Texas-style barbecue can be found worldwide, but it crossed the Atlantic Ocean more quickly than it crossed the Red River. Until recently, a great slice of smoked brisket in Oklahoma was harder to find than a Longhorns fan in Norman. Even Texas-based barbecue chains like Rudy’s Bar-B-Q and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit have more locations in Arizona than Oklahoma, which has just a few joints in Oklahoma City and nearby Norman. Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, has neither. The state’s official meal includes the non-specific “barbeque pork,” but no brisket, and smoked bologna is far more common than a well-crafted smoked sausage. Thankfully, a few brisket-loving entrepreneurs have worked to fill that void in recent years.

Justin Carroll and John Karr had an odd business plan when they launched a weekends-only barbecue truck in Tulsa in 2018. “We were hoping [Texas-style barbecue] would catch on, someone would open up a restaurant, and we could close the food truck and go eat at their restaurant,” Carroll said. He and Karr had toiled over a backyard smoker enough to know how hard making barbecue would be as a full-time job. They enjoyed re-creating what they had watched Aaron Franklin produce on YouTube, and they told each other, “You cannot find this style of brisket in Oklahoma.” They wanted other people to enjoy it as well. A few catering jobs turned into the food truck, dubbed Blue Smoke until a cease-and-desist letter came from New York, and they rebranded as 1907 Barbecue in honor of the year Oklahoma became a state.

After less than a year in business, they had already moved up two sizes in smoker capacity to a thousand-gallon smoker from Big Phil’s Smokers in Caddo Mills. Carroll decided to scrap the original business plan, and he quit his job as an insurance salesman to cook barbecue full time in mid-2019. “People enjoy eating our food, and I love that,” Carroll said as an explanation for the career change. They parked the truck outside a few Tulsa breweries for a while. I tried it last year in front of Cabin Boys Brewery and was impressed with the smoked brisket, pulled pork, and house-made sausage. A year later, almost to the day, I stopped in Tulsa again, but this time I found the 1907 Barbecue counter inside the new Mother Road Market. They moved into the space in March and immediately increased their output. A second location a mile north is already in the works, with an opening planned for next year.

On a normal day, Carroll and Karr now serve three times the barbecue than they did on their busiest day at the food truck. Brisket is the top seller, and for good reason. Slices are thick from the fatty end, but very tender. The oak smoke and simple seasonings create a dark bark, and bites of the burnt ends brought all the flavors you’d hope for at an Austin barbecue joint. The pulled pork had that same great bark and was pulled to order. Slices of smoked turkey were juicy and pleasantly salty. The sausage was also enjoyable, though it’s made by Sausage Brothers in Skiatook, thirty minutes north of Tulsa. As for bologna, they couldn’t sell more than half a chub a day after begrudgingly adding it to the menu, and it’s gone now. Besides, Carroll said, “I hate bologna.”

However, just down the street, the year-old Oakhart Barbecue has reluctantly embraced smoked bologna as an occasional special. I tried it when I visited, and it tasted like every other version of smoked bologna I’ve eaten. “We held off for a long time on that,” Chris Emmons told me. He co-owns the place with Brian Hodges. They relented due to customer demand and because bologna is cheap and easy to smoke. The coarse ground-beef sausage they make from brisket trimmings took more convincing for a clientele used to pork sausages. It was one of my favorite bites in Oklahoma and was reminiscent of some great Central Texas joints.

Oakhart Barbecue in Tulsa.
Oakhart Barbecue in Tulsa. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Sausage, turkey, and brisket from 1907 Barbecue in Tulsa.
Sausage, turkey, ribs, and brisket from Edge Craft Barbecue in Oklahoma City. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Left: Oakhart Barbecue in Tulsa. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Top: Sausage, turkey, ribs, and brisket from Edge Craft Barbecue in Oklahoma City. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Before opening, Emmons and Hodges, both Tulsa natives, did their barbecue homework. Eight years ago, they charted a path to Franklin Barbecue in Austin only to find upon arrival it was the restaurant’s vacation week. (The pair have since returned to try Franklin.) They still found Texas barbecue bliss at Micklethwait Craft Meats and La Barbecue down the street. “After I had Texas barbecue several times, that’s really the only brisket I wanted,” Emmons said. Hodges wanted to know during that trip, “How do we get it to taste like that?” 

They came back to Texas to take a barbecue class from Dylan Taylor at his home in Austin. They attended another one of Taylor’s classes in Fort Worth when he was working to open Goldee’s Barbecue. After their education, Emmons and Hodges went back to Tulsa to find a restaurant space, and they invested in a thousand-gallon smoker from Austin Smoke Works. It worked great, but a steel offset smoker was an unfamiliar piece of equipment to the Tulsa Health Department. It was hesitant to allow the smoker at all, but it eventually provided a long list of requirements that would need to be met in the Oakhart pit room. There were months of back-and-forth, but Oakhart finally secured a permit last August. “Once they gave us the final approval, we opened four days later,” Hodges said.

Their sausage was impressive, but it also takes smoked brisket and spareribs to round out the Texas trinity. Hodges takes the briskets off in the evening and Emmons gets in early to put the ribs on in the morning. The ribs have a sweet glaze, and the generous black-pepper bark brings some spice. They’ve got pop, and they come off the bone easily. For the brisket, stick with the fatty slices and burnt ends for now. We can’t expect those boys from Oklahoma to pull off great lean brisket every time. The sides are a collection of classics done well, like meaty pinto beans, crisp slaw, and creamy shells and cheese. The barbecue sauce is thankfully not as thick and sweet as some of the locals would prefer.

