Most chain barbecue restaurants are content to serve mediocre ’cue that’s been “smoked” in a gas-fired rotisserie pit. This simplifies the cooking process and makes the outcome predictable—and usually bland. However, while Cousin’s is a well-established local chain, they believe smoking with wood is the only acceptable method. They outfit every location with a wood-fired Oyler pit.
Cousin’s piles on the rub, especially on the ribs. These meaty St. Louis-style ribs require some tooth to get them off the bone, which is always preferable to the mushy texture of boiled “falling off the bone” rib meat. Just a note on rib meat texture: if the meat is not still clinging to the bones when you pick it up, the ribs have been overcooked. For those of us with teeth, it’s simply unnecessary, and this texture is rarely achieved if the ribs are smoked. The texture of the hearty brisket slices at Cousin’s is also commendable. Chain or not, this place puts out some quality protein.
Operating since 1976, and in its current location for the past 10 years, Smokey John’s is a stalwart in the local foodie scene. They’re the first joint on this list that achieves greatness with a gas-fired smoker, which is usually the first sign that you’re in for some substandard barbecue.
Gas-fired smokers act more like an oven and allow the pit master to get into a “set it and forget it” mentality. I’ve heard owners brag about how little wood these smokers consume—wood is not a cheap “ingredient.” But the consequences of skimping result in a poorly smoked product. Smokey John’s does not hold back on wood, so there is plenty of smoke created to bathe the meat. They have found the right balance between ease of use and authentic smoke flavor, and they have a dedicated following to prove it.
Smoke clings to every bite of their “come back ribs.” These fine morsels of protein might not have a familiar appearance—each rib is chopped in half and piled on the plate. But the meat is perfectly tender, with a punch of flavor from a simple rub and hickory smoke. Brisket is decent, with the same hint of the smoke evident in the other meats, but they crank up the level in their sausage offerings. In addition to standard hot links, pork, and garlic sausages, they also offer a homemade all-beef sausage that has a spicy kick from black and red pepper and a great snap to the casing. These links have a medium grind to the meat, so it’s cohesive in the casing without having the density of a hot dog.
In mid-2008, CT’s took over this space in South Dallas, which was previously one location of the now defunct Hardeman’s Barbecue chain. They inherited the custom wood-burning pit that takes up nearly an entire wall of the kitchen. In addition to smoked meat items, CT’s offers many soul food standards. This not only provides options for non ’cue eaters (gasp), but allows smoked meat fans to break out of “usual side-itis” and sample broccoli rice casserole, greens, and yams. A good chunk of cornbread is also a welcome change from cheap white bread.
I stopped in to grab a sliced beef sandwich to go. The smoky aroma wafted through the foil and out from the white paper bag so aggressively that I had to unwrap the sandwich for an immediate taste. A few bites later, the moist, smoky slices of tender beef had disappeared, and I was holding an empty piece of foil. The employees snickered when I came walking back in just a few minutes later to get some ribs. Back in the car, I just couldn’t help myself. I opened the package to find ribs covered with a deep red crust. The moist meat was bursting with flavor from a salty rub and hickory smoke, and the layers of fat were well-rendered.
Okay, city slickers. Type “Saginaw” into your fancy GPS and hit the road. For in the shadow of the long line of silos at ConAgra Foods’ flour mills in this small town in northwest Tarrant County sits Texas Pit Bar-B-Q. Stephen Fowler uses an Oyler pit filled with hickory to smoke beautiful plates of meat. This joint has a sports bar feel to it, with televisions on most walls and dark booths in the dining room. Orders are taken either at the drive-thru or at the back of the restaurant, where meats are carved while you watch. Each item is placed precisely on the Styrofoam plate—every ingredient having its place, right down to the pickle spear and red onion slices.
Beyond the meticulous presentation, I was mesmerized by the deep, rich color of the crust on both brisket and ribs. It cracked between my teeth as they sunk into the moist, tender meat. The seasoning in the rub, coupled with the high level of smokiness, as evidenced by the bright red smoke ring, created an excellent barbecue flavor. The red meat beneath that crust on the ribs was moist, with melted fat throughout, but the robust flavor evident in the beef was missing here. The pulled pork had great texture, but I found the accompanying sauce too sweet. My favorite sides were the crispy fried okra and the fresh green beans. I had high hopes for the barbecue stew, but when I returned to try it, I discovered a thin, soupy concoction of tomato, corn, chicken, potatoes, and green beans. Disappointments aside, this place is well worth the drive.