Joe Riscky is a fourth-generation pitmaster from a well-known Fort Worth barbecue family. He grew up at Riscky’s Barbeque and eventually tried other lines of work, but ten years ago he went back into the family business. Joe managed the pit room at the original location on Azle Avenue, which supplied barbecue for several locations of the chain. I interviewed him there in 2014, and he told me how his great-grandfather, also named Joe Riscky, had opened the place back in 1927. The younger Joe had plans to carry that family barbecue legacy forward, but in July 2017, he left over a disagreement with his dad, Jim Riscky.
“I was ‘let go,’ is what they called it,” Joe told me from his new joint. Eighteen months later, he opened Joe Riscky’s Barbeque on the property of Wild Acre Brewing. The brewery is housed in what once was the Ranch Style bean plant just southeast of downtown Fort Worth. Joe renovated a former storage building on the far side of the site to serve barbecue Fridays and Saturdays. He now works with his own sons, Hayden and Hudson, who help run the kitchen, the cutting block, and the register. It’s still a family operation, just with a different group of Risckys.
Joe left his father’s business not long after he hosted a pop-up, in June 2017. I attended, and Joe served sliced brisket, pork ribs, chicken drumsticks, hominy, and butter beans. He said the event gave him the opportunity for some Riscky’s Bar-B-Q research and development. “I saw it as a great way of trying new items for Riscky’s, but on the side,” he told me. He sought feedback from the crowd in attendance, which he says was mostly positive, but Jim Riscky shared his displeasure with Joe after the event.
“I don’t think he can work for me and do pop-ups,” Jim Riscky told me over the phone, though he disputes that he fired his son, insisting, “He’s the one that decided to leave.” Jim recalled a meeting after the pop-up, and described what sounded like an ultimatum he proposed. Jim continued, “He could go on about his business, or he could have stayed there and worked if he would have just told me he wasn’t going to have the pop-ups no more.” Joe refused, and Jim took that as “a mutual agreement that he couldn’t keep doing those pop-up caterings and work for me too.”
“I would never forget the first words out of my father’s mouth when he fired me,” was Joe’s response when I offered his dad’s side of the story (they haven’t had a conversation in over a year). “My ass didn’t hit the seat before he said, ‘Well, we’re just going to let you go,'” Joe insisted. Either way, both father and son confirm that Jim agreed to pay Joe a year’s salary and insurance and let him keep the company truck. That’s a pretty good severance package.
Joe was surprised by his sudden unemployment, but soon the benefits became clear. “I was thinking the door is open, and I need to step through it,” he said. Joe had discussed cooking techniques and the business of barbecue with some of the state’s most successful pitmasters at Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket at Texas A&M University. His family had taught him that “other barbecue restaurants were the enemy,” he said, but these events demonstrated to Joe that most barbecue joint owners were willing to share their “secrets” and provide advice. He also realized quality ingredients treated properly were valued more than simply providing cheap food. “At Riscky’s we manufactured barbecue,” Joe recalled matter-of-factly. “We were like General Motors. I mean, the product came in, we put it through the line, and it came out the other end.” He realized, “Once I got out on my own, I had to lose the mass-produced barbecue look at life and become a craft guy.”
Jim Riscky doesn’t see the appeal of craft barbecue and didn’t appreciate Joe trying to change his recipes. “I never did see or taste any thing that was better,” Jim said of the new barbecue recipes Joe would bring him to sample, adding, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” And it’s hard to argue with the financial success of a business that’s been operating since 1927. “We’re doing it the same way, we’re cooking with 100 percent wood, and it’s just a family deal,” Jim reminded me.
Now Joe Riscky is serving his own menu using a refurbished wood-fired rotisserie. Service started only on Saturdays in January, and he has since added Fridays. As the barbecue gets more popular, he may add more days. Food is served inside the small building, while most of the seating is outside at picnic tables. Riscky is in the midst of constructing an enclosure around some of the seating, but all of the tables are barbecue- and beer-friendly. Just across the lawn is a side door into Wild Acre Brewery, where beers can be ordered at the bar. Brewery owner John Pritchett suggests the Billy Jenkins Bock to accompany Riscky’s smoked meats. During inclement weather, diners at tables inside the brewery can order barbecue via text and have it delivered.
The easiest way to get a sampling is ordering the $57 meal called “The Hashtag#.” It easily feeds four with two sides, sliced brisket, turkey breast, sausage, pork ribs, and a sausage bomb. That last item is a cheese-stuffed jalapeño coated in ground sausage, then wrapped in bacon. Riscky has them shipped in from Southside Market in Elgin and then smokes them on site. I liked the pork ribs best. They’re coated heavily in a sweet, salty, and slightly spicy rub. Riscky is a sales rep for Cheshire Pork and uses its product in the restaurant. He also uses Certified Angus beef briskets, which were well-seasoned and smoky on my two visits. Riscky, who spent years behind the scenes at Riscky’s Bar-B-Q, needs to hone his skills on the chopping block. Even his high-school-aged son was clowning on his sloppy slicing, but Riscky told me he’s purchased a new knife since then.
Joe Riscky has served his own smoked meats only about a dozen times at the new spot, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better. The sides, though, are already some of the best in town. Joe’s butter beans and ham will soon draw fans of their own. He starts by smoking an already cooked ham, then dices it and simmers the ham along with large, raw lima beans. It’s important to keep the lid off during cooking, as Riscky explains. “When you boil it with the lid on, it makes the beans blow up.” I stopped in one Saturday afternoon to find the butter beans off the menu, but the pinto beans that replaced them were nearly as impressive. Instead of ham, Riscky uses a chunk of smoked brisket to simmer along with the beans. He promised he’d add some cornbread to the menu soon, which along with a bowl of either type of beans would make an excellent, inexpensive meal.
There’s also a memorable version of hominy with green chiles and cheese, a classic slaw and potato salad, mac and cheese topped with chopped brisket, and a good whipped banana pudding. I could go on, but the point is that Joe Riscky’s Barbeque has room for improvement, but I prefer it to what I’ve sampled at the Riscky’s Bar-B-Q location I’ve visited. This little shack is not where Joe Riscky expected to end up, but even when I talked to him back in 2014—when Riscky’s Bar-B-Q was still offering five chopped beef sandwiches for $5—he knew barbecue would be his life. “There’s a saying in this family. ‘You better do good in school, or you’re going to come home smelling like smoke,'” he said back then. Joe Riscky is happy to smell like smoke these days, even if he had to once again become a student of barbecue in order to do it his own way.