Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue in Tyler has been a regular on our Top 50 list since making its first appearance in 2008. That was just weeks after current owners Nick and Jennifer Pencis took over the business. We’ve described the quality of their baby back ribs in each of those write-ups, but we’ve rarely given much attention to their hallmark sandwiches, some of which they inherited. I went back to Stanley’s recently to try them again, and to get the backstory on each.
Stanley’s is named for its former owner Jewel Douglas “J. D.” Stanley, but he wasn’t the original owner of the joint. Sam Jones, a salesman turned entrepreneur, opened Sam’s Barbecue Shop with B. L. McCurley in the Stanley’s spot in August 1953. Six weeks later, the Tyler Morning Telegraph said, it “has become firmly entrenched as the barbecue headquarters of Tyler.” Sam’s specialized in chicken, beef, and ham plates, and it would also “cook anything you drag in,” Jones said. He added that McCurley was “one of the best barbecue men in East Texas.”
Three years later, Jones put the place up for lease. In a 1957 advertisement in the Telegraph, W. G. “Bill” Watson was listed as one of the proprietors along with Jones. If you read last week’s article on M&M BBQ Company, you’ll remember the barbecue-obsessed banker, Corby Ferrell, who paid $25,000 to refurbish an old Oyler smoker. His grandfather was Bill Watson. “All his brothers called him Walter, but my grandmother insisted he go by Bill,” Ferrell told me. Watson had changed the name to Watson’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q by 1960, and he sold the place on Beckham Avenue to J. D. Stanley the following year. During his time at the joint, Watson invented the Shrove sandwich that’s on Stanley’s menu today.
The Shrove is a combination of chopped brisket and sliced pit ham. The ham gets crisped on the flattop, and its heat melts the slice of American cheese that covers the bottom of the toasted bun. Dill pickle chips, sliced white onions, pickled jalapeños, and plenty of barbecue sauce are a must to top it off. “I think he liked it because it legitimized his indulgence in whatever spirit he had handy,” Ferrell said, which is why the sandwich is named after the Catholic holiday of Shrove Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras, or the day before Lent begins. Eating a Shrove was Watson’s version of “it’s five o’clock somewhere.”
Nick Pencis had heard that legend, but not in the detail Ferrell provided. Pencis also couldn’t explain why J. D. Stanley spelled it “Scherove,” but there it was in a 1982 Telegraph article. Judy Brown was working the counter that day, as mentioned in the story. Her granddaughter, Heather Brown, who is currently a bartender at Stanley’s (ask her to make you a Honi Honi), recalled her grandmother’s proudest moment at the barbecue joint: “When the telephone company was on strike, they fed them every day for six weeks straight.” Heather’s great-grandmother, Ruby Brown, went to elementary school with J. D. Stanley and eventually worked for him as well. Heather said Ruby liked whiskey but didn’t like to go across the county line to get it (Smith County was dry then), so J.D. would bring it to her at work. But I digress. It’s not spelled Scherove anymore, and nobody at Stanley’s now knows why it ever was.
The Shrove got a companion on the sandwich menu when a customer told longtime Stanley’s employee Frances Dwire that he liked the idea of the Shrove but didn’t like ham. Dwire, who passed away in 2016, offered to use a hot link instead, declaring, “It’ll be the Shrove’s brother-in-law,” according to Pencis. The name stuck, but the Brother-in-Law didn’t actually get written on the menu. When the Chris and Samia Smith bought the place after Stanley’s passing, they didn’t know what to make of it when people ordered the Brother-in-Law. Thankfully, Dwire was still on staff and set them straight. I’d suggest getting it “John’s way,” named after another regular customer who prefers the hot link chopped up with the brisket, onions, jalapeños, and the sweet hot pickles. But be warned that John doesn’t like the slice of cheese, so if his way sounds good but you want the American cheese slice, ask for it John’s way with cheese.
Jack Smith is is the president of the Tyler chapter of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club. He wasn’t yet in that position when he named the Ex-Wife, but he looked the part back then, according to Pencis. It starts with sliced instead of chopped brisket and is topped with pulled pork. Pencis tried to explain the origin of the name as we walked into the air-conditioned bar during my visit. To our mutual surprise, there sat Jack Smith, so I asked the man himself. “She’s an old cow with a pig’s ass, and was kinda spicy,” he told me of his ex-wife, which is why he prefers the sandwich with pickles, onions, jalapeños, and the spicy barbecue sauce.
You can make any of those sandwiches “Super Deluxe” for a dollar extra, which trades out the squishy white bun for a jalapeño-cheese sourdough roll. You can also switch out just about any meat on the Shrove to create your own combination. Pencis prefers it with ham and smoked turkey, and he adds a slice of candied bacon for a sort of club sandwich.
The Mother Clucker isn’t offered as a Super Deluxe because the smoked chicken-thigh sandwich already comes on a jalapeño-cheese roll. Former Stanley’s employee (and current pitmaster at Franklin Barbecue) Jordan Jackson constructed the sandwich, but he didn’t name it. “Nick walked in the kitchen and said, ‘I want to make a chicken sandwich that’s made with chicken thighs and call it the Mother Clucker,’ ” Jackson said. “I did the rest of it.” He dusted a boneless, skinless chicken thigh with Pitmaster’s Spike, a rub created by another former Stanley’s pitmaster, Jonathan Shaw, and smoked it. Jackson whipped up a blend of mayo and the spicy barbecue sauce (a version of it is now sold as Clucker Sauce on grocery-store shelves) and added cheese and a fried egg.
I tried the sandwich shortly after it went on the menu. Jackson remembers Valentine’s Day 2014 because that’s when I called the Mother Clucker the best barbecue sandwich in Texas. Jackson remembers arguing with Pencis that he needed to charge more for the sandwich before then, but that day Pencis told him it was finally time to raise the price. It’s currently $10, but $2.50 more gets you a Cadillac Clucker with guacamole and candied bacon. It’s about the only time in my life I’d suggest skipping the guac.
Sitting with Pencis and sharing these sandwiches, I told him the best part about most of them was they required no contemplation. Bite after bite was pure pleasure. You didn’t have to guess where this flavor or that note was coming from. It was all spelled out for you in the cross section. And now, as I write this, all I want is another bite of the Brother-in-Law, John’s way, but maybe next time I’ll keep the cheese.