The Quest for the Best BBQ

The holy trinity of Texas ’cue is brisket, sausage, and ribs. Is there a local joint that excels at all three? One brave Dallas man ate his weight in meat to find out.

From the pulpit on a recent Sunday, the preacher said, “Show me what a man thinks about when he doesn’t have to think about anything in particular, and I’ll show you what that man is.” My wife leaned over to me and softly whispered, “Honey, that means you’re a brisket.” Lately, that seems to be the sad truth.

Some time ago, I began a search for the best barbecue in town. During several months, I traveled hundreds of miles, crisscrossing city and suburb, trying to determine if anyone, anywhere in or around the Dallas-Fort Worth area is doing work that can compare with the best Texas has to offer. I went to restaurants whose reputations are as solid as cutting boards and to crumbling shacks with parking-lot puddles as big as lakes. I skipped sides and sauces, instead honing in on the backbone of barbecue, the smoking of meat to perfection. At each stop in this journey, I ordered the holy trinity of Texas ’cue: brisket, sausage, and ribs.

My efforts began out West, with the renowned Fort Worth stalwart Angelo’s (2533 White Settlement Rd., Fort Worth. 817-332-0357). The restaurant’s interior had plenty of dilapidated charm, but the brisket marked an inauspicious start. While it had a moderate smokiness, the beef was bone dry and leathery. Apart from its mild spiciness, the sausage was run-of-the-mill, barbecue-joint fare: smoothly ground, densely packed, and indistinguishable from supermarket summer sausages. The ribs had pretty good smokiness, flavor, and texture, but they were more bone than meat. This mediocre meal fell well short of Angelo’s reputation.

Railhead (2900 Montgomery St., Fort Worth. 817-738-9808) hasn’t been open as long as Angelo’s but has quickly developed a loyal local following. Spacious, well-lit, and clean, Railhead scores higher in functionality than in character. The brisket had above-average flavor, but it was too moist, almost mushy. Sausage was generic and forgettable. The ribs were an enigma. They looked great. They were lean and appropriately tender. But they were surprisingly bland. Covered with Railhead’s sweet sauce, they might make you think you were eating a really great rib. But the naked rib’s shortcoming was manifest. Overall, this was a respectable meal. Not the best in Texas, by any means, but it justified Railhead’s growing fan base.

If you’re judging by recognition rather than reputation, Sonny Bryan’s (2202 Inwood Rd. 214-357-7120; multiple locations) would win, hands down. The best-known barbecue joint in Dallas has grown into a small chain, but locals usually favor the rundown shack of a location on Inwood Road. I’d like to say that Sonny Bryan’s barbecue is a suitable match for its quaintly ramshackle appearance. Sadly, it is not. The brisket was neither smoky, tender, nor flavorful. Rubbery and flat-tasting, it’s what you might expect from a down-market cafeteria. The unremarkable sausage lacked smokiness. The ribs, which had been finished on a grill (!), were blackened, dry, and tough. All the meats were sub-par for the local market.

A sign outside North Main BBQ (406 N. Main St., Euless. 817-283-0884) claims: “Voted Best Ribs in the World.” The dining room was lined with barbecue banners and trophies, mostly from the late ’80s and early ’90s. The awards and press clippings provided some support for its boast, but sic transit gloria mundi. Whatever rib magic North Main was working a decade ago wasn’t happening on this visit. The spare ribs were tough, chewy, and overwhelmed by a thick, occasionally burnt layer of residual mop sauce. The sausage, from Rudolph’s Meat Market in Deep Ellum, had some hickory smokiness, well-rounded seasoning, and enough texture to keep things interesting. The brisket was flavorful and smoky, but it was lean and far too dry—“sandwich grade” and well short of the Central Texas standard.

A word on brisket. There is “eating chocolate” and “baking chocolate,” “drinking wine” and “cooking wine.” For some applications, lower-grade ingredients are acceptable, while in other situations, only the best will do. So it is with brisket. At the top of the heap is “eating brisket,” exemplified by the best output from the legends in Lockhart, Texas. “Eating brisket” is moist but not soggy. It is tender, with a rich beef flavor and strong smokiness. There’s a visible juiciness, a well-formed crust, and an overall appealing color. The meat is so compelling that it renders sides, sauce, utensils, and a to-go box unnecessary.

A step down the ladder takes us to “sandwich-grade brisket,” which comes up a bit short in flavor, moistness, or smokiness. If you squint your eyes just right, you can almost convince yourself that it’s a pretty good piece of brisket—especially if you throw in some distractions, like sauce or a bun. And when you pull it out of the fridge the next day and slap a couple slices of bread around it, it’ll give you the low-key buzz you expect from comfort food.

