Kirk Jackson didn’t like banks. Unbeknownst to his family, he stuffed cash into tackle boxes, jars, and toolboxes and hid them in the trunk of a junked-out 1971 Mercury Montego in Lockhart, Texas. It sat behind his car lot for decades, along with all the other trade-ins he couldn’t auction off. Just before Jackson’s death in 2014, he motioned from his hospital bed to his son James to come closer. “Whatever you do, don’t get rid of the ’71 Mercury Montego,” he said. A year later, James used his portion of the cash to open a barbecue joint in New Mexico.
Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue opened in 2015 on the main drag through the mountain town of Cloudcroft. Amongst the conifer trees along the winding mountain roads you can look down upon the gleaming White Sands National Park. The Texas border is just 90 minutes away, but it takes James Jackson eleven hours to get back to his home of Lockhart. He makes the trip every six weeks. “Get a little wood, some sausage, and visit the family,” he tells me, saying how much he misses his teenage son and daughter. The wood is post oak, and the sausage comes from Kreuz Market. (He grew up eating at the old location, where Smitty’s now resides.)
Jackson didn’t have a job when he graduated high school in 1980, so he took a job with his father at the Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge dealership. “I ended up staying there for thirty years helping dad,” he said. Jackson felt unfulfilled, telling me, “I never liked the car business.” When the government bailed out Chrysler, they liquidated many small dealerships, including the one in Lockhart. “I was pushing fifty, and didn’t really want to be a used car dealer,” says Jackson, who started looking at other job opportunities. He’d always had a love of barbecue from growing up in the Barbecue Capital of Texas, so he figured, why not open a place of his own? He’d never cooked a brisket, but at least he knew what the good stuff tasted like.
Jackson bought a barbecue trailer in 2012. He parked it next to a gas station along 183 in Lockhart, and used “The Best BBQ in Lockhart East of 183” as the tagline, as all the other famous barbecue spots in town were west of the the highway. He was entering an ultra-competitive market in a small town with four other famous barbecue spots, and naming his trailer Mad Jack’s seemed an appropriate way to reflect that. He read as much as he could about cooking brisket, watched the “BBQ with Franklin” videos, and emailed Aaron Franklin about barbecue. “He answered nearly everything I asked him,” Jackson said of Franklin. He was doing a good business, and could even count famous Kreuz pitmaster Roy Perez as a fan, but Lockhart had other ideas.
The city made it hard to operate as a food truck. They required permanent bathrooms, so he built some. Then more issues came to light. Jackson felt like every time he addressed an item on the city’s wish list item, something else came up about proper drainage or electrical service. It became untenable, so he shut the business down and began looking for a new location. At the same time, his father’s health was failing. James and his brother Mark were making frequent visits to the hospital, and on the final visit, their father Kirk told them about the Mercury and the riches it held. After Kirk passed away, Mark used his share of the cash to buy a vacation home in Cloudcroft, where the family had spent many trips, and James eyed a two-story building on the main road through town. When the price on the building dropped, he scooped it up and had a new home for Mad Jack’s.
I was there on a Thursday, so the line was shorter than what they see on weekends, but it still reached the porch soon after the 11am opening. Jackson said the line can take up to two hours, and stretches back to another barbecue joint two doors down. The owner of that joint tries to convince folks to get out of line, but they wait. Mad Jack’s now has a reputation to uphold. Thanks to the nearby air force base, “we’ll get people here from all over the world,” Jackson said, and he gets plenty of Texans too. They won’t leave disappointed.