The owners at both 1907 and Oakhart believe the barbecue they’re serving is unique to Tulsa, but they also gave credit to Burn Co. Barbeque for getting Tulsans excited about barbecue back when it opened in 2011. The original restaurant in Tulsa is currently closed for repairs from a fire (the location in nearby Jenks is still open). “For a decade, it was the staple of barbecue in Tulsa,” Carroll said. Before Burn Co., Hodges said, “the vast majority of barbecue here was from chain restaurants.” Burn Co. got diners in Tulsa to accept standing in line for barbecue and to understand fresh barbecue comes from barbecue joints that sell out daily.

Down in Oklahoma City, Zach Edge is on his own in the local Texas-style barbecue game with Edge Craft Barbecue. He was in OKC back when the first spark of Texas barbecue came to the city with Maples BBQ in 2017. The popular food truck became a brick-and-mortar in November 2018, but it closed for good in January 2020. Edge was in the pit room for the whole ride, and he learned plenty about how to cook and serve Texas-style barbecue. When Maples closed, I was worried it was a sign Oklahomans weren’t ready to support a sliced-to-order, by-the-pound joint, so I was relieved when Edge opened his own just over a year ago.

His ribs had a thin, sweet glaze and some spice from the rub. They were well smoked but no match for the bacon rib. The massive slice of smoked, bone-in pork belly was sheer decadence. Edge has expertly executed a beef sausage and a Oaxaca-cheese sausage, and the smoked turkey was excellent too.

Edge Craft also served the best brisket I’ve eaten in Oklahoma. The fatty slices were rich, tender, and speckled with well-marbled fat throughout. A fat cap over the lean slices melted with every bite. The flavors of salt, pepper, and smoke were clean and balanced. “It’s just so much better,” is how Edge described what he’s cooking now versus what he was cooking at Maples, and I must agree. “We’re just trying to do right by Texas,” he said. This Texan recognizes and appreciates it.

The side options are also dizzying. Sweet baked beans and savory charro beans topped with cotija and cilantro are both available. Collard greens have a hint of spice, while the brussels sprouts are candy sweet and the fresh green beans are thankfully al dente. I enjoyed the chilled take on German potato salad, which Edge did as an homage to the German roots of his wife, Marlene. You can find her working the register at Edge Craft, and be sure to ask her for a serving of the heavenly banana pudding topped with chantilly cream.

Edge said it hasn’t been easy to explain the idea of ordering by the pound to the customers who come over from downtown on a lunch break. He has added a two-meat plate since opening. Convincing some folks to try the brisket has been a struggle as well. He explained: “People around here have had bad brisket for so long” that pork is about all they’re comfortable ordering. But you’ll never find bologna at Edge Craft. In fact, he’s considering a T-shirt design with the tagline: “Real Texas barbecue. No bologna.”

Oklahoma has its own barbecue history and style to draw from. The Van’s Pig Stands chain began serving barbecue sandwiches in Oklahoma in 1928 and now operates five locations statewide. John & Cook’s Realpit BBQ has been serving rib tips, hot links, and more since 1936 in Lawton, and the legacy of Samuel “Po’ Sam” Flagg lives on in the many brown-gravy barbecue sauces served on the eastern edge of Lake Texoma on either side of the Red River. But what I found interesting is that none of these modern pitmasters could name a beloved Oklahoma barbecue joint from their childhoods. That would be unusual in a group of four native Texans, let alone four Texas pitmasters.

At Oakhart, Emmons said barbecue, to him growing up, was ribs and sausage on the grill in the backyard. His family rarely went out for barbecue. Hodges said he had plenty of meals at the barbecue chains around town, but none were memorable. Edge’s family rarely ate barbecue in Oklahoma; they instead saved it for when they visited his mom’s side of the family in Texas. His grandfather and uncle were barbecue competitors, specializing in brisket and pork ribs, respectively, so Edge at least knew how an offset smoker worked. Carroll grew up very poor in Calera, Oklahoma, near Lake Texoma. They didn’t eat out much, but one evening in the mid-nineties, the Oklahoma governor flew in by helicopter just to eat barbecue at a local joint that’s now closed. Based on that endorsement, the family made plans to eat there the following week. “I didn’t like it,” Carroll said. “It wasn’t a good experience.” He preferred the grilled chicken with barbecue sauce from their own backyard. Instead of having memories for inspiration, these pitmasters are using techniques they learned from Texas, smoking with post oak on thousand-gallon offset smokers, and giving Oklahoma the best brisket it’s ever had.

Unlike the others who have made their pilgrimages, Carroll still hasn’t eaten barbecue in Texas. He tried Maples when it opened, and later Edge Craft, and, of course, Oakhart. He loved the food and the setting at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, but he hasn’t visited the motherland. That will all change in November when he comes to the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in Lockhart. I asked him if he was nervous about the trip. He said meeting some of his idols might make him bit tense. But what about trying this barbecue you’ve only seen in photos? “Are you worried that yours will hold up?” I asked. “That does scare me a little bit,” he said, but I told him not to worry. Texas-style barbecue is doing OK in Oklahoma, thanks in part to him, and with this trio of joints, hopefully it stays that way for a long while.