In 1985, Kenneth Manning and Joe Melton converted an old gas station along Interstate 35 in southern Dallas into a barbecue joint. They built a smoker along the back wall from brick and steel and called the place Smokey Joe’s Bar-B-Que. That pit was the heart of the restaurant. When Kris Manning, then age 23, bought the place from his father in 2013, that pit was a reminder of the legacy that came before him. It was the only smoker pitmaster Earl Harris, today an eighteen-year veteran of Smokey Joe’s, had cooked on. That changed several months ago when Manning added two steel offset smokers. Then, a few weeks ago, he tore the old smoker out brick by brick. It was a painful step, but Manning was doing what he thought he had to do to protect the future of Smokey Joe’s.
“It kept causing fires,” Manning said. The joint had to shut down for a day two years ago to repair the pit after an overnight fire. A few months back, Manning and Harris stood outside and watched embers spew from the chimney onto the roof while the smoke went from gray to black. Even though Smokey Joe’s pays to have soot cleaned from the chimney regularly, they were witnessing a chimney fire. That one wasn’t too damaging, but it was the moment when both Manning and Harris decided they needed to change direction. Manning didn’t want to risk his livelihood to save an old smoker, so he built a new pit room onto the back of the joint and called Sunny Moberg for two of his 1,000-gallon smokers. The new pits were delivered in August.
Harris was skeptical about whether these new pits would produce the same old barbecue Smokey Joe’s customers had come to expect, but he’s gotten used to them. In the old smoker, they cooked briskets in eight hours. The fat cap was scraped off before they sliced it. Whenever I’d eaten that brisket, it seemed better suited to chopped beef sandwiches than sliced brisket platters. But that has all changed. Manning now uses oak in one of the smokers that’s dedicated to brisket. The meat is trimmed before smoking and seasoned with a rub heavy in black pepper. Once the briskets get a good bark on them, they’re wrapped in butcher paper to finish. They taste like briskets from an entirely different restaurant.
A rib and brisket combo plate at Smokey Joe's Bar-B-Que
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
A new sign has been hung over the new dining room entrance at Smokey Joe's.
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
The menu has been updated as well. I ordered a Maxi sandwich with sliced brisket, smoked sausage, and house-made sweet and spicy pickles. It comes on a brioche bun with sauce on the side. The lean slices of brisket were tender and juicy with a good fat cap still clinging to each slice. Harris gave me a slice from the fatty end that ranked in the upper end among the briskets I’ve had anywhere in Dallas. The transformation was stunning, and Manning said he knew he had to change his methods if he wanted the place to remain relevant. The thing is, he didn’t have anyone to learn from other than books and videos. He’s gone on barbecue tours around the state to see what he wants his target to be. “I’m trying to learn by taste,” he said.
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Manning is happy with the trajectory of his brisket quality, but also knows he has to strike a balance. “It’s kinda tough for the neighborhood we’re in,” he said of raising prices to match what he’s paying for upper-choice-grade briskets. Smokey Joe’s charges $18.60 per pound, but still offers a $5 special on Wednesdays with a chopped beef sandwich, chips, and a drink. “The community that we’re in, I try to make sure to give back, and we try to do things like that and make things still affordable,” Manning told me. He also reminded me that it’s not just a question of cost.
Smokey Joe’s has plenty of regular customers in the neighborhood who expect things to be prepared a certain way. Manning tried a new potato salad recipe, but the customers revolted. The ribs have never had any black pepper on them, and they still don’t. Manning fuels one pit with hickory so the flavor of the chicken and ribs remains familiar. He still uses Smokey Denmark brand sausage, which is popular in the area, and the barbecue sauce recipe hasn’t changed. They go through gallons of it every day, and no less than eight giant pots full of sauce sat bubbling away on the stovetop during my visit. It’s just that now he serves the sauce all on the side.
The old method at Smokey Joe’s was dousing every order with barbecue sauce. Manning said it’s been tough to train his staff to keep the barbecue free from sauce when they close the lid of a takeout container, but he wants the barbecue to look good. “Presentation is everything,” Manning said. “We’re in a modern-day society where people want to take pictures of their food.” He wants to do what he can to make sure those photos look great. He also refuses to cut the bark off his briskets, even when requested. He assures his customers that the outer bark isn’t burnt. Besides, he said, “We work too hard trimming it, smoking it, all that,” to just discard that bark.
Barbecue isn’t the only thing that’s been upgraded at Smokey Joe’s. The tiny building used to only offer barbecue to-go. In addition to the new pit room, Manning added an enclosed dining room onto the front of the building with televisions and picnic tables for anyone who wants to dine in. His plan when I talked to him back in 2014 was to tear the old building down and build a new one next door, complete with a brick smoker. After talking with the city of Dallas, however, he realized that permitting would be less of a challenge if he stayed in the old building, so he’s now focused on making it as comfortable as he can.
Manning’s dad Kenneth still comes in to help at the restaurant on Sundays. Kris said Kenneth likes the brisket, but that he would never admit that it’s better than his. “He was so in love with that brick pit,” Kris said. He knows that removing that old smoker was something his dad would have never done. Then again, he can only concern himself with what he thinks will improve his restaurant. He’s happy to take business and barbecue advice from dad, but only to a point. As Manning told his dad when he first bought the place, “If it’s mine, it’s going to be mine.”