Michael Lane’s culinary career doesn’t look like that of most pitmasters. Before he opened Oak’d Handcrafted BBQ in Dallas late last year, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in the kitchens of well-respected chefs like Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande. Then, he built a massive catering company, which he ran for two decades. He dabbled in barbecue at the time, but Lane admits he wasn’t particularly thoughtful about it. “When I was doing it for our catering company, I was doing it as a vehicle to make money. I wasn’t honed in on the craft,” he says. Now he’s all in on barbecue. At Oak’d, he aims to provide an experience he feels is lacking in Texas barbecue.
“Most of the barbecue guys are at excellent at their meat,” Lane says. “What they’re not experts at are all the other experience components through the business.” I agree that I haven’t heard another pitmaster explain their restaurant’s “experience components.” The overall quality of sides and desserts has taken quite a leap in Texas barbecue over the last several years, but it’s true that a visit to Oak’d provides some unique aspects. Let’s walk through those experiences, shall we?
The cutting block is just inside the front door, and that’s our first stop. “We’re in the meat business,” Lane says. He understands the importance of the cutter, but when I came in for an early peek two weeks after the restaurant opened, that was a noticeable weak spot. The cutters were flustered and unorganized, and I had to request fresh ribs after they tried to offload some abandoned ribs that had dried out on the board. That’s all been remedied, thankfully. Be ready with your selections, because there are lots of options.
Both Wagyu ($28/pound) and Prime grade ($24/pound) briskets are available. The Prime has been juicy and tender enough on my visits that I didn’t bother with Wagyu after the first try. The Duroc pork ribs are massive spares that were more tender than I’d like during a recent lunch, but I’ll take that over a tough rib. Slices of smoked turkey were spot-on. A double-cut pork chop special a couple weeks ago was visually stunning, but the meat was dry, and an underdeveloped bark tasted like dirty smoke. The beef rib, which was pull-apart tender with peppery bark, is a better choice for a splurge. Overall, you can get a really solid version of the barbecue platter that’s become indicative of big city barbecue at Oak’d, but I don’t think barbecue is the restaurant’s strongest “experience.”
You’ll also order sandwiches at the cutting block, and just about any meat would be great on the buttered, griddled buns from Signature Baking Company in Dallas. I loved the chopped pork, especially with the mustard barbecue sauce that was more tangy than sweet. A sweeter tomato-based sauce also paired well with the smoked meats. After talking to Lane, I kicked myself for not trying the house-made jalapeño cheese bread, which he serves because of his fond childhood memories of the barbecue sandwiches at Goode Company BBQ in Houston. Next time.
I’m generally suspicious of barbecue sandwiches with more than two meats, but the cutter offered his vote of confidence on the $15 Governor sandwich. Chopped brisket and sliced smoked sausage (made for the restaurant, but smoked in house) were topped with thick-sliced candied bacon, fried onions, and creole aioli. It was magnificent, and even better with a side of steak fries, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Actually, you should plan ahead and ask for fries, which are fried to order and can delay your progress if you wait until you reach the sides station to ask for them.
The regular fries and steak fries, which are dusted with cotija cheese and cilantro, were by far my favorite sides. Both versions have a crisp exterior and pillowy interior. Many of the other sides sounded so promising—like roasted cauliflower, braised greens, and balsamic brussels sprouts—but fell flat. The cauliflower had slightly less crunch than raw, the sprouts lacked seasoning or any tang from the balsamic vinegar, and after one bite of the greens, I decided to take them home just so I could add some salt and hot sauce. If you don’t want to spring for $6 mac and cheese, then I’d suggest settling for the meaty pinto beans, which are the least expensive of the sides at $4.
I asked Lane about the high prices for the sides. “I’m trying to buy the best product I can buy … and the product costs more,” he says. In fairness, any combination of three sides would be plenty for two people, but the price adds up when single diner like myself wants to explore the options. Thankfully, the excellent pickles—dill, sweet, and pickled onions—are free. According to the menu, I should also have noticed a salad station during any of my four visits, but I neither saw nor looked for it.
The next “experience” will stop most diners in their tracks. I’ve had some great desserts from barbecue joints all over Texas, but there is no better array of desserts in the state than at Oak’d. Most barbecue joints don’t have anything that could even be labeled a pastry program, but Lane brought in pastry chef Cessy Mendoza to create one. During each of my visits, at least eight desserts were on display. There are some barbecue basics: excellent pecan and buttermilk pies with buttery crusts. The piped meringue is lightly toasted on the perfectly tart key lime pie, and a staff member will pull out a torch to toast the creme brûlée or the marshmallow-topped s’mores pie to order. Mendoza has since left the business, as was always the plan, but she trained Marco Solano to beautifully replicate her recipes.
I’m a sucker for Texas sheet cake or banana pudding, but I’m not going to turn down a two-layer chocolate caramel cake with chocolate ganache icing or the signature banoffee. The latter is like a slice of ice-cold banana cream pie, but with a generous layer of creamy toffee. When the pandemic subsides, I can envision post-dinner visits to the Oak’d bar just for a drink and a slice of that banoffee. For now, an easier takeout option is the massive shortbread or salted chocolate chip cookies. Or just order the $100 brisket cake (a minimum of four days ahead). It contains no meat, but the combination of red velvet cake and a frosted “bark” made with chocolate shavings, coffee, and ground Oreos could fool you.
The dining room is open at Oak’d, and thankfully, so is the mostly empty patio. The recent weather has been perfect for dining alone with a coat on. It has not, however, been great for determining how many people to cook for each day. “That is one of the most complicated parts of the business,” Lane says. They smoke two batches of barbecue daily in a trio of massive Oyler rotisserie smokers (burning oak, obviously). Just two of the smokers are going for now, and as demand steadily grows, Lane hopes to fire up the third one. He plays the same guessing game on how much to bake for the pastry program. Just as with the barbecue, Lane says, “we have what we have, and when we’re out, we’re out.”
If you don’t want to walk through the line, there’s always the bar just inside the door. Eight beers, ranging from Bud Light to locally brewed Peticolas Velvet Hammer, are on tap. There’s a full bar and several wines by the glass or bottle, most of which are $40 and under. A seat at the bar is the only place where you can get full service, albeit from an abbreviated bar menu. I’d go for the smoked wings. They’re marinated before getting a two-hour ride in the smoker, then topped with the same cotija cheese and cilantro mix that comes on the fries. I loved the flavor and the tenderness, although my wings on one visit seemed to have missed the dunk in the deep fryer that would have crisped the skin. Come on a Wednesday for specials on both wings and whiskey.
Lane’s partner in the restaurant is Clint Norton, whose brother Ed Norton is a co-owner in the County Line barbecue chain. County Line is a barbecue joint with a full waitstaff, but I much prefer the hybrid option at Oak’d of a standard barbecue line with upscale side and desserts, which still allows for interaction with the people preparing your barbecue tray and sandwiches. Oak’d isn’t quite as a groundbreaking as it thinks it is, aside from those dessert options, but it’s a great addition to the barbecue options in Dallas. I look forward to the day when it can become my neighborhood bar.
5500 Greenville Avenue, Suite 1300, Dallas
Hours: Daily 11–9
Pitmaster: Michael Lane
Method: Oak in a wood-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 2020