Ponder, Texas, is an unlikely location for a new craft barbecue business. The one-stoplight town of fewer than 2,000 residents, about thirteen miles southwest of Denton, isn’t on the way to anywhere unless you’re coming from Krum to the north or Dish to the south. But Brendan Lamb was out of options, so in February, he opened Smiley’s Craft Barbecue in a trailer parked along the BNSF Railway track that cuts through town.
Lamb, a native Texan who grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, twice thought his future was in California. However, Texas kept drawing him back, not always gently. Lamb was working as an actor in Los Angeles when he learned of an outstanding warrant for his arrest stemming from a traffic stop in 2015. He’d thought he had completed his probation stemming from a DWI, but a judge found otherwise. “I came back here because I had to go to jail in Denton County,” Lamb told me at a picnic table outside his trailer on a recent sunny morning. After serving 32 days, he decided to stay put in Texas.
His stepmother helped find him a job at la Barbecue in Austin, which is owned by her childhood friend LeAnn Mueller. He worked the pits there for three years. “That’s when I learned to cook the Central Texas style of barbecue,” Lamb said. He hoped to move back to Los Angeles, where la Barbecue was planning a California location. When that expansion didn’t pan out, mainly because of LA’s restrictive laws on barbecue smokers, Lamb returned north to DFW instead.
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His dad suggested he open his own place, so he teamed up with chef Grady Spears on a spot in the Fort Worth Stockyards. However, the space wasn’t acceptable for restaurant operations, according to the health department. Lamb next worked with Sam Gibbons to reopen the legendary Sammie’s Bar-B-Que in Fort Worth last November, but that was just a temporary consulting gig, according to Lamb. He needed a steady job. “I was desperate,” Lamb said. “Caterings weren’t cutting it. It wasn’t paying the bills, and I was getting further and further in debt.” He began considering other career paths. But then one day—”right when I was about ready to hang up the hat”—he went into a Pei Wei in Alliance wearing a Brett’s Bar-B-Que shirt. A man noticed his shirt and told him about an Airstream food trailer in Ponder that was for sale. A couple weeks later, Lamb parked his smokers on the lot and opened Smiley’s, just a dozen miles from the University of North Texas campus in Denton, where he’d once played college football.
The two smokers, made by Primitive Pits in Georgia, were parked in gravel next to the food trailer during my first visit on a cold morning in late February. The barbecue was good, but because there was no shelter over the picnic tables, the cold wind quickly zapped the life out of my meal. By my next visit, a wooden fence surrounded the tables, and a roof had been built over the pits. The price of the “Prison Platter”—named as an homage to Lamb’s involuntary return to North Texas—had risen from $21 to $25, but it was still a good value. A slice of smoked brisket, a large pork rib, a few slices of smoked turkey, and some juicy pulled pork are served along with a side item of your choice on a metal prison tray.
The brisket was impressive on two visits, as was the turkey. The rib needed less glaze and more time on the smoker to get tender. All of the meat is on the peppery side. “I love pepper. I can’t get a enough of it,” Lamb admitted. Ashley Bonham, Lamb’s girlfriend who works the window, added a bacon burnt end to the tray for me to sample, but all the fat seemed to have melted out of it. The sausage options are made locally by Syracuse Sausage just down the street, and Bonham’s mother makes the cookies, banana pudding, and bread pudding (the pies come from a food supplier). The bread pudding was unfortunately served cold, and it wasn’t the only chilly item.
When Lamb sat down to talk, I asked why the beans were fresh-from-the-fridge cold, and the macaroni and cheese was lukewarm. “You got here a little early,” Lamb said, as if it was my fault for arriving ten minutes after it opened. “When they’re hot, they’re good. I promise,” he added, without offering a new serving. A side of jalapeño corn was far better. Lamb uses his mother’s recipe, which starts with a layer of Fritos hidden beneath the mildly spicy corn. It’s Smiley’s most popular side for a reason.
As for the barbecue, the brisket has a following, just not yet in sliced form. “A lot of people out here don’t even have a taste for sliced brisket at all yet—at all,” he explained. The folks in Ponder have different tastes than those in East Austin, but Lamb is happy to serve his brisket chopped for sandwiches, as long as someone’s buying it. “This town has really been supportive,” he said, mentioning that his busiest hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Show up before the evening rush to make sure you get your choice of meats— just not too early, unless you have a taste for cold beans.