Denison, about 75 miles north of Dallas, boasts the birthplace of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Lake Texoma Dam, and the world’s best bourbon (really) at Ironroot Republic Distillery. It’s also where a personal barbecue hero of mine took a stand more than a century ago. Denison’s Al Hall fought to allow the sale of barbecue in Sundays at his and other local barbecue joints in 1891. Despite the deep smoked-meat history, the Texoma region, which stretches from Denison west to Gainesville, is rarely on the agenda for barbecue road trips.
I’ve spent many summer weekends on Lake Texoma with my family, but rarely do I get off the water and out to explore the barbecue. That changed when we left Dallas (and a home under construction) in the late fall for a couple of two-week stints at a house by the lake. The chilly weather meant entertaining myself with something other than waterskiing and tubing, so I set out to try all the new-to-me barbecue joints in the area, along with a few familiar faces. From previous exploration, I knew there’d be plenty of brown gravy barbecue sauce, a regional specialty. But I also found some German influence in the barbecue, sky-high meringue, a perfectly constructed chopped brisket sandwich, and even a slice of pie with more brisket in it than some sandwiches I’ve eaten.
I first learned of brown gravy sauce from a 2010 Texoma Living article. Edward Southerland and Gary Carter explained the peculiar barbecue sauce, which is really a thickened gravy that uses smoked brisket drippings and more spice than gravy that’s meant for potatoes. The magazine also offered up its thoughts on the best barbecue in the area back then, and I guess this is an overview of its work a decade later. Gone are the brown-gravy disciples of Perk’s BBQ in Savoy, Smoky G’s BBQ in Van Alstyne, and Old Mining Camp BBQ in Denison—all of which I’ve enjoyed in the past—but there is some new some blood.
Bear’s Smokin’ BBQ has been serving brown gravy sauce from its food truck, which opened in the Denison Food Truck Park in 2018. The gravy has a thick consistency and a beige color that you’d expect from a jar of turkey gravy. On one visit it was too smoky to enjoy, but the flavor had mellowed a month later. Try it on the chopped brisket bowl with some of the truck’s rich hash brown casserole.
I still prefer the version of brown gravy sauce just down the street at Hickory House Bar-B-Que, which has been serving it up since 1975. It coats a mound of roughly chopped brisket well and has a rich brown hue with a glossy finish. The flavor manages to strike a balance between barbecue sauce and gravy, and I love that every bite has more back-end heat than you’d expect from something called gravy. The buttered and griddled bun is a nice touch as well. If you normally order pickles and onions on your barbecue sandwich, consider skipping the pickles when trying the brown gravy sauce.
In Sherman, look for the little red Fine BBQ food truck at the far end of the Save A Lot parking lot. The brisket and raw onions are both chopped pretty fine, and both go great on a sandwich with Fine’s gravy sauce. It tastes more like broth than brisket drippings, but the sauce has spice and a hint of smoke flavor. The truck also will make a rib sandwich of chopped rib meat without the bones.
Baby back ribs are the ticket just a mile up the road at Cackle & Oink BBQ. Five ribs with two sides is just $13, and you can add a smoked hot link to any meal for just $1.50. The drive-through is popular, but be sure to have the napkins ready if you plan to eat in your car. The ribs are glazed with a sweet sauce and arrive uncut. The meat is salty, sweet, and just tender enough. For the sides, I’d recommend the buttery cabbage and the fluffy jalapeño cornbread.
On the far south side of Denison, a small white shack next to a gas station houses Randy’s Bar-B-Que, as the sign posted to the smokehouse denotes. Another sign, this one faded, sits out in front and reads “Lew’s Bar-B-Q,” a potentially confusing nod to the previous owner. Randy Johnson now takes the orders from a walk-up window and prepares each one as the customer waits. Stuffed peppers are a specialty. These aren’t the bacon-wrapped version you might be expecting. Halved pickled jalapeños are stuffed with breakfast sausage and wrapped in biscuit dough before frying.
