After five years of socking away extra cash, all Kesha Walker wanted was a new house. She and her husband Derrick had been working full-time jobs and hustling on the weekends inside a sweltering barbecue food truck. “We already had a realtor, a leasing agent, we had our money put up. We had everything ready to buy a house,” Derrick said, but Kesha had a change of heart. She insisted they put their original plan on the back burner so the couple could instead buy a barbecue joint. “I knew this was his dream. There was just something in me. I thought this is it—it’s time,” Kesha told me, standing in the pit room at Smoke-A-Holics BBQ in Fort Worth. The couple opened the doors on August 1 to a line that stretched down the sidewalk, and the neighborhood’s demand for their barbecue hasn’t let up since.
Kesha hadn’t been so sure about Derrick’s previous barbecue venture. Back in 2006, he’d bought a trailer-mounted smoker of dubious quality. “The walls were thin. The grates sat on the bottom,” he said of the smoker fashioned from an old water heater. “I learned it, and I made it work.” Derrick loaded that smoker with meat and parked it outside Kesha’s salon. His barbecue got so popular the police would stop to shoo the line of people out of the parking lot. “I was doing pop-ups before pop-ups were cool,” Derrick told me, laughing. Kesha was impressed enough with his sales to let him trade up to a better smoker. Later on, she suggested they upgrade to a food truck.
Derrick convinced his wife and son to help him operate the truck on weekends. He didn’t want to bring on an investor, but the family didn’t have enough money to pay for the used trucks he was finding for sale. That’s when his old friends Chris Magallenes and Ernie Morales, who operate Panther City BBQ in Fort Worth, learned of his plight. They had just upgraded to a new truck, so they offered the Walkers their old one. They considered it an interest-free loan, which the Walkers could pay out of their profits each month. Smoke-A-Holics BBQ was on the road starting in July of last year. “It took off. It got huge,” Derrick said.
The business earned enough to build that nest egg for a house that they decided to invest in a restaurant instead. They found a small building on Evans Street just south of Rosedale. It had been a bakery and required plenty of upgrades to serve as a dine-in restaurant. It was also just a few doors down from an empty building that had cycled through several barbecue operations. The property sat within the 76104 zip code, designated as the zip code with the lowest life expectancy in Texas by a UT Southwestern study earlier this year. It didn’t seem like an ideal location for a number of reasons, but Derrick disagreed.
“This is home,” he told me. “My parents still live in my childhood home, which is just five minutes down the street.” He saw potential in the neighborhood that was once a vibrant, solidly middle-class, black neighborhood. “The area is coming back to its original glory,” he said, referring to the Evans and Rosedale Urban Village development coming just a few blocks north. He’s expecting a grocery store and a hotel in the area by 2020. The striking, boldly colored office of MEL/ARCH Architectural Studio recently opened in a series of staggered shipping containers just three blocks north. This area of southeast Forth Worth is changing rapidly, and Smoke-A-Holics is part of the revitalization.
The Walkers created a barbecue joint that showed off Derrick’s talent with Central Texas–style barbecue, but they also wanted to make they served the neighborhood’s needs. That means $11 for a giant stuffed baked potato and $17 for a three-meat plate that would easily feed two people. Yes, the brisket is $20 per pound, but it’s just $6 a pound for the ribs tips. I asked him if it was a challenge to strike that balance. “If you feel like it’s a good value, and I can still make money, then I’m great. I don’t have to get rich, but I need it to be profitable,” he said. “I don’t need to add $2 or $3 a pound to reach the next tax bracket.”
My first visit was on a Thursday morning. A few minutes before the door opened, I got in line behind two black women and a black man. Four black men in ties walked in behind me. During my visit, I was one of only two white people in the restaurant. I only point this out because I’m rarely in the minority at a barbecue joint where the lines form before the place opens and never at a by-the-pound place serving smoked meats lovingly arranged on trays. I’m sure some may disagree, as some did on Twitter when I pointed it out, but Derrick, a black man serving barbecue in a black neighborhood, understood my point. He told me, “I travel to these joints. I eat at these places. I see the lines. You don’t go to these places and a see a line of black people a mile long,” but such is the demand he has enjoyed every weekend since opening.
Some of those new customers aren’t so sure about the difference between fatty and lean brisket. Derrick recently posted a chart explaining the difference to the Smoke-A-Holics Facebook page. There are also plenty of folks angry at him when the joint sells out, but he only has so much room. The 1,000-gallon smoker in the back has already reached capacity, as has his refrigeration space. After five weeks in business, they’re already considering an expansion.
The daytime staff is made up mostly of family. There’s Kesha, of course, and their daughter Ariyana is the cashier. Derrick’s father, Michael “Duck” Walker, helps run the pits. Hector (who goes by “Frog”), Ronnie, and CJ make up the rest of the crew. CJ, whose full name is Carl Wilson Jr. is an extern from a culinary school in Fort Worth. He graduates later this month and did his full externship at Smoke-A-Holics. Derrick works the late nights and early mornings alone, and that didn’t go so smoothly recently.
Before Derrick leaves for the night, he pulls the finished briskets off the smoker and puts them in the warmer to hold overnight. He then trims and seasons all the raw briskets that will go on the next morning. One recent Wednesday night, the briskets weren’t done until 1 a.m. After pulling them all off, he got home in time for two hours of sleep before he was back at the restaurant by 5 a.m. Two employees were out of commission the next morning, so he had to prep the meat and make the sides himself. “Usually my ribs and everything go on about 6 a.m. Nothing got on until 8:00 or 8:30. We open at 11:00.” he remembered. “I had to power cook everything. High heat. Early wrap.” I came in for lunch the next day, and he said he hung his head when he saw me at the register.
The turkey was noticeably dry that day. The ribs were still better than average, and the sliced brisket was solid. I loved the sides of greens and Cajun cream corn, and the slice of sweet potato pie, made by Kesha (her Coca-Cola cake and banana pudding are also worthy), did indeed shut my mouth. I dug into the Big Macc, a concoction Derrick invented for the food truck. A scoop of smoked mac & cheese goes in the bottom of a plastic cup. That’s topped with chopped brisket, sliced sausage, barbecue sauce, and green onions. It’s a meal in itself at just $8.
A second visit showed me the version of Smoke-A-Holics I’d been hearing about. The sliced brisket was phenomenally tender, with a bark made not just of black pepper, but also garlic and a few other things he wouldn’t divulge. Slices of turkey were perfectly moist with just enough of the pecan smoke. The sausage is good, but it comes from a supplier in Waco. “I don’t have time to make sausage. I don’t have the space either,” he admitted. I gnawed through the rib tips, savoring every crispy, fatty, saucy bite. Broccoli rice casserole, which was very good, was the side of the day, and you might also find yams, potato salad, or beans loaded with pork shoulder. Derrick cooks whatever sounds good to him, and that usually means soul food.
He calls his style of cooking Tex-Soul. He’s noticed the trend of Tex-Mex barbecue, but he wanted to provide his own take. I joked that he might be the only new barbecue spot in Texas not serving some form of pork belly burnt ends. “I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing,” he quickly retorted. “Stay true to yourself. Do you.” That sums up pretty well why he returned home to serve high-quality barbecue to his old neighborhood, a place too many others had abandoned.