In a Dallas city directory from 1948, there is a listing for Hardeman’s Barbecue. In fact there were two at the time, both of which were located in what was known as Freedman’s Town. It was a segregated African-American neighborhood just north of downtown in what is now Uptown. Those barbecue joints are what built the foundation for a barbecue family that flourishes today – a family whose longevity in Dallas barbecue is eclipsed only by families named Bryan or Dickey.
Chester Field Hardeman’s surviving family isn’t sure which barbecue joint came first, or precisely what year it opened, but the photo above (with the 1948 plates on the Cadillac) and the Dallas Negro City Directory 1947-48 confirm that the Hardeman family was running two joints by 1948. As far as his family knows, this was the genesis of the Hardeman’s Barbecue legacy that endures with three current locations in South Dallas. Chester’s granddaughters, Sarah and Gloria, run their own restaurants on Scyene and Kiest respectively, and Gloria’s son, Jameon, is at the helm in Oak Cliff on Westmoreland.
There are no published profiles of Chester Field Hardeman, so his history before the 1930 census is unclear. He was born in Texas in 1901, probably in Travis County. By 1930 he was living and working in Dallas as a landscaper. From a Dallas directory published in 1942 and the unprecedented detail in the 1940 census we know that he rented a house at 1726 N. Central with his wife Annie. By then his occupation was listed as “expresser”, which was probably a delivery truck driver. His family isn’t sure what prompted him to become a restaurateur, but Sarah wasn’t surprised that he jumped into it. “He was always doing something. If it wasn’t barbecue, he’d be selling watermelons, used furniture; he was just a businessman.” He would also have noticed the booming popularity of barbecue in the neighborhood.
In the Negro City Directory 1941-42 for Dallas there are advertisements for Alabama Barbecue’s “Hickory Cooked Meats” and Foster Barbecue who “Slow Cooked with Hickory Wood.” There were 23 barbecue joints in the directory (the cuisine even had its own heading in the slim book) at a time when the black population of Dallas was just over 50,000. Today, the city of Dallas has a population just under 1.258 million and about a hundred barbecue joints within the city limits. Barbecue might be hot today, but nowhere near as popular as it was with the black community in the forties.
By the time 1948 rolled around, there were still a couple dozen black-owned barbecue joints listed in the updated Negro City Directory 1947-48 with names like Beaumont Barbecue, Jackson Minnie Barbecue, and the Adolphus Bar-B-Q Palace. The only name that remains on the Dallas barbecue scene is Hardeman’s.
The earliest manifestation of Hardeman’s Barbecue that remains is in West Dallas, now called Odom’s Bar-B-Q and located at 1971 Singleton. It was built as a Hardeman’s in 1968, and the Odom’s, an extended part of the Hardeman’s family, purchased the business and the building in 1990. It’s unclear when Chester moved from Freedman’s Town, but even in the 1947-1948 directory he isn’t listed as a resident. He had probably moved to West Dallas which wasn’t annexed into Dallas proper until 1954.
Chester’s son, Lionel, wasn’t old enough to remember the first location in Freedman’s Town, but was the only family member I talked to who recalled the first West Dallas location for the family business. Chester operated a barbecue shack on the northeast corner of Westmoreland and Singleton before selling the property in 1951. They had to make way for construction of the country’s largest public housing project, and moved the business to Bernal and Westmoreland. That’s where Lionel first recalled working when he was nine years old. The menu was simple. Ribs and links. No brisket. “Back when I started, we didn’t have brisket. We used what you call the navel end. Then there were ribs and links. That was it. We didn’t have plate lunches.”
There was another move to an old bowling alley at Hampton and Bickers before building the place on Singleton in 1968. Ten years later, the Hardeman’s empire had spread. The Dallas Morning News listed four locations in Dallas in 1978, as far south as Lancaster Road and as far north as W. University Boulevard, near Love Field Airport.
Gloria Hardeman remembers working with her father, George Sr., and her mother, Olevia, at the Lancaster location, or rather the many Lancaster locations. She has a memory for addresses. “When we moved to Oak Cliff we went through four locations. 3107 Lancaster Rd., 3717 Lancaster, 3101 Lancaster, then 2901 Lancaster. It used to be Bill’s Produce…then he renovated it into the barbecue place.” The family sold that location to its current resident, CT’s BBQ, after Olevia passed away in 2007.
The Lancaster location was popular in the neighborhood, and especially at night. Back in the seventies and eighties they were open as late at 4:00 a.m. on weekends, and Gloria remembers working those shifts. “I did 7:00 pm to 4:00 am…There were a lot of clubs over here in Dallas…then you had all the gamblers here in Dallas that gambled until late night.” After the Lancaster location changed hands, Gloria couldn’t give up barbecue. Despite her food service job with DISD (she has since given up the position to focus on barbecue), she opened a new spot across town on Westmoreland, three miles straight south of that first West Dallas location of Chester Hardeman’s. Then Gloria expanded to another location at Kiest and Hampton in 2012. She doesn’t have any interest in keeping those late night hours anymore. “It’s too dangerous now.”
Lunchtime was plenty busy during my visits, but as I lingered I overhead George Jr. take a call after the rush had subsided. His end of the conversation summed up the menu pretty well. “We don’t have wild hog.” Must’ve been a customer unfamiliar with USDA regulations. “We have soul food. We’ve got ribs, turkey legs, oxtails, chitterlings, greens, yams, beans, cabbage…you want me to keep going?…I can go into the cakes and pies…” I tried the tender oxtails, and on other days you might also find liver and onions or pork chops, which were just as popular as the barbecue with the mainly take-out lunch crowd.
