Ten miles west of the Arkansas border, there’s a busy truck stop at the Leary exit in Texarkana. A couple fast food options are inside, but many truckers walk across the street to the bright yellow trailer that houses Mr. D’s BBQ.
It sits in the front yard of a house, along a chainlink fence with styrofoam cups pushed through it to spell “BBQ.” Approach the windows, and the voice of Nikiya Dansby comes through a walkie-talkie sitting on the counter. She might be prepping food in the house or tending the stubby steel smoker in the yard, but she saw you coming on the security camera. She’ll take your order, and in just a few minutes she’ll open the window and take your payment (there’s an added fee for credit cards). You’ll have to find somewhere else to eat your food, as Mr. D’s is takeout only.
Dansby, a Texarkana native, opened the trailer after other career paths fizzled out. She had lived in Houston and worked for Harris County for a while after graduating from Sam Houston State with a criminal justice degree. “It just wasn’t cutting the butter,” she said of her pay, so she became a restaurant server on weekends.
Preferring the customer service aspect of restaurants, she quit her day job, and eventually became a restaurant manager. In 2014, she married truck driver Reginald Dansby, and they moved into the house across from the Love’s truck stop on the west side of Texarkana. She worked at the Subway inside Love’s and was a personal trainer on the side, but she didn’t feel either path had a real future.
“When I got married, I got fat,” she said, and she no longer felt comfortable as a trainer. Subway passed her over for a management position, and Reginald suggested she try barbecue instead. He already had his own barbecue trailer, which he opened a few times a year, and he promised to teach her how to run the smoker. “I’m always up to learn something new,” Dansby said. On July 4, 2016, she opened Mr. D’s BBQ.
The menu is simple: there are five meats and two sides, as well as smoked gumbo. Dansby said she was hungry for gumbo one day, but didn’t want to cook the chicken and sausage in her kitchen. She instead went out to the smoker and grabbed some sausage and chicken for a gumbo that also included bay shrimp. It’s thick, with a spicy and smoky flavor. When a hot bowl of gumbo remains popular as temperatures soar over a hundred degrees, you know it’s good.
I tried all five meats on the Bro-quet (pronounced like “bouquet”) platter, so named because it started as a humorous Valentine’s Day special. “The bros want meat. They don’t want flowers,” Dansby explained. Priced at just $27, it also includes Mr. D’s only sides: potato salad from a food supplier and baked beans doctored up with Dansby’s spice mix and chunks of brisket.
The brisket comes chopped unless you ask for sliced, “just for the presentation of it,” Dansby said, because it visually balances out the pulled pork in the opposite corner. Both the pork and brisket were moist, with the brisket having more smoke flavor from all that good bark chopped in. Her homemade barbecue sauce went great with the pork, and was also good for dunking slices of the commercially made sausage.
As I ate on my car trunk in a nearby parking lot, I noticed what really shined were the pork ribs and the chicken quarter. Dansby said she usually smokes spare ribs, but baby backs were a better deal at the store. Not having enough refrigerator space to store a week’s worth of product, Dansby shops for her meat every day. The tender ribs are seasoned simply with a savory rub. There’s no sweet sauce added, so the flavor of the pork and the hickory smoke are prominent. Beneath the golden skin of the chicken quarter is juicy dark meat.
After my meal, I talked with Dansby in her yard as a few chickens pecked at the ground. She assured me they were egg producers, and in no danger of going into the smoker. I was curious about the “Mr.” part of the name for the one-woman show, but Dansby has her reasons. “One thing is people don’t really trust a woman on a barbecue pit,” she said. “They think it’s my husband cooking,” she added. Her husband is usually out driving trucks, so the name is also for security. “I like for [customers] to know there is a mister around, and he’s watching that camera up there,” she said.
Though Reginald doesn’t do the cooking, he cuts down the trees that fuel the smoker. “If we don’t have hickory, then we ain’t smoking,” Dansby said. She also mixes in pecan and red oak occasionally because they’re indigenous to the area, and she likes their flavor. The couple’s two sons unload, split, and stack the wood. “They’re fourteen- and fifteen-year-old football players, so they can handle the work,” Dansby said.
Reginald is proud of his barbecue, when he can make it, but “he said I perfected it,” Dansby told me. All those eighteen-hour days spent mostly on her feet have also improved her health, she said. “Boy, I lost all that weight quick,” she noted, from walking from the house to the pit and to the trailer, and handling the three hundred pounds of meat she cooks every day from the store, to the car, to the kitchen, to the pit, and then, finally, to the cutting block. And though the work has helped give her purpose, she said what keeps her going is the ability to serve people like her husband.
“People don’t serve truck drivers like they should, and they keep America running,” she said. A truck driver placed an order through the walkie-talkie just after me, and I asked how he liked the barbecue. “It’s better than the garbage they serve across the street,” he said. Dansby echoed that, noting truck drivers often have few dining options besides fast food. She said, “I’m proud to be one of the few spots they can rely on to come and have some real food.”