From the view on either side of the highway, Notrees—the town between Kermit and Odessa—seems to have been born of the simplest observation. Not much out here grows any higher than cotton. Heading further north, they don’t even have the luxury of scrubby mesquite. So if you’re going to cook barbecue in West Texas, the wood fuel needs to be trucked in. Still, just about every barbecue joint in these parts sticks to all wood cooking.
Cooking with wood is challenging, especially given the variables of weather and moisture content of the wood. A fire built for smoking briskets requires more attention overnight than a newborn. The constant blue flame of a gas-fired smoker would be tempting, along with the set-it-and-forget-it nature of cooking with them. Many barbecue chains take that route, and that’s the barbecue Terry Alexander grew up eating. “I grew up not knowing the better things in life,” he joked.
After his time in the Navy, Alexander sold truck parts and dabbled in barbecue. But when he opened Slim’s BBQ in Seminole, about an hour north of Odessa, in 2015, he wouldn’t fall into the chain mentality. The steel smoker out back burns mesquite and oak, which comes in from out of state. “We have to spend some money to get it,” Alexander says, and that’s in a town where a barbecue joint is a bad choice for get-rich-quick scheme (the three-meat combo is $16). Slim’s cooks five briskets per day, at most, and hasn’t yet been able to replace the sign for the Mexican restaurant that once inhabited their building. Look for the banner at Slim’s BBQ to find great ribs and a unique pepper jack cheese sausage.
Forty miles east in Lamesa, Bertha (the smoker pictured up top) chugs through three cords of hickory every month at Follow the Smoke BBQ. Ribs are the best seller here, for good reason, with brisket a close second (three-meat combo plate, with ribs, is $12.49). Pitmaster John Cortez and his wife Lucinda went into barbecue full time in 2014, and Lamesa has treated them well. They need a bigger pit, but it’ll be a stick-burner even though a cord of hard wood that costs about $200 in verdant East Texas runs for $350 in Lamesa. John told me that before they opened their own place they had a favorite barbecue joint in Lubbock. “They changed from an offset smoker like ours to a commercial one,” he lamented. “It just wasn’t the same.”
It’s all mesquite at Ed & Tom’s Bar-B-Que in Odessa (three-meat combo is $14). A metal carport provides cover to the massive steel smokers installed by pitmaster Eddie Mitchell when he opened last year. As he sliced ultra-tender brisket and custom beef links, Mitchell warned that mesquite can get away from you if you don’t watch the firebox carefully. The heavy smoke flavor from the wood is also why he wraps his barbecue in foil to finish the cook. He knows no other way to cook barbecue, and left me with some words of wisdom when seeking out wood-cooked barbecue: “Smellin’ is tellin’.”
You can smell the barbecue at Christine’s Blues ‘N BBQ (three-meat combo is $10.95) as soon as you cross the Kermit city limit sign. Owner Christine Jones and co-pitmaster Thomas Garden cook on three steel smokers, two of which were designed and built by Garden. They smoke with mesquite and pecan, or “whatever we can scrounge up,” Garden confessed. After all, they’re just twenty miles from Notrees.
There is some glory to shoot for beyond serving loyal customers. Israel “Pody” Campos used his wood smokers to turn Pody’s BBQ in Pecos (three-meat combo is $13.95) into one of Texas’s fifty best barbecue joints (at least, according to us). Recently he ditched his array of small smokers and bought an Oyler smoker from J&R Manufacturing. It’s a rotisserie, but it’s all wood, and the barbecue certainly hasn’t suffered. Evie Mae’s in Wolfforth (three-meat combo is $20) is another success story. Arnis Robbins, who owns the place with his wife, Mallory, built a wood-fired smoker for their food truck a couple years back. Now he’s looking to build a third for the pit room in their permanent location where they moved last year. Just look at the lines at Evie Mae’s and you’ll see folks in West Texas have a taste for wood-cooked barbecue.
These joints might not be household names across Texas, and some never will be. That doesn’t mean they won’t stick to their principles of all wood cooking, even if it costs them a little more. And in small town West Texas, they can’t make up the difference with higher prices. There is nothing expensive about the barbecue out here. It should also be noted that most of these spots are just a few years old. The pitmasters aren’t carrying on some family legacy of wood cooking, but instead chose this time-honored barbecue method on their own.
Christine’s Blues ‘N BBQ
Kermit, TX 79745
Ed & Tom’s Bar-B-Que
317 E Murphy St.
Odessa, TX 79761
Evie Mae’s Barbecue
217 Highway 62
Wolfforth, TX 79382
Follow the Smoke BBQ
311 S 2nd St
Lamesa, TX 79331
1330 S. Cedar
Pecos, TX 79772
209 SW Ave G
Seminole, TX 79360