There’s a pitmaster over in Lufkin named Wade Barbe, pronounced “bar-bee.” As one might imagine, the least challenging aspect of creating Wade’s Barbecue, which opened in February of last year, was deciding on the name. “My name is literally in my business,” he points out, though Wade’s Barbe-Q, as suggested by a friend, might have made that more obvious. There’s an extra layer of responsibility when a man named Barbe serves a tray of smoked meat. Customers will associate their positive or negative experience with his name, and, as Barbe notes, that goes a long way in a small town.
Wade’s Barbecue is winning over customers with nothing but the basics. Barbe serves brisket, ribs, and sausage, along with a mashed potato salad and pinto beans seasoned with only salt and black pepper. There are no specials, no dessert, and no complicated rubs. “My goal was always to serve good, simple barbecue,” he says. The current offerings are even simpler than his first menu, which included beef ribs, pulled pork, and coleslaw. “I was wasting more of it than I was selling,” Barbe says. He decided to focus on perfecting just a few dishes instead.
The business grew quickly in the first month, and he bought a second (but still tiny) backyard smoker from Academy to keep up with demand. The trailer was parked at Lufkin Mall, and March was going well, until the mall closed because of the pandemic. “It was a ghost town. There was absolutely nothing open,” Barbe says. He needed a new location, and it took him only a month to find a tree-covered lot just outside downtown Lufkin. Soon after, Barbe’s welder friend Randy Golden helped him up his game with a five-hundred-gallon smoker made from a reclaimed propane tank. Business hasn’t slowed down since.
The lot is picturesque, despite the makeshift driveway that was muddied by weeks of rain when I visited. The scene is like a Piney Woods version of the original Franklin Barbecue from a decade ago, when customers dined at picnic tables on a gravel lot in North Austin. Even the decor is similar: the top half of Wade’s converted travel trailer is painted cream, while the bottom half is pale green. Barbe uses Franklin’s signature teal on the sign mounted next to the trailer’s ordering window, and the oak-fueled smoker is inside an adjacent trailer surrounded by corrugated metal panels. You can almost picture Aaron Franklin opening the lid of the pit inside to check the briskets. (You can even see the picture, on the cover of Wyatt McSpadden’s Texas BBQ, Small Town to Downtown.) When I pointed out the resemblance, Barbe said he admires Franklin, but the similarities have more to do with their shared love of a retro aesthetic and Barbe’s limited budget when he bought the trailer.
The travel trailer was “complete garbage” when Barbe bought it for just $300 in 2017. The plan was to open a barbecue joint as quickly as possible, but he’s raising his two sons as a single father, and the massive amount of time and money required to convert the trailer caused delays. To help, Barbe got a job at Lowe’s so he could get the employee discount. He finally finished the trailer, and completed a checklist of required items from the local health department, just before opening the place. He had only one regret. “I wish I would have done it sooner,” he says.
Wade’s Barbecue is as basic as it gets, and that’s Barbe’s goal. Thick slices of fatty Prime-grade brisket were incredibly tender, if a tad overcooked. The bark was smoky, with just enough salt and pepper. I dunked some in the sweet barbecue sauce, but the brisket is better on its own. Save the sauce for dipping slices of house-made pork sausage. Barbe grinds the pork with garlic, salt, and pepper, then gets a good snap on the casing in the smoker. The glaze on the pork spare ribs settled in between the heavy grains of cracked black pepper like rain on a cobblestone street. Tender rib meat was easy to pull from the bone, and the flavor was a good balance between salty and sweet, with some muted heat from the pepper. After having just tried a brisket sandwich topped with peanut butter and jelly across town, I welcomed the simplicity.
Barbe says he learned to cook barbecue mostly from trial and error over the last fifteen years. “I have made a lot of bad barbecue in my life,” he admits. But right now, Barbe is serving barbecue that should make him proud, and he’s seeing the effect in the dozen or so new faces that arrive daily. Even with the influx of customers, he hasn’t yet hired a single employee. “I only have that one chance to make a good impression,” he says by way of explanation. He does the work himself, even watching the fire all night, because he’s not ready to trust anyone else to make or break that first impression.
“I don’t get a lot of sleep,” he says, stating the obvious. He has made it through the challenges thrown at him by the pandemic, a particularly rainy spring, and rising meat prices, but when Barbe talks about his work, it’s clear how much he enjoys running his barbecue trailer. “I love the smoke. I love the fire. I love the smell of it. I just love everything about it,” he tells me, minutes after saying he felt bit like a zombie on his day off. He had allowed himself a break after serving a bunch of barbecue on Memorial Day. He usually takes Mondays off, but he had too many eager customers to stay closed. Seeing customers enjoy their barbecue on the holiday weekend was payment in itself for Barbe. “To see people enjoy the fruits of your labor, it feels really good.”
617 S. Bynum, Lufkin
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11–4
Pitmaster: Wade Barbe
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2020