Gloria says folks looking for barbecue usually ask for ribs. You can order pork spare ribs or the more highly prized short-end ribs, which is a menu item I’ve only seen in black-owned barbecue joints in the Dallas area. These smaller ribs from either end of the rack come at a premium, but they don’t come with the gnarly rib ends, nor are they seasoned with black pepper. Gloria laughed at the idea. It’s just salt and a few other spices she wasn’t willing to give up. They’re smoky—and slightly hammy from the salt rub—and they’re fantastic. This purist even admits they’re better dipped into the thinnish barbecue sauce that isn’t too sweet or too tart.
You can get the ribs any day, but with the right timing you can get a cheap order of “brakes.” These are the day’s trimmings of link ends, ribs too crispy to serve, and burnt ends of brisket. They come in a hefty tub for $3.50. The burnt ends alone are worth the price, but they’re gone when the trimmings are gone.
You have to wait until Friday to get Gloria’s famous banana pudding. She makes it for both the Kiest and Westmoreland locations, and insists that it remain a once-a-week item. “It has to be fresh,” she tells me as I take a bite and guess at the secret ingredient. She’s not talking, but I’d swear it’s sour cream.
These two locations are going strong, but Gloria had struck out on her own before. She opened a storefront in Deep Ellum selling barbecue cooked at the Lancaster location, but it didn’t really take off. In her down time, she was introduced to another one of Dallas’s famous barbecue families. “It got slow, so I went to work at Sonny Bryan’s.” She was a cashier at the Lovers Lane location. She learned the front of house operations, but had no interest in their cooking methods. “They used a big mechanical pit. They put one log in there and turn the gas on.” Her style is different. “We use real hickory wood smoke. No gas.”
The same goes for another one of Chester’s grandchildren, Sarah Taylor Watson, who owns the Hardeman’s Bar-B-Que on Scyene and Jim Miller. Hickory is the only thing that goes into her pit, just like she learned from her Uncle George while working at the Lancaster location. She was on that late night shift with Gloria, wishing she was the one out on the town. “All we did was work, work, work. We didn’t go anywhere or go to parties. We worked.”
That hard work is part of what has made this barbecue family stand the test of time. Even after hopping from one building to the next all over West and South Dallas, losing multiple family patriarchs, being forced to close and even work for other barbecue joints, Hardeman’s Barbecue remains. Even if the three surviving restaurants aren’t any older than seven years, there has been a place in Dallas to get the family’s recipes continuously since at least 1948. That’s resiliency.
Sarah’s back after a break from barbecue. For eighteen years she operated another location on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (now Eva’s House of Barbeque), which opened in 1989, long after it served its original purpose as part of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain. She moved the business to West Dallas briefly, then closed up shop in 2008. She put her equipment into storage, and tried to sell it. There weren’t any takers. But barbecue pulled her back in two years ago, when she found an empty catfish joint on Scyene. She emptied the storage units and started over. I asked her if she felt destined to be in the barbecue business like so many of her family members. She sighed. “I guess,” she said. “I just know it’s a lot of work. But I love it. I love cooking, and I like to see people eat and enjoy it.”
She also gets plenty of help from the family. Her niece works the counter, an uncle’s brother-in-law helps in the kitchen, and working the pit is her uncle, 71-year-old Lionel Hardeman. During my last stop there, Sarah’s mother Emma was visiting. (She and Lionel are the last remaining children of Chester Sr. Gloria blames emphysema for taking George Sr. at 66 and Chester Jr. at 61. “That smoke is dangerous.”)
The menu at Sarah’s Scyene location is almost a mirror of Gloria’s on Kiest. There are plate lunches and short end ribs, and the sauce is nearly identical. “Everybody kinda tweaks it themselves,” Sarah says of the differences in recipes across the family spectrum. While Gloria has the banana pudding, Sarah matches it with a highly regarded sweet potato pie. At 55, she’s working harder than she’d like to build the business back up, but the family legacy that she’s carrying on isn’t lost on her. “[Chester] left us with something, and we just have to nurture it and try to keep it going.”
Back at the Westmoreland location, I embarrassed myself by asking an older gentleman cutting meat if he was Jameon Hardeman, listed on the business cards as the owner. “Slim” pointed to the bearded 27-year-old in a Baylor sweatshirt manning the register. “That’s Mr. Hardeman.” Like his mother Gloria, who attended college in California, Jameon got a degree in education at Baylor, where he also played for the Bears as a defensive end. He was a star on the field at Kimball High School in Dallas before that, but family obligations came first. “I couldn’t go to football practice because I had to go wash dishes on Mondays.”
When Gloria found the building it already had a brick pit, but Jameon has added another offset steel smoker. Health concerns led Gloria to update the ventilation system, but it doesn’t help the relentless smell of barbecue in Jameon’s clothes. “It’s a part of me,” he said. “I used to hate it. Now, I don’t care. I’m a barbecue man.”
Jameon is the fourth generation taking an interest in the Hardeman’s barbecue business. He’s the present and future of a family legacy that’s at least 66 years old. And one that seems destined to continue. As Gloria explains it, “Barbecue is what we do.”
618 South Westmoreland Road
Dallas, TX 75211
Hardeman’s BBQ & Catering
2425 West Kiest Boulevard
Dallas, TX 75233
6931 Scyene Road
Dallas, TX 75227
A map of (nearly) every Hardemans Barbecue location from 1948 to present: