Since last summer, the small East Texas town of Winnsboro has seen its barbecue fortunes rise. Three different joints have opened, which is unusual for a town of 3,500 people that’s not along a major highway. I drove there on a recent Saturday to see what was smoking, and to find out if this town’s appetite was big enough for such a rapid infusion.
Exiting Interstate 30 in Sulphur Springs, I resisted the urge to stop at Slaughter’s BBQ Oasis, an impressive food truck that’s completing renovations on its brick-and-mortar. Instead, I drove thirty minutes to reach Winnsboro.
The sign for Coyote Smoke BBQ came into view just as I entered city limits. Wylie Smithwick reopened his truck in June after acquiring the land it sits on. Before then it was parked downtown. Smithwick nervously monitored the shifting barbecue landscape in town during his business’s eight-month construction hiatus.
Last spring, Clyde Osborn was ready to move on from his weekend hobby of competition barbecue. “When you win you might pay for your gas money and your beer,” he said of the meager payouts. Last April, four days after Smithwick posted on Facebook about opening Coyote Smoke BBQ, Osborn announced he had a food truck on order and would open East TX Rust BBQ (named after a song by Shinyribs) on Saturdays in Winnsboro.
In May, Osborn previewed his smoked meats by handing out free samples to the public in front of Cypress Creek brewery (where he now parks on Saturdays). Coyote Smoke had its grand opening in June, and East TX Rust opened its trailer window in early July. Being a Winnsboro resident with a full-time job throughout the week, Osborn didn’t really consider serving in another town. “Little did I know, Wylie was doing the same thing,” he said, looking back to last summer.
After operating through summer 2022 in an unshaded lot, Smithwick closed his place temporarily. To separate himself from the competition and to keep him, his staff, and his customers cooler, his place needed an upgrade. He poured a concrete slab on his newly purchased property on the north side of town and started construction on a three-sided metal enclosure with a roof. He hoped it would take a few months, but the project dragged on until this June, when he could finally reopen. In the meantime, he watched as Osborn received praise from other pitmasters.
In late 2022, there was one fewer joint in town when a location of the Bodacious Bar-B-Q chain closed. “Just don’t anybody else jump in the mix here,” Smithwick thought then. Lo and behold, a new contender arrived this May. The Barrel House, a restaurant established in Winnsboro in 2005, opened its newly renovated building with a barbecue counter inside, serving Thursday through Saturday. Coyote Smoke reopened a few weeks later, serving those same three days a week, with East TX Rust BBQ having had months to build a Saturday following.
I tried Coyote Smoke twice, mainly because I didn’t realize two of the five smoked meats weren’t normally available on Thursdays. The thick-sliced smoked pork belly is worth planning a Saturday visit around. The pork ribs, brushed with a heavy layer of sweet sauce just before serving, are also reserved for Saturdays. The brisket—well smoked, tender, and juicy on both visits, but oddly sliced on the first—is the focus, though it’s mainly served on sandwiches. “It is a sandwich town,” Smithwick said of Winnsboro. “It is a value town.”
Smithwick found himself here after he and his wife inherited land on Lake Winnsboro from her late parents. He first scratched the barbecue itch working at barbecue supply store Premier Grilling, in Frisco, eventually becoming the store manager. The family land was too big a draw, so he quit his job and moved to Winnsboro in late 2021 to open a craft barbecue trailer in a market he felt had untapped potential. His wife and kids, who still live in North Texas, would come down to help run the place during those first three months. Now he has a Winnsboro-based crew, including pitmaster Brandon Soto. “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have him,” Smithwick said. “He generally runs everything for me.”
The sides and desserts mostly come premade from a food supplier because Smithwick wanted to “focus on my meats as best I could,” he said. But he’s now working on a potato salad recipe, and he let Soto convince him to let him mix up the slaw dressing from scratch. The best side I had was the Frito chili beans. They’re made from dry beans and spiced ranch-style. Each scoop is topped with shredded cheddar and Fritos. And even if it wasn’t homemade, the MintChocChip Cream Pie with an Oreo crust made for a refreshing finish.
Down the street, East TX Rust BBQ has just two sides, which change weekly. The green chile mac and cheese was creamy with a real kick of spice. I got it as part of my Semper Fi Plate, which is an homage to Osborn’s service in the Marines and is well priced, at $20 for three meats and one side. The sliced brisket that came with it was tender enough on the lean end, but the fatty end needed more rendering. Osborn is still honing his jalapeño-cheese link recipe (a non-jalapeño version is also available), but the version I had came with plenty of smoke and a good snap. Osborn’s ribs are as sweet as Coyote Smoke’s thanks to the finishing sauce he uses, a recipe from his competition barbecue days. “They like a sweet rib,” he said of his East Texas customers.
Osborn’s wife, Leann, makes the sides and the excellent barbecue sauce that comes on the side of every platter. It’s on the thin side, with a good balance of acid and sweetness. I loved the combination of the rich beef rib dunked in the sauce. The meat pulled easily from the bone, and at $26 per pound, it was less of a splurge than anticipated. Even at that price, the ribs aren’t very popular. “I end up eating more of them than I sell,” Osborn admitted.
An item I didn’t get to try was the sliced smoked pork belly. On this particular Saturday, Osborn had hoped the pork belly he’d put in the smoker that morning would be done for service, but it just wasn’t tender enough when I ordered. I appreciated the honesty.
The mix-up was partially due to Osborn’s hectic schedule. He has a full-time position at the nearby XTO Energy plant. On Friday mornings before work, he gets the meats on the smoker before sunrise. Then cook Greg Fleming arrives at 5:30 a.m. to take over the pits. The briskets are pulled out to rest around 11 p.m., and the smokers fire back up on Saturday at 5 a.m. for the rest of the meats. If you get to town before lunch, the joint offers brisket breakfast tacos from 7 to 10 a.m.
After my meal at East TX Rust BBQ, Osborn suggested I try the pork ribs at the Barrel House down the street. I loved the setup of the place, with an outdoor seating area between the full-service restaurant building and what Barrel House calls the Barn out back. There were plenty of beer taps in the Barn and a small barbecue counter offering the basics. The ribs didn’t compare favorably to those of the other two joints in town, and the brisket probably would have been tender enough if I hadn’t gotten such a thick slice. I did enjoy the side of pinto beans.
It won’t be easy for all these joints to survive in such a small town, even if they all have good barbecue to offer. Winnsboro is symbolic of the Texas barbecue bubble. Smithwick understands the challenge, and he pointed to a message Osborn posted for his customers on Facebook. “We make enough to buy the meat and supplies for next Saturday!” Osborn wrote. “That’s why we can provide the cheapest prices in town, we profit nothing.” Smithwick’s response to me was, “That’s great for me who has some responsibilities and some bills to pay.” It’s hard to compete with a business that doesn’t aim to make a profit. Osborn went on to say in the post that he works hard for little return “because we love to do it, we enjoy the process, enjoy the challenge, enjoy the people that show up every Saturday.”
In the short term, Smithwick will get a Saturday reprieve as East TX Rust BBQ closes until mid-October so Osborn can cater some events. Osborn’s future plans also include heading back to his hometown of Gilmer (about thirty minutes away), where he wants his own brick-and-mortar. Despite the well-paying day job, Osborn said he’s “looking for a reason to do [barbecue] full-time.”
Coyote Smoke BBQ Company
908 W. Broadway, Winnsboro
Hours: Thursday–Friday 11–5, Saturday 11–4
Pitmasters: Wylie Smithwick and Brandon Soto
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022