Lady & the Pit is the rare barbecue joint where you can eat well without ordering anything cooked in the pit. It’s not that the pulled pork and spare ribs are bad—they’re adequate—but the food coming out of the fryer, the oven, and the griddle is exceptional. “I like to feed people how I like to eat,” says owner and current pitmaster, Natasha Smith. True to her word, she keeps the pit fueled with mesquite wood while also coming up with daily, home-cooked specials that had me coming back meal after meal.
Smith is a Fort Worth native, but opened her first restaurant in Port Isabel off the southern tip of South Padre Island in 2012. The kitchen was her domain while her business partner, Kenneth Barton, handled the barbecue. As for the name, Smith explained, “I’m the lady, and he’s the pit.” (Barton is currently taking a break from the restaurant, but plans to return in November.) When her father fell ill in 2015, the pair decided to come back home and find a new location for the restaurant in Fort Worth.
They hauled their massive smoker, built by Barton, back to where they started: a parking lot on Fort Worth’s east side. “We took our last $500 and bought a bunch of meat and parked right out there,” Smith said, pointing out the front window of the renovated dining room that currently houses Lady & the Pit. I followed her back to the cabinet smoker, which now sits in a pit room just outside the back door of the kitchen, with the wood directly under the meat. They don’t burn the mesquite logs down to coals, so the flames came up just under the racks of ribs and several half chickens, filling the room with thick smoke as we spoke.
“We use direct flame because it cuts the cook time,” said Smith. Briskets are done in six hours, but slices are not available, since Smith says she can’t raise her prices to match the rising cost of raw briskets. She said she can stretch it enough to be profitable once it’s chopped and mixed with sauce. A hefty scoop of the Sloppy Joe-style chopped beef comes on a bun. It’s all artfully placed on a plate with pickled jalapeños, dill pickle chips, red onions, and even more sauce. Honestly, there’s enough beef on there for two sandwiches.
I’d suggest the pulled pork instead. The still-juicy strands have a bit of bark clinging to them, and it pairs well with the sauce. The spare ribs aren’t bad, but the star of the barbecue menu is made from leftovers. The smoked chicken salad is offered as a plate, on a green salad, on a sandwich, or as an appetizer with Ritz crackers on the side. Ribbons of pulled chicken, finely diced peppers, and onions are held together by a sweet dressing, and two generous scoops come with each serving. Look for it on the chalkboard of specials on display at the front counter.
Prior to writing this review, I visited Lady and the Pit three times so that I could try as many daily specials as possible. There’s no set menu, but Smith posts an image of the board on the restaurant’s Facebook page almost every day. Look for the fried pork chops, which come two bone-in chops to an order (I saved one for dinner) and were still bubbling from the fryer when they arrived at the table. The batter was crisp and salty, and the meat was still juicy underneath. They were only equaled by the chicken-fried steak two visits later. Smith pounds the steaks into submission before battering them. It’s a three-step process of flour, egg batter, and more flour, which is not uncommon, but the flaky surface that clings to the steak appeared to include crushed corn flakes. Smith insisted not: the flakiness and supreme batter adherence come from pushing and working the final dusting of flour into the meat before frying. It’s one of the best chicken fried steaks I’ve eaten.
The server each time I went was Tamika, who warns diners that their orders may take extra time because nothing hits the fryer or the griddle until it’s ordered. It’s a refreshing message, and I was happy to wait ten minutes for perfect filets of fried catfish instead of instantly getting soggy ones out of a warmer. They’re thick, too—Smith said she orders nine- to twelve-ounce filets because she doesn’t want anyone leaving hungry. She also insists on cooking from scratch. “If you’re charging people all this money for instant, canned, processed stuff, it’s not fair,” she says.
Smith also works wonders with fried zucchini, which are cut into thin slices, battered in cornmeal, and fried crisp to order. They’re salty enough to mimic fried pickles. There’s also an excellent creamy mac & cheese, savory stewed cabbage, a rich squash casserole, and fluffy mashed potatoes. The traditional barbecue sides of mustard potato salad and meaty pinto beans are also well done. I have yet to try the fried okra or broccoli rice casserole, but I had to leave something for a return visit. Every plate also comes with a square of fresh baked cornbread that’s moist and buttery.
There’s plenty more that comes from the oven. Peach cobbler was still baking on a recent visit, so I settled for strawberry shortcake. The fruit was fresh and came layered between slices of buttery pound cake. It was topped with real whipped cream, as was a pleasantly tart key lime pie and a thoroughly unique pineapple cream pie. The idea for the latter came to Smith after seeing a recipe for pineapple custard pudding. She put her own spin on it and topped the dessert with whipped cream and crushed pecans. Without a slice, I wouldn’t have known how well pecans go with pineapple. I’ll have to wait until a weekend visit to try the lemonade strawberry cake.
I don’t want to discourage folks from trying the barbecue at Lady & the Pit, but the name sells the place short. Smith has so much more to offer than smoked meats. She confesses to a preference for the home-cooking side of the menu as well. “Being around the barbecue 24/7 all day, living it, dreaming it, smelling it, I don’t eat the barbecue,” she said.
Smith said that summers with her grandmother in Arkansas gave her a greater appreciation for home-cooked meals. “She was making biscuits from scratch and pancakes,” said Smith, remembering how she learned to pick peas and shuck corn at age six. That commitment to fresh food has earned her loyal customers. When her air conditioning went out in the middle of July, her customers donated to a replacement fund when her landlord didn’t react quickly enough. A benevolent woman who said she was guided by God to the restaurant wrote her a check for several thousand dollars to cover the difference, and she was back in business. Smith says she’s still recovering financially from that week of lost sales, but in telling the emotional story, she doesn’t forget to count her blessings. Smith gets to continue the work that she feels is her calling. “I think I was actually born to do this,” she told me. “Sometimes you have to find your purpose in life, and food is a gift from God. He created me to present it in the best way possible.”