The hand-painted wooden sign reads “Pat’s Barbecue,” but everybody calls it Pat Gee’s after its late founder, Mack Henry “Pat” Gee, who opened this barbecue shack east of Tyler, deep in the piney woods, sometime around 1963. Pat, his wife Vida, and their seven children lived just up the hill from the small, wooden building. “We all worked here at one point,” Billy Walker told me during a recent trip. He works here now with his brother Arthur Gee, who took over as lead pitmaster after the death of their father in 1999. Another blow came six years ago when Vida passed away, but these brothers show no signs of slowing down.
The small parking lot was packed on a recent Saturday. A continuous screened-in opening (there’s no glass) surrounds the perimeter of the wooden building. As I cracked open the crooked door, it felt hotter inside than out. Trying to remain in the path of a large, wire-caged fan, customers kept their distance from the counter until Billy asked for their order. Before taking their cash, his final flourish on every plate was a generous pour from one of the many sauce jars, all of different shapes and sizes, labels long gone.
The sauce recipe, a thin tomato-based version, was developed by Vida. Billy credits her with more than just the sauce, though. “She did most of everything including the cooking.” It has no sugar, and I think more water than vinegar. Billy wasn’t telling either way. He also remained mum about the secret ingredient in the potato salad. His sister makes it, and as he admitted, “I don’t even know how she does it.” When she drops off a batch in the two gallon plastic tub, he doesn’t ask questions. It just goes directly into the residential refrigerator next to the counter. It’s sweet, and my guess is that it maybe contains some Italian dressing. Along with some simply-made beans, they’re the only sides and come with every barbecue plate.
A steady thwack-thwack rises above the hum from a gaggle of box fans wired up along the perimeter of the room. That’s Arthur chopping pork shoulders and briskets for $4 sandwiches on white bread. The absence of buns is on purpose, as Billy explains. “That’s just a lot of bread, and you don’t get much meat.” Both the pork and beef sandwiches are stuffed generously. The sauce seems made for beef, and the fatty bits of brisket point carry the hickory smoke better than the pork. Both would be incomplete without the dill pickles and onion slices.
I didn’t bother with the sliced brisket. I’ve had it before, and this is a joint built on sandwiches filled with fatty beef from the plate or the belly. They didn’t switch to brisket until the eighties, which is about the time they added pork ribs. The menu isn’t vast now, but it was even simpler when they opened. “Back then, we just had sandwiches,” Billy recalled. He then added, “We also had chips, candy, sodas, and cigarettes.” But that was decades ago, and he had a forty-year stint working with an air conditioning company in between. As we both wiped sweat from our faces, he assured me that the irony isn’t lost on him. Just try to drink enough of the sweet tea to replace the sweat.
Billy came back to the business because it felt like the right thing to do when his father fell ill. Arthur told me that a plea to keep the place open was among his father’s last words on the Saturday night he passed away. They didn’t open up on Sunday, but the following week, it was business as usual. This is a family with plenty of resilience. When the place burnt down, to the ground, one Saturday morning in 1984, they were open the following weekend. Pat had built the fire a little too large before heading off to pick up the meat, but he didn’t sulk at the misfortune. They built the very building that’s still standing in four days. An addition came five years ago that doubled the dining room, but it’s still about the size of a two car garage.
Pat Gee’s is more than a barbecue joint. It’s a window into Texas history. It’s hard to make it sound romantic, but consuming a chopped brisket sandwich on white bread, covered in sauce poured from a jar by a second-generation pitmaster, in 95-degree heat is more authentic than any trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Knowing the building you’re in is decades old–but took just four days to build–and that the ceiling is stained by smoke–not from the barbecue pit, but from the cast-iron stove that provides the only heat in winter–well that’s how you know you’re dining somewhere special. Pat’s sits alone on a third-rung, used-to-be thoroughfare, but loyal and new customers still stop in every weekend to pay cash for barbecue that will never be fawned over or exalted for its smoke ring. You won’t find brisket of the highest order or the perfect bite of rib. The chicken might be a little dry, but quit complaining and dip it in the sauce. Because this is barbecue worth sweating for.