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Q&A: Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn on This Year’s Top 50 Texas Barbecue Joints

SideDish sits down with barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn about the making of this year’s list and DFW’s role in it.
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Texas Monthly released its latest Top 50 Barbecue Joints List recently. It’s a compendium of the best ‘cue Texas has to offer, reassessed every four years. Barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn and a cohort of editors-slash-eaters explore joints new and old, big and small, to suss out the state of Texas barbecue across its 254 counties.

This year, nearly a dozen Dallas-Fort Worth barbecue spots landed somewhere on the new list, with Goldee’s taking the top spot.

But I wanted to sit down the Vaughn and find out how the sausage gets made. So one recent afternoon I met up with him at—where else?—a barbecue joint. Namely, Smokey Joe’s BBQ right off R.L. Thornton Freeway, where hickory imparts a lovely, light smokiness to pork ribs and chicken, while brisket gets cooked over oak. (Yes, if you didn’t yet know, Smokey’s made the Top 50.)

So inside a gas-station-turned-barbecue-joint (with future plans of expanding the square footage), Vaughn and I dug into the barbecue list with almost as much voraciousness as we did a pulled pork sandwich with onion rings and jalapeños, creamed corn, and a slice of buttermilk pie.

Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

So many “best of” lists are annual and Top 50 Barbecue Joints is every four. How do you plan and puzzle this list together every four years?

When the 2013 list came out, we decided to do it every four years—it just made sense. First of all, that’s why we’ve done that Best New Barbecue List two years after the [Top 50] list comes out, because it’s a really long time to go without recognition if you’re making really great barbecue…right after the list came out. So we do try to provide some recognition to new places.

The only way that we can really fairly assess something like this is to take a very short period of time to evaluate these places. That’s also the part that I think people from the outside think is unfair. Because they see, Well, how could you not put this place if you loved them four years ago? How could you drop this place out entirely? You wrote a review about this place three years ago, and it was incredible, wonderful. It is this short window of time that we take into account and, like I said, that’s the only way that I know how we can make it fair and not try to bring those preconceived notions in. It’d be so easy to just bring in your own favoritisms if it were year after year.

There’s a bunch of turnover this year for sure. Like, there always is. It’s more noticeable this time around because we have some new places at the top that a lot of people still haven’t heard of yet. But we changed over 29 places out of the 50. In 2017, we changed over 28 places. So it’s not that much different from overall turnover standpoint.

You went from a now-institution of Snow’s to a newcomer like Goldee’s at the top spot. Does that show just how much has changed in four years? What else did you notice as you’re looking at the grand landscape of Texas barbecue?

The funniest thing I noticed is that we’re talking about a place that opened in 2003, Snow’s Barbecue, and, in 2009, Franklin Barbecue as being these long-time, open-forever, legendary places that have been around since the beginning of time in Texas barbecue. And, you know, we’re still talking about relatively new places. We think of them as legendary, because, you know, Snow’s was number one last time, Franklin number two. Before that, it was Franklin number one, Snow’s number two. So it was kind of a battle back and forth between them.

We started off this time around with a completely different storyline: the return of small town barbecue. Places opening up in small towns, where forever it was like all the new barbecue was coming out of the big cities. That was going to be our sort of overarching storyline. And then as we got started, got all our scores in, and then [did] all of our top 10 searches, and we’re having discussions—Pat Sharpe and I—back and forth about the places that we love. It just turned into: This is going to be the year of all the new places, all the young guns are really coming in to make a name for themselves.

What would you say if someone (cough, cough, Tim Rogers) said that putting a small spot like Goldee’s at the top of the list would drive them out of business if they weren’t able to keep up with the demand of being number one?

Well, I think there are very few restaurants who think that way. I think there is a temptation to go against what you’ve been doing to get to that point and just cook as much as you possibly can and therefore make as much money as you possibly can. Quality be damned, right? But if you’re at the top of the list already, you probably don’t have that mindset. You’re [about] quality first and gonna just do as much as [you] can do really, really well. As long as they stick with that, even if they do sell out, like Goldee’s did. At 10 a.m., like an hour before they open, they were sold out with just the people in line.

How does accessibility factor into the decision-making process? Because you have a place like Cattleack Barbeque, which is great, at the number six spot, but not slinging barbecue throughout the week the way some others do.

Something like that would probably come into account if we were looking at some sort of tiebreaker between this place or that place. Sides, desserts, all that—all those things matter to a degree, [but] it really comes down to the barbecue. With all things being equal—the quality of the barbecue or the variety of the barbecue—then you start looking at those other things. It’s not like we’ve knocked anybody out for being open once a week like Snow’s. I get that question often. Is it fair to have a place that’s only open once a week or open twice a week normally, like Cattleack? Well, you tell me like, what’s your definition of a real barbecue? Is it a number of days, is it a number of services a week? Or is it the number of pounds of food cooked? Because I know that Snow’s is only open once a week. They still cook more barbecue for that day than a lot of barbecue joints during the week.

Mac’s Bar-B-Que closed recently after some 66 years of being a multigenerational barbecue joint on Main Street on the edge of Deep Ellum and Old East Dallas. Are you seeing places that represented a certain kind of barbecue for Dallas change or disappear as barbecue overall is evolving?

Mac’s is, like you said, a really good example of an older way of cooking barbecue and serving barbecue. Still really great. But I really think Mac’s biggest downfall was the fact that they never realized the internet existed. Like, I would tell people to go to Mac’s all the time. And almost everyone I told was like, I’ve never heard that place, where is it? No Facebook page. No social media presence whatsoever. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, only. Can’t go on a Saturday. So yes, it represents an older way of cooking barbecue, but I don’t think that’s why they closed. I don’t think that’s why they weren’t really, really popular. I think they could have gotten really popular if they’ve been able to get the word out a little bit more about their own business.

Then you have a place like this [Smokey Joe’s], which is that old-style barbecue joint that has been around—second generation now. But they made a decision that, We’re not going to cook barbecue just like we always had. For [co-owner-pitmaster Kris Manning] it was specifically, We want to improve the way that we smoked brisket. And he realized to do that he couldn’t use the old brick pit that was back in the kitchen. So they decided to build a little pit room and put two offset smokers in there. So they changed the method somewhat—still cooking with offset, still cooking with wood.

[Smokey Joe’s] has their Instagram page, they’ve got the Facebook page, Kris has a food truck that goes out to different parts of town to try and introduce the Smokey Joe’s name. It does represent like a new way of looking at barbecue marketing, I guess. And a nice mix of the old way of always doing it, the way Smokey Joe’s has always done it, and adding some new methods that, in my opinion, in Kris’ opinion, improve things quite a bit.

[Gracefully shoveling ribs into our mouths.] What do you think?

The ribs, using the same old seasoning (paprika, garlic, salt), are very simple and you really taste that wood flavor. It’s got some bacon-y flavor to it with the hickory. It’s just such a good classic rib. I know the regulars are happy that they didn’t change it. And so am I.

Thanks for meeting me here so I can just enjoy some barbecue instead of having to judge it and take notes.

Yeah, tough gig. 

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By Q&A: Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn on This Year’s Top 50 Texas Barbecue Joints Rachel Colman