Brent Reaves was on his way to catch the start of the dinner rush at Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que when he received some bad news: A fire had started in the pit room. His brother and co-owner, Juan Reaves, had just left for a catering gig, and someone working the smokers accidentally dropped a flaming log into a pool of hot grease collected at the bottom of the pit. As much as they tried, the kitchen crew couldn’t contain the blaze with the fire extinguishers. Brent drove faster, feeling helpless. When he pulled into the parking lot off of West Mockingbird in Dallas, he saw billows of smoke coming out of his restaurant. The fire started at 5:15 p.m., and was contained twenty minutes later, but that was plenty of time to destroy the kitchen.
That was in early September, and the restaurant has since been gutted. The smoke damage was so bad that businesses in the strip center on either side of the restaurant closed for a week to rid them of the smoke stench. The Reaves will reopen, but it could take three months or more. Thankfully, their annual stint as a vendor at the State Fair of Texas as a welcome and well-timed distraction.
When “Smokey” John Reaves, Brent and Juan’s father, started serving barbecue at the fair in 1979, the menu was brisket, sausage, and smoked ham sandwiches. Reaves was only the second ever African-American vendor at the fair after Huey “Little Bob” Nash broke the barrier in 1964. (Nash passed away in 2011, but his smoked bologna sandwiches are still a hit at the fair.) Reaves’ turkey legs wouldn’t come until later, but they are now the obvious favorite at the six booths run by Smokey John’s. Brent estimates that they serve between 30,000 and 40,000 every year.
I’ve always been a smoked turkey leg skeptic, but Brent convinced me to try one. Let me start by saying it was surprisingly satisfying. Turkey legs, to me, represent a false promise of bounty. They are festival arm-candy with a mahogany crust meant only to visually entice. Uninitiated passers-by are compelled to spend far too much money on a mass of bone and ligaments held so tightly together that it’s mostly inedible, save for a thin outer layer of meat. Still, it takes about two years for me to forget this. And so once every 24 months, I am again disappointed by a festival turkey leg.
Smokey John’s broke the trend. Just like the ones at Disney World and most every other fair vendor, Smokey John’s turkey legs come from Yoakum Packing in Yoakum, Texas, which are fully cooked in an industrial smoker and frozen for shipping. Some vendors just thaw them and warm them up to serving temp on a grill, which leaves them tough and chewy. At Smokey John’s they load a pair of Ole Hickory smokers and continue smoking them for several hours until they are tender enough to enjoy every morsel. It’ll cost you 25 tickets ($12.50) for one at the fair, but it’s a good investment.
This year, the rotisserie smokers at the fair are working overtime. The Reaves have relied on the smokers at their restaurant in years past to help with the overload from the fair, but those are out of commission after the fire. They did find some reinforcements. “We have amazing barbecue friends,” Brent says. Sammy’s BBQ in Uptown and 1st & 10 in Lakewood lent them spare smokers, which were filled with briskets and racks of ribs. Smokey John’s, after all, still serves some of their barbecue standards along with all those turkey legs. (Fun Fact: The first bite of Texas barbecue I ever ate was a rib sandwich from Smokey John’s during halftime of the Red River Shootout in 1998. As a Texas barbecue newbie, the bones were an unpleasant surprise.)
Get a taste of Smokey John’s barbecue while they’re at the fair—there’s a little more than a week left—because it will be a while before the restaurant is back up and running. And yes, get a turkey leg. I recommend a dunk in their house-made barbecue sauce, but they’ll serve them wet or dry upon request. But don’t expect to find those turkey legs on the Smokey John’s restaurant menu when they reopen. A month’s worth is about Brent Reaves can handle. “I had a nightmare about turkey legs attacking me the other day,” he says, laughing. I guess 30,000 of them per year is enough.