The Joseph family arrived in the East Texas town of Jefferson over a century ago from what is now modern-day Lebanon. The family has run a department store, a dry-goods store, a cafe, and now a barbecue joint, Riverport Bar-B-Cue, under the ownership of Stephen Joseph. He grew up eating food like kibbeh, labneh, and tabbouleh, but only at family gatherings. That type of food wasn’t served anywhere else around Jefferson. But last year, at a barbecue festival in Tyler, Stephen served up some of his family’s heritage to the public for the first time.
Slices of smoked brisket were wrapped in flatbread with tomatoes and onions and topped with his labneh (a thick yogurt) and fresh herbs. Lebanese potato salad, made from Stephen’s grandmother’s recipe and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and fresh mint, was served on the side. The positive reception gave Stephen confidence that maybe folks in East Texas are ready to try more. Starting next Thursday, he’ll introduce more of these types of dishes to his customers. “It took me a hundred years to get to it, but I finally did,” he joked.
Stephen’s grandfather John Abraham Joseph came to East Texas from the Mount Lebanon area, which was then part of Syria (after the post–World War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon didn’t gain its independence until 1943). Family legend has it that his name was flipped from John Joseph Abraham while being processed at Ellis Island, but the rest of the family that came to Texas took the surname Joseph. He arrived in Greenville in 1897 and sent word for his family to join him. There was a delay, and his young son Joe was sent alone over a year later. By then, John had moved to Jefferson, and Joe joined him there in 1899.
When Joe left Douma for Texas, his mother, Helene, affixed a dog collar around his neck with his name and destination written on it. “He was like a parcel package on the train,” Stephen said. “People would read that tag and point him to which train to get on.” A story in the Marshall News Messenger from 1951 recounted the trip and said Joe was twelve at the time. From other records, he was probably sixteen, but he still didn’t know a word of English. Helene would wait another year to join them. Stephen thinks it could be because she didn’t want to leave in the first place. “She would tell my dad in Arabic that she never wanted to be here, and she wanted to go back,” Stephen said.
Joe opened Joseph’s Department Store in downtown Jefferson. The family also ran a dry-goods store, a women’s clothing store, and Joseph’s Cafe, which served burgers, steaks, and diner fare. Joe’s son John, who was Stephen’s uncle, had a barbecue joint called the Sparerib for a short time, and he seasoned his ribs with allspice, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, and garlic. That was before Stephen, who is 54, was born.
The only time Stephen remembers his family sharing their food with the community was when his mother brought the Lebanese potato salad to a church function. “They kind of looked at you sideways when you said you ate stuffed grape leaves,” Stephen said of growing up in Jefferson. I asked if he ever brought that food to school for lunch. “No,” he said, “I didn’t want to get beat up.” He laughs it off today, but he also noted he got in several fistfights to defend his younger brother. Stephen inherited his mother’s fair complexion, but his brother had the dark hair and olive skin of his father. “He had a tougher time with it than I did,” Stephen said. Given all this, Stephen’s previous reluctance to share his heritage isn’t a surprise.
I traveled to Jefferson recently thinking I was chasing a story about smoked beef chuck, which we’ll get to, but during my visit, Stephen brought out a few spareribs seasoned much differently than the restaurant’s standard sweet spares. He said he never ate sweet ribs growing up, and he called this savory version his Lebanese ribs. The rub starts with Cavender’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning, which is made in Harrison, Arkansas, where Stephen’s mother is from. “It was so similar to what my grandmother would season meat with,” he said. Cavender’s is heavy on the parsley, oregano, and garlic, and Stephen adds rosemary, thyme, basil, and black pepper. Even with all those seasonings, the flavor that came through the most was that of the pork.
As brisket prices remain high, beef chuck is about the same price per pound, but it has a much better yield. Brisket loses about half its raw weight after trimming and smoking, but the chuck loses less than a third of its weight during cooking. At Distant Relatives in Austin, chef Damien Brockway served smoked chuck instead of brisket when he opened, but he quickly switched to brisket based on customer demand. Stephen sees the chuck as an alternative for customers rather than a brisket replacement, but the less brisket he sells, the better for his bottom line.
The smoked chuck will be served as a sandwich special. Thin slices of beef chuck are soaked in warm jus developed from the smoked beef drippings and kicked up with spices. The juicy meat then goes in a toasted onion bun dressed with horseradish mayo, sliced red onion, and cheddar cheese. It’s a remarkable sandwich that has an intense beefiness and good dose of smoke. Riverport Bar-B-Cue will be serving it next Thursday, along with the Lebanese-influenced spareribs and Lebanese potato salad, as a trial run. If the reception is good, Stephen said he’ll offer the dishes as weekly specials, or maybe even more often.
Riverport Bar-B-Cue is also serving its own house-made sausage for the first time. “It’s a tip of the cap to the East Texas hot link,” Stephen said. He adds coarsely ground black pepper and red pepper flakes to a mix of beef and pork with plenty of garlic. He credits Dallas chef Brian Luscher and Sunbird Barbecue pitmaster Bryan Bingham for walking him through the sausage-making process, and now he’s finally happy with the results after months of testing. I can attest it’s a juicy sausage with great flavor, and reason enough to head to Jefferson. But make a point to try Stephen’s Lebanese-inspired recipes, because it might encourage him to come up with more. “It’s either that,” he said of using his creative juices, “or I’m going to burn myself out.”