Ian Timmons and Kristi Clanton Timmons had a plan when they moved back to Lubbock in 2017. A few years in Colorado had soured them on the skiing industry, so they returned to their native Lubbock, and Ian returned to barbecue. His first stint at Tom & Bingo’s Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q began in 2009, but back then he was just an employee dating owner Dwayne Clanton’s daughter. Now they were married, and were returning to ease Clanton into a well-deserved retirement after 33 years running the pits at the joint his father Tom had opened in 1952. Ian figured he’d eventually take over the place from Clanton, but just two weeks after Ian’s first day back, Clanton passed away suddenly. Ian went from student to the torchbearer of a family barbecue legacy.
The restaurant closed for a week to mourn Clanton’s passing. His widow Liz posted an announcement that they’d be reopening on July 24, 2017, under “our new leader” Ian Timmons. She asked the community to “lift him up in prayer as he takes on this huge responsibility!” Neither really knew the family struggles that would come or the emotions that would be laid bare as then 27-year-old Ian attempted to maintain a barbecue legacy he wasn’t born into, while also ushering Tom & Bingo’s into a new era of Texas barbecue.
Timmons had already proven himself a barbecue innovator of sorts at Tom & Bingo’s. In 2012, after decades of nothing more than beef and ham sandwiches, an eighth-pound Bingo burger, and bags of chips, he added a fifth menu option of a smoked-sausage sandwich. A year later, he came to a barbecue talk of mine at Texas Tech. I showed slides of my favorite barbecue joints in Texas, and explained what I liked about them in detail. “You were describing everything that I wasn’t doing,” Timmons told me during a recent visit to the restaurant. He didn’t have the sway then to make changes, and Clanton understandably didn’t have the desire to alter the joint’s cooking methods. He’d been serving happy customers in Lubbock for three decades, so why change anything?
When Timmons took over, his goal was to smoke great briskets, and to serve them sliced on a tray rather than just chopped on a bun. He took Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass on brisket and was stunned by the trimming and smoking techniques. “I didn’t know this entire world existed,” he admits now. He had learned to smoke untrimmed and unseasoned briskets until they were tender enough to chop. The seasoning was a mustard/ketchup hybrid, along with assorted peppers, pickles, and onions available for garnish. After a research trip to Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue in Austin, and Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, he returned to Lubbock with renewed energy.
Not everyone was excited about the proposed changes. Clanton’s death was still raw, and to the family, it seemed like Timmons was trying to erase Clanton’s legacy with every change he made at the restaurant. He and his wife, who has her own career outside of barbecue, made a rule to not talk about Tom & Bingo’s at home. Not to mention, “I was answering to every customer that came in,” many of whom wondered why the brisket had bark on it, Timmons says. The added effort, then the exertion of having to defend it, was discouraging. He knows he lost some customers, but most of the old-timers still come for the sandwiches and a Bingo burger just like Tom and Dwayne used to make. “The coolest thing is when a granddad comes in with his son and his grandson,” Timmons says. The family has also come around: they know Timmons’s intention was to keep Tom & Bingo’s going strong, even if that meant attracting new customers who love sliced brisket and pork ribs, and might even want some sides and dessert. In a nod to legacy, he decided against modernizing with a steel offset smoker, and still uses the old brick pit his father-in-law smoked on.
But elsewhere, the changes didn’t cease. Timmons looked to his mom for a potato salad recipe, but left out her olives, “which I’ve never liked,” he says. The crisp slaw is lightly dressed with an Alabama white sauce, and contains slivers of both Granny Smith and Honeycrisp apples. The flavor of the banana pudding rotates weekly, and though it was a bit too sweet, I enjoyed the peanut-butter version with Nutter Butter cookies. Pork spareribs are available every Friday, and thick brisket cheeseburgers every Thursday (neither of which I tried). Those are weekly treats, but the smoked brisket and sausage at heart of the menu are reason enough to visit.
I lifted a slice of fatty brisket from the tray while sitting on the newly finished back patio at Tom & Bingo’s, and I could hardly contain my excitement. Buttery in flavor, incredibly tender, and with a smoky bark, this was easily some of the region’s best brisket. A few bites in, I had to remind myself I had more barbecue to try. Timmons is also producing his own coarsely ground smoked beef sausage, which is juicy and bursting with spice. Both meats are available as plates, sandwiches, or tacos on some pleasantly chewy corn tortillas.
The menu isn’t all new, though. The chopped brisket sandwich is still the most popular order. Those thin Bingo burgers are a staple, but don’t expect cheese or any other toppings. Those all come from the high table in the middle of the tiny dining room where you can find chopped white onions, cherry peppers, pepperoncini, dill pickles, mustard, and barbecue sauce, just as it’s always been. And you can still eat at the old schoolroom desks that are more nostalgic than comfortable.
Timmons now understands that the nostalgia of Tom & Bingo’s is just as important as his ambition, and he’s recently sought that balance. In the first year of the pandemic he worked largely alone, but he has since added a few staff members, including his younger brother Asa. Another new hire, Marissa Martinez, makes the sides and works the front counter, which Timmons says has allowed him to pursue recent improvements to the restaurant, both in the menu and the construction of the patio.
We sat at a picnic table on that patio as Timmons shared stories about the place—like the fact that the cooler next us used to be home to an underground poker game until “the milkman lost his entire paycheck, and his wife called the police on Tom.” There was an ease to the recollections, like Timmons was no longer in a struggle with his late father-in-law’s expectations. “I finally feel good about it. It feels like it’s my menu, and I don’t feel like Dwayne’s stand-in,” Timmons says. “This place finally feels like mine.”
3006 34th, Lubbock
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11–3
Pitmaster: Ian Timmons
Method: Brick pit
Year opened: 1952