James Meshack opened the first Meshack’s Bar-B-Que on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and what is now Malcolm X Boulevard (formerly Oakland Avenue) in South Dallas in 1978. He would open three others, including one in Garland, before his untimely death from a heart attack eight years later at the age of 55. His daughter Donna Mayes had eaten at the original Meshack’s many times, but never laid eyes on the Garland location until she and her husband Travis took over operations after her father’s passing in 1986.
Travis and Donna ran the place until 1996 when they closed it (the other three Meshack’s locations has also shuttered by then). Travis found less grueling work as a forklift operator at a warehouse. When they laid him off in February of 2009, he wanted to get back into barbecue, but Donna wasn’t sure. Then she had a dream about that old building in Garland. A barbecue joint had opened and closed thereabout it was for lease again. They repaired some fire damage, cleaned up the place, reopened as Meshack’s Bar-Be-Que Shack in May of that year, and haven’t missed a beat since.
They didn’t change a whole lot from their previous incarnation, and not much has changed since. Mayes was featured in a 1990 article in The Garland News. Back then they served beef, ham, ribs, and links along with potato salad, baked beans, and sweet potato pie. Today, the ham has been replaced with pulled pork, and there’s no dessert. The baked beans are still sweet and smoky, but the potato salad, which had been alarmingly sweet and whipped nearly smooth, is pleasantly chunky and more on the savory side. There are no other sides. A scoop of each comes with each plate, the most expensive of which has sliced brisket and pork ribs for just $13. Because of the current beef price spike, they have raised the brisket to $15 per pound.
If Meshack’s doesn’t sound like most Texas barbecue joints that have opened since Mayes fired up the pits again eleven years ago, well, that’s because it isn’t. It isn’t cooking for the same audience, either. Mayes isn’t checking social media trends for menu ideas. He hasn’t been asking his beef supplier to find Prime grade briskets during the beef shortage—he has been shopping at Walmart and Sam’s Club to gather the least expensive briskets he can find, just like he always does. “This is not a rich area,” he tells me. “Most of these people here are old and on fixed income. These people right here are the ones that have been with me since 1986,” so he doesn’t feel right pricing them out of the market.
Mayes serves old-school barbecue at old-school prices with old-school values, but it’s not the kind valued by the rapidly changing barbecue world. Modern barbecue establishments are often expected to serve beautifully arranged slices of smoked meat, house-made pickles, and local craft beer. The plethora of options for appetizers, sides, and desserts have shifted the image of a barbecue place from a joint or a shack to what could only be described as a restaurant that features smoked meat. It’s almost like a different category of cuisine, which makes comparisons difficult.
Barbecue historian and author John Shelton Reed tried to define those barbecue categories in a recent article. He identified three barbecue categories—folk, haute, and mass. Mass barbecue is done purely for profit and does not adhere strictly to tradition, nor is it inventive. Think big barbecue chains. Haute barbecue is what we’ve seen grow mostly over the last decade. It’s what I’ve called “big city barbecue” in the past, and according to Reed, “is produced by individual chefs … who feel free to put their own stamp on what they cook.” Folk barbecue is rooted in tradition. “Like other aspects of folk culture,” Reed writes, “it is tied to particular places; slow to change; inherited by communities, not created by individuals.” Because of this, folk barbecue is insulated from change and not as easily influenced by current trends.
If you’ve ever visited a barbecue shack selling unfussy barbecue sandwiches for cheap, be it whole hog in the Carolinas or chopped brisket in Texas, that’s folk barbecue. If you’ve ever described an idealized barbecue joint, imagined or not, that’s rural and rustic, with a scant menu and run by an old pitmaster, that’s a folk barbecue joint. When critics and laypeople alike call a particular strain of barbecue “traditional” or “real,” they’re talking about folk barbecue. Meshack’s Bar-Be-Que is unquestionably folk barbecue, even if it’s just twenty minutes from my house in the big city.
A slice of tender, juicy Prime grade brisket from any number of haute (sometimes called “craft”) barbecue restaurants charging more than $20 per pound would likely win in a head-to-head tasting over a smoky slice of Meshack’s $15-a-pound brisket, which needs a dip in the tart and sweet barbecue sauce to be considered juicy. But is that the only item of merit? What about the rest of the menu, and the rest of the experience? With folk barbecue, there’s often a level of enjoyment that’s hard to quantify.
I was stunned by the size of Da’ Jasper sandwich from Meshack’s when I opened the Styrofoam lid on a recent visit. It’s really two sandwiches, yet not a sandwich at all. Two basic white buns are topped with enough chopped brisket and hot links to fill four buns, so it’s nearly impossible to eat it like a sandwich. Dipping slice after slice of the smoked links into the pint-size tub of the spicy sauce provides immediate gratification. The sauce is amber, a few shades darker than the mild sauce. Mayes said both options, adapted from his father-in-law’s recipes, are the same besides the spices, but fewer people ask for the spicy. They’re both kept warm in crockpots that sit side by side in the kitchen. Because the spicy sauce sits mostly untouched, it reduces to get thicker. In 1980, the Dallas Morning News called James Meshack’s sauce “the hottest sauce you’ve ever tasted,” but Mayes has tamed it a bit.
