Idabel, Oklahoma, sits just across the Texas border. Drive fifteen miles west or twenty miles south and you’ll cross the Red River. This little town, just south of the more well-known Broken Bow, is where Tabb Singleton grew up, and where he left to pursue his culinary career in New Orleans. After fourteen years in the Crescent City, the former barbecue competitor jumped back into smoking meats when he returned home in 2020 to open Phat Tabb’s BBQ.
Singleton chose “Phat Tabb’s” long ago as the name for his barbecue-competition team, with the tagline “Plenty Hot and Tasty.” That line on his résumé caught the eye of the team at NOLA, one of Emeril Lagasse’s great restaurants in New Orleans. His first phone interview, with then–executive chef Michael Ruoss, was almost entirely about barbecue. After an in-person interview, Singleton was hired, and he moved to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2006. In the kitchen, he learned everything from butchery to baking, and those skills helped him win an episode of Food Network’s Chopped in 2012. Singleton used the $10,000 prize to purchase a trailer-mounted offset smoker.
NOLA closed indefinitely at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Singleton moved back to Idabel in the hope that he’d soon return to the restaurant when it reopened. The reopening continued to get pushed back (NOLA would eventually close permanently in 2022), and Singleton noticed an old burger joint sitting empty in Idabel. He already had a smoker, and he thought the building and location would be great for a barbecue joint. By July 2020, he had renovated the building and opened the restaurant using his old barbecue-competition team name.
With its drive-through, Phat Tabb’s BBQ became popular pretty quickly. Business was good until spring 2021, when COVID ravaged the area and meat prices spiked. Singleton said the joint limped through the rest of 2021 and much of 2022: “We’ve been able to keep the lights on and pay the bills.” But the downtime was valuable. “We finally got to fine-tune our barbecue the way we like it,” he said. Phat Tabb’s revamped the recipes for its meats and sides and adjusted the cooking times. Business has grown steadily this year, and the new customers are able to enjoy the improvements.
A trip to Panther City BBQ, in Fort Worth, changed Singleton’s perspective on pork spareribs. Those ribs had both a sweet glaze and a stout, peppery bark. That’s what you’ll find at Phat Tabb’s BBQ these days. “On the ribs we try to find a good balance to where we can get a good bark to mimic the Texas style, but to add a little sweetness to try to get the best of both worlds,” Singleton said. Oklahomans demand a sweet rib, and they like a sweet sauce too, according to Singleton. He developed a thinner sauce that isn’t too sweet, hoping it would dissuade customers from dousing their barbecue, but most have grown to enjoy it. Singleton adds some honey to the rib glaze, and that sweetness melds well with the smoky flavor in each tender bite.
The seasoning on the brisket is as simple as a Texan’s. Salt, black pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder are all that’s required on the Prime-grade beef. I was pleasantly surprised by this Okie’s brisket, which was perfectly tender, well seasoned, and had just the right amount of smoke from a mix of red oak, pecan, and hickory. Singleton’s smoked sausage is also impressive. He uses his brisket trimmings to craft a classic beef link and a jalapeño-cheese sausage. Phat Tabb’s brings even more beef to the tray with rich and saucy beef belly burnt ends. The beef is cubed, seasoned, smoked, sauced, and smoked again until the sauce gets gooey and sticky. The cubes are sweet, salty, and luscious.
When Singleton was working in New Orleans, some of his coworkers teased him because of his Oklahoma drawl. He said, “They would always ask, ‘What’s the white trash boy going to do for a recipe today?’ ” Singleton would occasionally smoke lamb ribs with mint jelly barbecue sauce to shut them up, but he embraces the term now. “I’m proud of my white trash heritage,” he said, and it shows up in the sides. “Trashy” mac and cheese is made with nacho cheese, shredded gouda, and a few others kinds of cheese before being topped with crushed Cheez-Its. Real chunks of bacon are folded into the loaded White Trash Potato Salad, but the dish takes a tongue-in-cheek turn with the addition of bacon-flavored Bac-Os in the garnish, just like on many loaded baked potatoes you’ll find in rural Oklahoma.
There is plenty of Singleton’s New Orleans fine-dining experience on the menu as well. Rather than pinto beans, he serves red beans studded with smoked brisket. Specials include barbecue pho, ramen, and even yakamein, a beefy noodle soup found in New Orleans. The Nashville hot turkey sandwich, which I was lucky enough to try, starts with thick slices of sweet tea–brined smoked turkey breast, which are breaded, deep-fried, and tossed in a Nashville-style hot sauce fortified with gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) and fish sauce. The crunchy, spicy slices are stacked on a buttered bun with a layer of smoked garlic aioli and dill pickles for an impressive sandwich.
Maybe it’s the close proximity, but I’ve rarely found Texas-style barbecue outside the state as good as that of Phat Tabb’s. The joint is a satisfying mix of classic Texas smokehouse with Oklahoma flavor, New Orleans fine-dining technique, and a sense of humor. Singleton said he’s happy more Texans are finding his restaurant, and when tourist season ramps up in Broken Bow next spring, I expect it to be a must-stop for those coming across the Red River. For now, you can get into Phat Tabb’s with little to no wait for some great barbecue in an unlikely setting.
Phat Tabb’s BBQ
1110 S. Central Avenue, Idabel, Oklahoma
Hours: Thursday–Saturday 10:30–3
Pitmasters: Tabb Singleton and Bailey McCullough
Method: Hickory, pecan, and red oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2020