
At the end of our conversation, Piccus said he used to tease his parents about their dining habits. They would eat at all the same restaurants every week, and he accused them of being in a rut. “I was judging them, and here I was doing the same exact thing at Ruby’s,” he noted. “You develop a relationship with a menu, and a staff, and a place, and the owner,” he recognized upon reflection. Now he understands his parents a little bit better. “It’s not a rut,” he said. “It’s tradition, and I was living my own tradition in Austin.”