The bottom half of Da’ Jasper is best eaten with a fork because the bun is soaked through with fat from the chopped brisket. The meat weighs it down, compressing the bread, and the brisket’s warmth and fat seem to confit the bun. Maybe you’d call it soggy, sure, but that’d be like disparaging a potato chip for being crunchy instead of being a mashed potato. Just take a forkful of brisket and the fat-soaked bun, drizzle on a little more of the hot sauce, and enjoy. Then remember it cost only $10.
Folk barbecue is sometimes imperfect, and the ribs are the best example of why that’s a feature and not a bug. Each rib is an adventure in textures. Bites of the fat spare ribs from the center of the rack are juicy and salty. Mayes uses no black pepper. The smoke and seasoning are concentrated at the ends of the racks and the tips, where the meat gets a bit crunchy. They’re good on their own, or dipped into the vats of barbecue sauce. Getting lost in a half rack is a pleasure that shouldn’t be interrupted with napkins. Save the cleanup until the end.
Mayes said he didn’t learn much about barbecue from James Meshack because he never cooked with him. Mayes’s brisket method was born of an accident in which he forgot about a pit full of briskets overnight. After a panic-laden drive to the joint, where he thought for sure he’d be greeted with burnt beef, he found those briskets to be wonderfully tender and smoky. A man named Van who worked for Meshack taught Mayes how to cook ribs. He uses spare ribs seasoned with a duo of commercial spices that he doesn’t want to divulge. He starts 25 racks on the cooler bottom shelf of the pit and finishes on the middle shelf, where it gets up to 300 degrees. They’re so popular that he sometimes sells out of the first batch before the second batch is done.
James Meshack left behind a family link recipe too, but Mayes doesn’t make it. “I’m tired,” the 71-year-old Mayes tells me. He can’t imagine adding in the labor required to make his own sausage. He orders Smokey Denmark’s hot links from the Packing House Market, which sits kitty-corner from the old site of the original Meshack’s. Mayes remembers the flavor of those links well. He recalls a trip down to Smithville years ago and a visit to Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ to eat similar links. “They put them on butcher paper, and they gave you some crackers with them, and you sit down with a Big Red soda,” he remembers. The sauce was thin and hot.
As a child, Donna Mayes spent her summers on the family farm outside Smithville, where her father was raised. He was one of 21 children (his brother Claude joined him in Dallas and ran an independent Meshack’s BBQ on Harry Hines in the fifties and sixties). “She never went to the hospital. She had a midwife,” Mayes said of her paternal grandmother, Pinkie Meshack. Pinkie’s husband, Charles, is credited with the original link recipe.
The family’s history in Texas started with Ephraim Meshack, described by Donna’s aunt Mabel White as “a freed slave” in a 1991 Dallas Morning News article. He moved to Texas starting in 1836, when he was nine, according to his DeWitt County voter registration in 1867. An Austin resident in 1871, he and a crew of four others were paid $142 each to clean and repair the Texas senate chamber in preparation for the state’s Twelfth legislature. By the turn of the century, Ephraim was living with his son Abraham in Upton, near Smithville. The Meshack family has had a resident in that area ever since. Donna Mayes said it’s the only area a Meshack ever came from, and the family lore is that the surname began with their family. “If there is someone with the name Meshack, they are kin to us,” she said.
Maybe Ephraim gave himself the name, which phonetically is no different than Meshach from the book of Daniel in the Bible. Along with Shadrach and Abednego, he survived the furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. That Meshack name survives through the family and through the little barbecue joint in Garland, even if a Mayes is keeping the fire burning.
Travis said he’d like the barbecue place to stay in the family. His son Travis II (“not junior,” Donna insists) helps him at the restaurant, as do his daughters Ashley and Jaimie. The latter was working the window when I visited recently. Travis’s concern for her health led him to require face masks for any customer. It’s a takeout-out only business, but customers have to say, and sometimes yell, their order to her through the screened window. Only one person has really been angry about the mask requirement. Travis recalls: “He was cussing and wanted his money back. We just gave him his money back. He said, ‘I ain’t coming back no more,’ and we said, ‘Thank you. Please don’t.'”
The only other other rule at Meshack’s is to be patient. The menu is hand-painted on the brick building, and above it reads the simple warning, “Can’t wait, don’t order. No Refunds.” If that first batch of ribs goes quickly, you might have to wait a little extra time to get yours. Those ribs are worth the wait, and Meshack’s is worth a visit even without the ribs. I love the inventiveness and the variety of haute barbecue, and I’ll continue to support and praise the restaurants that serve it. But while new operations that serve high-end barbecue open seemingly every week (even now) in Texas, folk barbecue, especially in cities, is a rare commodity that’s becoming more rare. Unless we intentionally support and praise joints like Meshack’s, and share those Styrofoam containers on Instagram with the same fervor that we share those curated barbecue trays, we’ll lose an important part of Texas barbecue’s tradition and culture.
Meshack’s Bar-Be-Que Shack
240 E. Avenue B, Garland
Hours: Tue–Sat 10:30 a.m. until sold out
Method: Pecan in an offset smoker
Pitmaster: Travis Mayes
Year opened: 2009