The peppers are nearly as popular as the sandwiches, which Johnson lovingly prepares. He butters and toasts a bun for each. I asked for a little bark on my chopped brisket sandwich. He chopped it on the board near the window and then formed a mound with his gloved hand and placed it on the bottom bun, atop dill pickles and a few slices of white onion. Even the regular size (large and small are also available) was generously stuffed and topped with barbecue sauce upon request. If an Iowan needed an explanation of a chopped brisket sandwich in Texas, this is the one I’d feed them.
“Usually when people retire, if they’re not busy or functional, they sit somewhere and die,” Marc Thomas told me outside of tiny Jaz’s Bar-B-Que, in Gainesville. In 2010 he parked what looks like a storage shed on an otherwise empty wooded block in the middle of Gainesville and opened Jaz’s. The smoke on his barbecue is heavy, but the seasoning isn’t. “I don’t cook with salt,” Thomas said, so I’d suggest the sandwich of roughly chopped brisket with plenty of sweet barbecue sauce and onions. A pickle spear comes on the side. Thomas also offers custom smoking for $2.50 per pound as well as smoked sausages made at the famous Fischer’s Meat Market, in nearby Muenster.
Fischer’s also supplies the sausage for the German plate at Dieter Brothers Pit Bar-B-Q, in Lindsay, just west of Gainesville on U.S. 82. A bratwurst and smoked sausage come with some spicy brown mustard, tangy German potato salad, and the best sauerkraut I’ve had at a barbecue joint. They fry up some great catfish as well, if you’re looking for barbecue surf and turf. Don’t miss the pies. I wolfed down a slice of the excellent coconut cream pie in my car as I watched the trucks stack up in the drive-through line.
Only a gas station separates Dieter Brothers from Lindsay’s other barbecue joint. Smokehouse Pit Bar-B-Que is an old-school drive-in. Some folks have sworn to me that the chopped brisket sandwich is the strong suit here, but I am powerless when a barbecue joint offers something called the Captain’s Plate. Four meats and two sides for just $17 is a heck of a deal. I liked the ribs and sausage best, and the onion rings are hard to beat, especially dipped into the thick, warm, tomatoey sauce.
Back in Gainesville is a new food truck called Rider’s Smokehouse. Although Ardis and Jim Rider had set up shop in Valley View a few years back, they left their brick-and-mortar in favor of the food truck life last year when they moved to Gainesville. The truck is parked outside Combs’ Coffee and is serving up an impressive selection of pies and barbecue.
Smoked sweet potato and jalapeño soup with homemade cornbread was the first surprise. I also tried a selection of incredibly smoky meats, finding the hot-smoked salmon to be the best of the bunch. Then it was time for dessert. If you can’t choose between buttermilk and pecan pie, they combine the two here with a pecan-topped buttermilk pie. There were a half-dozen varieties of baked goods (the selection changes daily, so call ahead), but I couldn’t resist the special of the day: brisket burnt-end pecan pie. A slice had more chopped beef in the gooey pecan filling than I was imagining. Another dollop came atop the freshly whipped cream. It was certainly the most unusual slice of pie I’ve tried, and the most unusual brisket combination I’ve seen since Val’s brisket cheesecake, in Dallas, or the blackberry brisket fried pie from Baker’s Ribs, in Canton.
Tioga is nestled on the banks of Lake Ray Roberts, but I’m including Clark’s Outpost here because it’s a short jaunt from there up U.S. 377 to the Willis Bridge, which crosses Lake Texoma into Oklahoma. The joint is a Texas classic, having served the likes of Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck. It suffered a devastating fire in 2016 that leveled the restaurant but spared the smokehouse. The following year Clark’s reopened in a new building on the opposite side of the smokehouse. I visited soon after and found it a great disappointment. The barbecue was poor, and the famous pies weren’t on the menu. Thankfully, things have gotten better.
A recent visit provided a slice of chocolate pie with the joint’s signature mile-high meringue, and it was as good as ever. Peach cobbler didn’t have the same elevation, but was no less impressive. Clark’s Outpost is the first place where I tried calf fries, and I remember them tasting more like fried shrimp than beef. Those are still on the menu, and if you don’t want to commit to a full dinner of calf testicles, order them as a combo with any barbecue meat. I’d suggest the tender ribs, or the brisket, which is the lowest and slowest in Texas.