Bringing up the rear is “in-laws/ dog-grade brisket.” This is simply not fit for human consumption—bone dry (sometimes burnt), bland, tough, gray, and devoid of smokiness. It’s not a joy to eat in any form. No sauce or side can save it.

With a little practice, you can grade most brisket at a glance. This was certainly the case at Lee’s Hickory Smoked BBQ (103 Schoolhouse Rd., Haslet. 817-439-5337), which was rated by Texas Monthly as one of the top 50 barbecue joints in the state. The brisket I was served was black on the outside, gray and dry on the inside. It was almost inedible. Any drier and you’d market it as jerky. The ribs—tough, not very smoky, and with very little meat—were slightly better, but only passable. After those letdowns, I wasn’t expecting much from the hot links. I was wrong. The sausage was a definite winner. Dense, somewhat coarse, spicy, and with a slightly wrinkled casing, it stood head and shoulders above the bland, characterless sausage you get at most area joints.

AFTER STRIKING OUT AT MANY OF the area’s more prominent barbecue places, I was beginning to think my quest was more of a wild goose chase, but I soldiered on.

Peggy Sue BBQ (6600 Snider Plaza. 214-987-9188) is best known for quality vegetables and trimming the meat to keep it as lean as possible. That reputation alone is enough to send up red flags for many barbecue fans. But how bad could it really be? Incredibly bad, as it turns out. The brisket had almost no detectable smoke (or any other redeeming) flavor, making it a mere exercise in chewing. The sausage, a peppery kielbasa, was much more interesting but also short on smoke. (Barbecuing a sausage should impart character that can’t be found in a deli case.) Peggy Sue’s large ribs felt and tasted as if they’d been braised, not barbecued, resulting in mushy, rather greasy meat. There was little smoke flavor and, with the thinnest of browned surface, no bark to speak of.

Bark is to a rib what a brittle, caramelized crust is to a crème brûlée. The volume of the affected surface seems negligible. Yet somehow the contrast in flavor and texture transforms the whole. The folks at Holy Smokes (8611 Hillcrest Ave. 214-691-7427) seem to understand that. The baby backs were excellent, with a well-formed bark, good pork flavor, and the perfect degree of tenderness. The brisket was solidly sandwich-grade, only mildly smoky but with good flavor, a peppery crust, and acceptable moistness. The sausage, from Rudolph’s, was enjoyably peppery and had a bit of texture, but it was still only lightly smoky.

While I was taking pictures of Holy Smokes for my own documentation, a couple of curious Aussies asked what I was doing. When I told them I was searching for good barbecue in Dallas, they were eager to help. We compared notes, and they told me about a place whose name they did not remember and whose location was hard to pin down. “Go past Southfork, from the show Dallas,” they said. “Turn right, and it’s somewhere on that road.”

A couple of days later, I headed north in search of the mystery barbecue joint. After much meandering and a few wrong turns, I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store to ask for directions. There, in a shack in the corner of the gas station parking lot, was the very joint I was looking for: Lakeway Smokehouse (3995 Parker Rd., Wylie. 972-429-9120). The prominently displayed pit and woodpile raised expectations that went largely unfulfilled. Lakeway’s brisket, which had been wrapped in plastic and stored in a steam-heated tray, had slightly above-average smokiness and flavor but was brought down by its dryness. The ribs were a little better. Lakeway’s sausage turned out to be the winner of the bunch. These links had a distinct chorizo character, making them as tasty as they were unique. More barbecue places should consider serving chorizo-inspired sausages.

SOME BARBECUE JOINTS DON’T require a road map. I’ve driven by Back Country Bar-B-Q (6940 Greenville Ave. 214-696-6940) more times than I can count, but I’m embarrassed to say I never wandered in to give it a try. When I told the man with the knife that I’d like my brisket off the point, he said, “No problem.” At most Dallas joints, a request like that would either be misunderstood or blithely ignored. Back Country had potential.

While waiting for the meat, I read in a press clipping that Back Country uses an Oyler pit, which has a rotating rack that constantly bastes the meat. But, more important, it’s a wood-only pit. Lamentably, the wood-only approach to barbecue is more the exception than the rule in the volume- and value-driven Dallas market.

The brisket was moist, to the point of falling apart. Smoke was there, along with a pleasant beefy flavor, falling a little short of the sweet intensity expected from “eating brisket.” The ribs were meaty, tender, and had nice smokiness, but the softness of the bark, like that of the brisket’s crust, suggested that the ribs had been reheated. The quality sausage, from Rudolph’s, was agreeably smoky. Back Country was a solid base hit.

