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.
There’s a sign on the door warning customers that the meats may run out before closing time. “People were real confused with us at first about running out at 3:00 in the afternoon,” says Jackson. He has had to teach a New Mexico clientele about the Texas barbecue experience, which might require standing in line. It also may mean they can’t get everything they’d like once they reach the chopping block, where Jackson and his team slice every item to order as the J&R smoker sits behind them.
I tried a little of everything. After a bite of the brisket and sausage, I commended Jackson for being a great ambassador for Texas barbecue. He nailed the brisket with a hefty bark, good smoke, and just the right amount of tenderness. It would certainly hold up in Lockhart. Kreuz would also be proud of how juicy their links were coming out of the Mad Jack’s smoker. I also enjoyed a slice of smoked turkey, and the sides were all commendable, especially the potato salad and the creamy mac & cheese.
Thankfully, the menu isn’t pure Texas. There are some New Mexico touches like the Chile the Kid sandwich, with rough chunks of chopped brisket mixed with chopped green chiles on a buttered bun. The sweetness of the bun and the heat from the chiles are nicely balanced, and the smoky, salty brisket is as good chopped as it is sliced. The sandwich is a nice nod to New Mexico.
Jackson struggles on ribs, and he knows it. He sat down with me for a chat, and almost immediately told me he wasn’t happy with them. The rub was too complicated and heavy-handed. Jackson said he’d been regularly changing his method trying to get to a version that made him happy. We discussed getting back to basics and trying a simpler version of the rub. I’ll have to check them out on a return visit.
Stepping into Mad Jack’s felt like stepping into a Texas barbecue joint in New Mexico. The layout, the cutting block, and just the feel of the place was right. The Lockhart money funded the place, and some of it serves as decoration, too: Some bills hadn’t been stored properly in that old Mercury truck, and Jackson keeps those jars full of rotted-out cash as mementos. If you ask nicely, he’ll bring them down from the rafters for a closer look. I figured after three years, he’d be happy with his success in Cloudcroft, but Jackson shared a goal that surprised me. He wants to open a Mad Jack’s somewhere in Texas, maybe even in Lockhart. “If I can master ribs, I feel like I’ll be on track to move to Texas and make your Top 50,” he said.