The essence of Texas barbecue—past and present—is in the Piney Woods.
Not long ago, I found myself in Tyler, eating a lot of barbecue. I intended to visit the joints assigned to me for this year’s list and head home. Instead, I kept going back to two places that together sum up half a century of Texas smoked meats.
Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue is, by broad consensus, one of the top barbecue destinations in the state. Owner and co-pitmaster Nick Pencis, age 41, represents the new breed of barbecue entrepreneurs who approach meat like artists and speak with fervor about temperature and the merits of pecan versus mesquite. “Barbecue is so cool,” he says excitedly. The meat Pencis smokes is excellent, as it should be at $19 a pound for brisket. Pencis took over the place in 2006, adding a capacious patio and bar and installing a chalk wall so kids could draw while Mom and Dad enjoyed a margarita. He also built a small stage for live music. “We wanted people to hang out,” he says. And they do, from early till late. The 58-year-old restaurant is now the quintessential modern barbecue joint, and people are passionate about it.
A dozen miles across town is the mirror image of Stanley’s: Pat Gee’s (actual name: Pat’s Barbecue). People come to hang out here too, though there’s no chalk wall or live music. The building is a wooden shack on a tiny county road hidden by tall pines. Corrugated fiberglass panels cover some windows, screens shield the others. It’s the opposite of modern, and that is why it’s so beloved. Back in 1984, owner Pat Gee—who opened the joint in 1963 and ran it with his wife, Vida—accidentally set fire to the original structure, which burned to the ground. Regulars pitched in and rebuilt it in five days. That’s how much it meant to them.
These days, three of the late owners’ children—Billy Walker, Arthur Gee, and Viara Gee—run the establishment. They keep the prices low: a medium plate is $9. “We’re a business,” says Walker, “but we try to keep it simple.” Recipes for dishes like the great garlicky potato salad have been in the family for decades. To be honest, the barbecue isn’t the most stunning around, but I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a place more. It felt good, sitting there on a warm, rainy afternoon. I followed the example of the locals, who chatted with Billy and Viara, watched the drizzle outside, and took it easy. And I’m not the only one. Walker says that lately they’ve been getting more folks from out of town—Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, even Louisiana. Word is slowly getting out, because people are hungry for places like Pat Gee’s.