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Texas was in the midst of a massive oil bust in the late eighties, and Bobby Peacock was bored out of his mind. “There’s nothing worse in the oil business than when nobody’s doing business,” he said. “You just sit there.” After two decades in petroleum, he felt it wise to seek another revenue stream. While traveling to small towns in Texas and Louisiana to make oil deals, Peacock became a barbecue connoisseur. “Anytime I saw smoke, I’d stop,” he said, and after so many visits, he thought running a barbecue joint “can’t be that hard.” Fittingly, Peacock found a building for sale that had been an Exxon gas station on the north side of San Antonio, and opened the Barbecue Station in 1992.
“I had no restaurant experience,” Peacock admitted. He figured he could hire a pitmaster to cook and manage the restaurant while he raked in the cash as an absentee owner. There wasn’t much barbecue competition in the neighborhood. Of course there was the Bill Miller chain, Bob & Bob’s Smokehouse (now Old Smokehouse) was several miles west, and the original Rudy’s Bar-B-Q had just opened in Leon Springs a few years prior. The last was where Peacock got his usual barbecue fix, and when he decided to go into business he asked Rudy’s pitmaster Mack “Doc” Holiday for advice. Peacock copied Rudy’s L-shaped brick pit design with a single firebox and two chimneys. He also hired Eric Mack to run the restaurant on Holiday’s recommendation. Mack quit two years later, and Peacock realized he’d have to manage the restaurant from the inside if he wanted it to be successful.
Zac Freeman stands at the cutting block slicing barbecue for customers during lunch service, just like he has for the past 28 years. Freeman learned briefly under Mack, and took over pit duties with his brother Fred Freeman (who now runs Big Fred’s BBQ in Selma) after Mack left. Zac learned on the job how to tame those brick pits, but they were temperamental. After a fire in 1999, Peacock asked a rep from Southern Pride to come demo its gas-fired rotisserie smokers, but he wasn’t sold immediately. Not long after, all the briskets in the pit burned up, and he placed an order for a new rotisserie. The old brick pit in the back was torn out, but the one behind the counter where the finished meats are kept warm for serving remains.
The rest of the joint looks like the same spot that opened thirty years ago. Tires tracks are still evident on the floor of the dining room, which used to be the service bay for the Exxon station. But over time several important changes have come to the menu, most of which Bobby credits to his son Stewart, who swept the floors and did other odd jobs in the restaurant as a kid before going off to college. “I had no intention of coming here at all,” Stewart told me, but in 2003 he felt trapped in his 9-to-5 real estate job. The family opened a second location in nearby Converse for Stewart to run, but they eventually sold it to the Grady’s BBQ chain. Stewart moved back to the original location, along with his ideas for how to improve the barbecue. Bobby wasn’t always receptive, but he eventually loosened his grip and told Stewart to “go for it.”
Stewart is a barbecue connoisseur in his own right. He visits every new joint that opens in San Antonio, and has tried most of the famous spots in Austin. After one trip, he brought back the idea of using the” foil boat” method for briskets popularized by Evan LeRoy of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue. “We couldn’t get the bottom tender,” he explained regarding the briskets. The foil boat allows the meat to sit in a pool of its own juices while leaving the top exposed to the smoke to create a good bark. Stewart implemented the method at the restaurant, and has been happier with the brisket since.
After having eaten here a few times in the distant past, I was stunned by how good the sliced brisket was when I stopped in recently. It was smoky and juicy with well-rendered fat, and there was more than a quarter pound of it on my $7 brisket sandwich. Per pound, the brisket is just $21, which is low in the current market, so I assumed they were overachieving with a lower grade of brisket. Not so, Stewart said. They’ve been smoking Prime grade beef for years now. “The last two years have been a nightmare,” he said about the price they pay for raw brisket. Why haven’t they raised prices? “I just despise going up on prices to my own detriment,” Stewart admitted. Luckily, they own the building and land outright, keeping the overhead very low. Customers might as well reap the benefit while they can and get some of that brisket, or the $6.79 Filler Up Tater, which is a humongous baked potato topped with butter, sour cream, shredded cheddar, bacon, and chopped brisket.
Another standout is the smoked chicken, which was gone before 12:30 p.m. on my first visit. I came back the next day, and found an incredibly juicy quarter chicken with crisp skin and tender meat. The only high-ticket items, relatively speaking, are the ribs. Beef back ribs are sold by the pound only, at $16 per portion, and a combo plate with baby back ribs is $15. They go heavy on the seasoning for the baby backs, so you taste more of that than a smoky bark, but I enjoyed them, especially alongside Mami’s potato salad. The recipe is from Stewart’s great-grandmother, and features chunks of pickles and pickled olives.
I asked both father and son where they feel Barbecue Station fits in to the current wave of barbecue in San Antonio and in Texas as a whole. Bobby observed that “everybody’s got a lot better,” so they need to continue to improve to stay relevant. “That is a question we’ve been asking ourselves for ten years now,” Stewart said. He enjoys the challenge of innovation, but he said they have to weigh the changes against the expectations of their regular crowd. “Tweaks here and there without changing the vibe” is how he described the process.
I’ve asked myself the same question over the past decade. What about the joints that lie somewhere between legendary and new? Just like any restaurant reviewer, I tend to focus my visits on joints that have recently opened. It’s hard to keep up, but I also feel the need to revisit some of the older places like Barbecue Station that are striving to improve their product. After thirty years, the joint is still incredibly popular, as evidenced by lines on both my visits, even during a slower-than-normal January. It’s a place where you can afford to be a regular, and it’s also a place where a barbecue snob with years between visits can be impressed by some brisket that could fetch a whole lot more than the asking price.
The Barbecue Station
1610 NE Interstate 410 Loop, San Antonio
Hours: Monday–Saturday 11–6
Pitmasters: Bobby and Stewart Peacock, Zac Freeman, and Tracy Robinson
Method: Mesquite and oak in a gas-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 1992