After noticing that many of the places that served Rudolph’s sausage also excelled in other areas, I visited the Deep Ellum meat market to ask for a list of local spots it supplied. One of the names mentioned was Mac’s Bar-B-Que (3933 Main St. 214-823-0731) in East Dallas. When I asked the voluble owner at Mac’s if Rudolph’s was his sausage supplier (thinking I already knew the answer), he said that they’d recently ended that relationship over questions of pepper (black, white, cayenne) and pricing. He now gets his sausage from Austin. The links were actually very enjoyable—a lighter taste than Rudolph’s, but they had a pleasant snap to the casing and well-rounded flavor. Mac’s ribs also pleased. The meat bordered on overly tender and was a touch greasy, but it had great pork flavor and smokiness. The near ideal smokiness on ribs bears mention, because I don’t often encounter it in Dallas-Fort Worth. With a more fully formed bark and slightly firmer tooth, Mac’s could be a real contender in the rib category. Mac’s pulled off the hat trick with the brisket, which had agreeable flavor, strong smokiness, and fork-tenderness. The cuts I was served were too moist and lacked crust. But, in all, it was very good brisket, toward the high end of sandwich-grade.

That doesn’t mean I stopped looking. An acquaintance told me about Hickory House (600 S. Industrial Blvd. 214-742-4400). He’d never been there but described it as “promisingly divey.” As I turned into the parking lot, I saw a metal awning with about six large work trucks pulled under it for curb service. By the time I parked, I realized why most of the customers had trucks. The “puddles” in the gravel lot were the size of craters. Though the menu covered more than just barbecue, I stayed on task and ordered brisket, ribs, and hot links.

Let’s start with the worst first. The brisket was “in-laws/dog-grade.” No discernible smoke, no flavor, and zero moisture. Gray matter of this stripe doesn’t justify or ennoble the sacrifice of the cow that made it possible. The hot links, “barbecued” in a skillet, had a two-dimensional flavor. Dimension one: supermarket hot dog. Dimension two: cayenne pepper. If sautéed cayenne hot dogs sound good to you, Hickory House is your place. I’ll abstain.

After the one-two punch of brisket and sausage, I braced for the worst as I set into the honkin’ quarter-pound of  ribs. Maybe it’s just a function of the lowered expectations, but the ribs actually tasted pretty good. Very mild smokiness but good texture and decent bark. They weren’t great (or even very good) ribs, but they were modestly enjoyable. Nothing I ate at Hickory House was good enough to bring me back, which is a shame because it really does have the look of a great barbecue joint.

Smokey John’s Depot (1820 W. Mockingbird Ln. 214-352-2752) sits in a dubious strip center on the south side of Mockingbird, surrounded by sex shops, adult video stores, Japanese baths, and suspiciously marketed “tanning salons.” Seeing the word “famous” added to its sign worried me, because, well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention the place. And, while John himself might be “Smokey,” his brisket was only moderately so. But with reasonable moistness and something of a crust, it was solid sandwich-grade. The ribs had more smoke flavor than the brisket, a well-formed bark, and decent flavor. The sausages really stood out. Both the regular sausage and hot links (from a Czech sausage-maker in Snook, Texas) had great texture to the meat and casing, putting them in the top tier for the Dallas market. With solid performance across meat categories, Smokey John’s deserves to be better known.

Next up was The Brisket Bar-B-Q (1803 W. Mockingbird Ln. 214-638-7227), directly across the street. The interior has the feel of a good barbecue joint. But looks are often deceiving. The sausage tasted like Spam. Not hickory smoked Spam. Just Spam. The quarter-pound ribs were thoroughly average, with little smokiness and bland flavor. So how was the Brisket’s brisket? Low sandwich-grade, with little smokiness, crust, or flavor. There is certainly worse barbecue in Dallas. But nothing I ate at the Brisket deserved a serious barbecue-lover’s attention.

They say that bad food makes for some of the best food writing. Perhaps. But I’m not a food writer. I’m a food lover. For me, eating bad barbecue takes a personal toll that can’t be assuaged by the prospect of heaping scorn on its purveyors, who are usually good people just trying to make a living. If I were a food writer, I would have hit the mother lode at The Original Porkie’s Bar-B-Q (6530 E. Northwest Hwy. 214-987-0424). The sausage was supermarket-grade. The brisket was bland, dry, and had the texture of a cheap pair of flip-flops. Ribs were fatty, gelatinous, and loaded with bone and cartilage—a textural nightmare. These are the worst ribs I’ve had in recent memory. I didn’t see any signs of potential greatness here.

My fortunes improved during a foray into South Dallas. I headed down Malcolm X Boulevard only to find that the joint I’d been told about was shuttered. Lacking other leads, I wandered along the street until I found a hole-in-the-wall called Walker’s BBQ (4715 Malcolm X Blvd. 214-421-7700). Walker’s is takeout only, and a glance at the menu board tells you that this is East Texas all the way—hot links, rib sandwiches, wings, etc. There were many items I wanted to try, but I stuck with the big three.

