When Red Bryan closed his eponymous barbecue joint in 1957, Oak Cliff lost a beloved restaurant, and two pitmasters were out of a job. Red’s son Sonny opened Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse in North Dallas a year later, and Leon Crouch headed east to Mesquite to team up with Herbert Oyler. Oyler would later patent a rotisserie smoker, but when they opened Mesquite BBQ together in 1959, they cooked their briskets in a brick pit and served them with a barbecue sauce that already had a notable pedigree.
“The barbecue sauce, which originated from Red Bryan’s BBQ house in Jefferson during the 1940s, was invented by Red Bryan and Leon Crouch and is still made the same way,” is how the Mesquite News reported it in 1983 when they profiled the restaurant. Leon had passed away from a heart attack by then, and his son Kent Crouch had taken over the restaurant. They were already in their current location, a building that once housed a grocery store. The original building on a neighboring lot had been torn down, the brick pit and smokestack going with it. Kent used a 1981 model of the Oyler smoker, which he’d bought new from J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite. They still build the now-famous rotisserie smoker, having taken over production after Oyler was tragically killed by a train in 1973. Now Kent’s son, Dustin Palmer, fills the same smoker six days a week. He and his wife, Melanie, took over ownership of the joint last year, and this weekend they’ll celebrate sixty years in business for Mesquite BBQ.
The sauce recipe has been handed down, and Palmer makes it from memory. “We don’t even have it written down. It’s in me and my wife’s head,” he told me. It’s a good one. Sweet, tangy, and viscous, it’s stored on the tables in squeeze bottles, and it doesn’t taste much like the sauce in heated glass bottles at Sonny Bryan’s. I’m not sure if Sonny was trying to copy his dad’s sauce recipe or not, but he didn’t season his briskets, and neither does Palmer. “The only thing that I put seasoning on is chicken. Everything else is smoke,” he said. That’s hickory smoke, despite what a few geographically challenged out-of-towners surmise from the restaurant’s name.
My sliced-brisket sandwich on Texas toast carried one-third pound of tender beef with an impressive bark. I added pickles (they only have dill spears on the condiment bar), onions, and plenty of sauce to make up for the lack of seasoning, which I guess is the intent. I enjoyed the smokiness and the beef-forward flavor, but I’d have loved a little salt. The fries that come on the side are magnificent. “Fresh cut fries” on any menu can be a trap that results in mushy, fried potatoes of the In-N-Out Burger variety. At Mesquite BBQ, they blanch their freshly cut potatoes in oil in the morning, then fry them once again in hot oil for each order. They need no assistance from the barbecue sauce or the ketchup that sits next to it. Be careful which one you reach for when squeezing a bottle onto your sandwich.
There’s no need for more sauce on the chop chop. It’s the most economical of the menu items, and has been a feature since Mesquite BBQ first opened. It’s basically chopped burnt ends. The trimmings of each brisket sliced on the board are collected and chopped finely. Those chopped trimmings are re-smoked, then mixed with barbecue sauce and scooped onto sandwiches, sloppy joe style. The chop chop sandwich is just $3.99. It is doubly smoky, but eat it quickly. There’s so much sauce in there that the bottom bun can’t contain it for long.
It’s harder to choose between the desserts. There must have been a dozen options—from the simple banana pudding made from Palmer’s grandmother’s recipe to his wife Melanie’s Oreo pie creation. Melanie makes them all, and her favorite is the banana pudding cake. As for the barbecue duties, they all fall on Palmer. “I come in here about five o’clock and start checking the briskets. I’m here all day. I come back and load them for the night,” he said. He gets back home at 10 p.m. and repeats the process daily.
The barbecue life isn’t what Palmer expected for himself when he left home. He started his own siding business, and it was successful, but his dad took him aside one day, and said, “I’m either going to sell it, or you’re going to have to take over.” At 25, Palmer decided to make a career change. “I loved what I was doing, but I really loved this place,” he said. Now he’s shepherding the oldest restaurant in Mesquite through its sixtieth year and keeping that old smoker humming right along with it.
This weekend the Palmers are asking barbecue fans to celebrate with them. They’re hosting a party on Saturday, September 21. All the barbecue will be sold at a 25 percent discount, and the price of chop chop sandwiches will be rolled back to just 99 cents. They’ll also give away gift certificates, pies, smoked turkeys, a big-screen television, and Dallas Cowboys tickets. The festivities will run from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the mayor of Mesquite will be on hand to officially declare Mesquite BBQ Day.