The lobster shooters at the late Abacus helped make chef Kent Rathbun famous in Dallas, but he was also on the leading edge of the local barbecue boom over a decade ago. In 2010, Rathbun was smoking briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders in front of Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen in Preston Center for BBQ Mondays (three years prior, his ribs at Jasper’s were called some of the best in America by Bon Appétit).

Blue Plate Kitchen closed in 2014, and his upscale barbecue restaurant Hickory, in Plano, had been open just a year when it closed in 2016 (a location still operates inside Terminal D at DFW Airport without Rathbun’s involvement). Then Rathbun’s barbecue went underground.

Rathbun’s Curbside BBQ was an admittedly rogue operation when it debuted in late 2020. The rules on mobile food vendors in Dallas weren’t heavily enforced during the pandemic. He only accepted cash for drive-up orders. In early 2021, I visited his smoker in a parking lot near the Tollway and Northwest Highway to get a memorably juicy whole smoked chicken.

Rathbun went legit late last year with the opening of Katy Trail Station in the Knox-Henderson neighborhood. The food trailer began serving barbecue on weekends, but now offers breakfast and lunch six days a week, and dinner is coming soon. Rathbun’s Curbside BBQ still exists, but only for weekend bulk-order pick-ups.

During my three weekday meals, the setting was quiet along the section of the trail tucked into an area surrounded by office buildings and apartment towers. All the seating is outdoors, and umbrellas shade tables on a wooden deck with a ramp and stairs connecting to the popular hike-and-bike trail. The deck was a gift from the Friends of the Katy Trail, and in return, the business gives back a portion of its proceeds to the foundation. The deck is a perfect stop if you’re walking the dog or on a run, but as a typical Dallasite, I drove myself to Katy Trail Station alone in a car and parked across the street. A small, free parking lot is also available, but it fills up quickly on the weekends.

At the heart of the operation is a food trailer. Rathbun explained it differs from a food truck because trucks have to remain mobile and be brought in for periodic inspection by the city. “We were the first food trailer to be permitted in Dallas,” he said, so it’s more permanent, and the health department comes to him for inspections.

The stacks of split hardwood and the trailer-mounted smoker are mere decoration. All the smoking is done in an off-site commissary kitchen with oak and pecan in Little Red Smokehouse smokers. The smoked meats are all chilled, vacuum-packed, and reheated in a sous vide bath inside the trailer. Rathbun said he got the idea from Kyle St. Clair, owner of One90 Smoked Meats in Dallas, who serves barbecue in a similar fashion. “Everything stays fresh and moist,” Rathbun said, and also noted how well it works for portion control. Still, he’d like to truck whole cuts hot from the commissary kitchen and use an offset smoker on-site as a warming cabinet, though he’s waiting on a variance from the city to allow for it.

As I placed an order at the window, general manager Jack Matusek warned the moist environment in the sous vide bags dissipates the smoke flavor on the meat and softens the bark. This was most obvious in the brisket slices, which all got a needed squirt of barbecue sauce. They’re better inside a sandwich.

I enjoyed the ribs, both pork and beef, more. The St. Louis–cut pork ribs were thick, tender, and well-seasoned. Five of them come on an entrée plate with two sides for $16. The Wagyu beef back ribs are from Rosewood Ranch, and have plenty of meat on the bone—just a tug gets it clean off. The sauce is more generously applied to the ribs, but thankfully it’s not overly sweet. The tomato base is familiar, and the tanginess works well with the fat.

Smoked salmon, the most expensive entree at $19, is one of the items that doesn’t get the sous vide treatment. It’s smoked on a cedar plank and chilled, but brought back up to serving temperature in a sauté pan with butter and barbecue sauce. This one was a winner among the typically dry smoked salmon I’ve had at a few Texas barbecue joints.

Every entrée includes slaw and one other side, of which there are four options (or a bag of chips). They don’t offer any way to sample several meats without buying multiple entrées, so if you want variety, you’ll soon have an impressive collection of slaw at the table. It’s crunchy with thinly sliced bell peppers and green apples and a light, acidic dressing. The baked potato salad is served warm, and the beans are sweet. The mac and cheese is easily the best choice. According to Matusek, the cooked cavatappi noodles are sautéed in hot oil to get some browned edges before a creamy gouda sauce is poured on top. It’s garnished with buttery toasted breadcrumbs. Every serving is made fresh, so the pasta is never mushy.

Matusek’s background in meat preparation is wider and more varied than you’d expect from his youthful face. The South Texas native has travelled the world studying butchery and charcuterie with names like Kate Hill in France, Dario Cecchini in Italy, and Renzo Garibaldi in Peru. He took a hiatus from food to work in his family’s clothing business, but jumped at the chance to work with Rathbun when he was offered a position. 

Although Katy Trail Station has a sausage master in its midst, the jalapeño cheese link is commercially produced by Wagyu X. The juicy sausage is drizzled with a German-style hot mustard and topped with pico de gallo. I loved the unlikely combination. The grilled burger was also nicely cooked, and served on a toasted bun with the usual toppings on the side. Avoid the pork belly burnt ends, which are just saucy chunks of bland, undercooked pork.

Lunch begins at 11, but don’t skip breakfast here. The cooks combine saucy chopped pork and brisket with fluffy scrambled eggs on flour tortillas for impressive breakfast tacos. I was surprisingly taken with the barbecue sauce and egg combination, especially after also drizzling on mild salsa. A jalapeño-cheese-sausage kolache is also available, as are several varieties of coffee. I preferred the cold brew to the bitter shot of espresso.

Katy Trail Station fills a need in a neighborhood where Dickey’s is the only barbecue option (and it doesn’t matter that it’s the original). I genuinely enjoyed a few quiet meals here in the nice weather we’re currently enjoying in Dallas. Matusek said the whole vibe changes on the weekend when they’re busy from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s triple the staff to serve the influx, and a bar to show off cocktails and beers after recently acquiring a liquor license. Rathbun said they’ll add evening hours after Thanksgiving.

The timing might sound odd given the possibility of colder weather, but it is adjacent to the spot where the horse-drawn carriages pick up and drop off riders seeking a slow-paced tour of the Highland Park Christmas decorations. Thankfully for them, hot apple cider, hot cocoa, and hot barbecue will be nearby.

Katy Trail Station
4825 Cole Avenue, Dallas
Hours: Tuesday–Friday 7–4, Saturday–Sunday 7–5
Pitmaster: Kent Rathbun
Method: Oak and pecan in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022