At first sight, I knew Walker’s brisket would struggle. And struggle it did. The lean meat lacked moistness and had a faint hickory smokiness. It was acceptable sandwich material but not strong enough to stand alone. Wanting to save the best for last, and thinking ribs would be Walker’s strength, I set into the sausage. I was flabbergasted. This sausage was exceptional. That clean break of tooth through casing, the juiciness, the coarser, meatier texture, the blend of seasonings (with noticeable garlic accent)—I haven’t had sausage this good outside of the German/Czech belt through Central Texas. Wrap a sauce-drenched, concertina-cut link in doubled-up slices of white bread and you have the hot dog of the gods.

As for the ribs, they weren’t quite the revelation the sausage was. But they were still very tasty. Purists might balk at the ribs’ tenderness and abundant sauce. But for those open to the East Texas style, this was good stuff. Meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender (because every little rib wants to grow up to be a rib sandwich), with a sweet pork flavor. Though I didn’t set out to test sauces, Walker’s tangy, mildly spicy sauce deserves mention, rivaling the best I’ve had in East Texas or Memphis. Walker’s far exceeded my limited expectations.

SMALL-TOWN JOINTS OFTEN ESCAPE THE traps that ensnare their big-city counterparts, such as tight air-quality regulations and the competitive pressure to sacrifice quality for cost-efficiency. And Everman (pop. 6,000) definitely qualifies as a small town. I’d heard positive word-of-mouth about Hickory Stick Bar-B-Q (900 E. Enon Ave., Fort Worth. 817-478-9997) and decided to check it out.

Seeing the life-size cow statue poised on the metal awning, I worried that Hickory Stick might value kitsch over quality. Not so. The brisket, off the point, had good smoke flavor, moistness, and crust—up there with the best brisket I’ve had in Dallas-Fort Worth. The sausage didn’t look like much, but it was lean and dense, with depth of flavor. Hickory Stick’s spare ribs were truly excellent. Nicely smoky, they had a great pork flavor without the undesirable saltiness. Moistness and tenderness left nothing to be desired. And the bark on Hickory Stick’s ribs was darn near ideal. Crisp, but not hard, with succulent pork lurking just below the surface of sweetly browned—not burnt—bark. These were great ribs.

Longoria’s BBQ (100 Christopher Dr., Fort Worth. 817-568-9494) is known for sausage. The house-made links were 100 percent brisket, with no filler. The seasoning was understated and the smokiness mild. But, in character, it’s the closest thing to great Central Texas beef sausage that I’ve found in the area. The rest of the barbecue triumvirate suffered. The brisket, dry and only moderately smoky, ranked at the low end of sandwich-grade. Longoria’s ribs were somewhat smoky, and the meat had respectable flavor and texture—when you could get to it. The problem lay in the thick, carapace-like bark. The dry rub cemented itself into a tooth-chipping, unpleasant-tasting coating that made eating the ribs a challenge. This shell was so obviously unappealing that I’m inclined to think this was just a consistency lapse.

Was my carnivorous odyssey all for naught?

When I saw the cars glutting the parking lot at Big Al’s Smokehouse (3125 Inwood Rd. 214-350-2649), I thought, “All of these people can’t possibly be here for barbecue.” I was wrong. The place was packed. It seemed as though everyone knew about Big Al’s but me. Near the beginning of the cafeteria-style line was a framed t-shirt autographed by Rod Stewart, commending Big Al for his barbecue. Endorsement from an aging English rock star? Not a good sign.

The sausage, from Rudolph’s, had that maker’s characteristic quality. But Big Al’s did its part by laying a healthy dose of hickory smoke on the links. The spare ribs were some of the best I’ve had in this barbecue tour. The smoke penetrated deeply into the meat, which had great pork flavor and no brininess. The meat remained firm, but not at all tough, with a gorgeous mahogany bark on the outside. Very nice ribs. The beef ribs were also winners. Strong smokiness and a bold beef flavor had me gnawing them down to the bone.

And then there’s the brisket. When I told the pit boss I wanted fattier brisket, he swept aside the decent-looking flat sitting on the cutting board, pulled out a fresh fatty side of brisket, and took the slices right off the gloriously caramelized end. This was the closest thing to eating brisket I’ve had in Dallas—moist, strongly smoky, and with a sweetly blackened crust. While it wasn’t equal to the best brisket I’ve had in Lockhart, it was competitive with the Lockhart average, which is no mean feat. If this was a fluke, so be it, but it’s in the running for the best barbecue meal I’ve had in Dallas.

The question that remains is, “Where else does Rod Stewart eat when he’s in Dallas?”

Scott Craig, a frequent contributor to the online forum Chowhound.com, is serious about meat.

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