Big Q in the Big D: Tradition and Influence on the Dallas BBQ Scene

At its core, barbecue is a study in heat and time and the transformative powers of both to turn something raw and unappetizing into something eminently desirable and sublime. Likewise, we’ve seen the Dallas barbecue scene transform over the years like a chest after an all-night cook. The Texas barbecue tradition is rooted in small towns, while big cities like Dallas were rarely considered a mecca for good barbecue.

But with the resurgence of Central Texas-style barbecue that sparked the “artisanal” barbecue revolution, the Dallas barbecue scene naturally evolved, and over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the birth of barbecue joints from the city now mentioned in the pantheon. big ones. While the town’s barbecue history may not match that of Hill Country, it’s still home to some long-running spots. These old habits, along with the restaurants that took root in the barbecue boom, influence upstart barbecue joints that are still writing their own stories before our eyes.

Click to enlarge

Smokey John’s Three Meat Platter.

Dalila Thomas

The old guard

During the first decade after the turn of the century, the Dallas barbecue scene was a big city melting pot. Part of that comes from the Texas roots of barbecue. If you find someone who grew up in Texas, chances are they have a barbecue restaurant in their town that was the go-to. And as a Texas native and current Observer Food writer Lauren Drewes Daniels once explained to me, “Small towns don’t eat other small town barbecue. » (Editor’s note: especially if we play football.)

Dallas is a big city, and big cities meant catering to the masses, not small towns where the famous Texas barbecue was making hay. Chains like Dickey’s, Spring Creek, or even Dallas-native Sonny Bryan’s serve barbecue that feeds the masses, but lacks artistry. That’s not to say Dallas didn’t have gems.

In 1976 John Reaves opened Big John’s Barbecue on the corner of Lemmon and Mockingbird, and after a fire in the pit room filled the restaurant with smoke, he renamed his restaurant Smokey John’s.

“Since the 1970s, the essence of who our father was and the service he provided has remained the same,” says Brent Reaves, who along with his brother Juan took over their father’s restaurant. “These intangible things are why people become loyal customers.”

In 1978, James Meshack opened the first of four eponymous barbecues in South Dallas. Meshack’s daughter Donna took over the Garland location when her father died suddenly in 1986. And in Cedars, Tennessee, Tennessee native Clarence Cohens brought his own Memphis-style barbecue influences to the Texas when he opened Baby Back Shak in the late 90s.

While spots like Smokey John’s, Meshack’s and Baby Back Shak have their history, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to change.

“We had to step up our game. Our chest process is only taking three times longer than it did 10 years ago,” says Reaves. “We tweaked some of our family recipes to create more flavor. We didn’t want to be left behind.”

These restaurants and many more were still practicing the art of barbecuing and building their own loyal following in an era before social media, when the internet was past its infancy, but was still just a toddler. Things were going to change soon enough.

Click to enlarge Pecan Lodge brisket, ribs and sausage.  -CATHERINE DOWNES

Pecan Lodge brisket, ribs and sausage.

Catherine Downes

The revolutionaries

It used to take years of hard work for a barbecue to have a loyal following. Then came social media. A new generation of pit masters has arrived on the scene, and what they lacked in provenance, they made up for in dedication to the way barbecue was done by the old masters. The timing was perfect, as the internet had spawned a new kind of food lover, one who shopped at farmers markets, drank craft beers and shared their discoveries on social media. The barbecue had gone viral.

The barbecue boom has swept away new joints and old ones. Pecan Lodge put Dallas on the barbecue map in 2010 with lines snaking through the Dallas Farmers Market and a nod from Texas monthly as the second-best barbecue in the state in 2013. Pecan Lodge’s start-up came after Justin and Diane Fourton quit their consulting jobs to open a barbecue catering business. As the restaurant built its reputation, the Fourtons learned of the City of Dallas’ plan to redevelop Shed 2 at the Farmers’ Market into a specialty food building. Pecan Lodge’s modest counter in Shed 2 quickly became the center of the Dallas barbecue universe. Around the time their reputations began their meteoric rise, other future Dallas barbecue legends were just in their infancy.

Cattleack Barbecue filled time during Todd David’s retirement – ​​a small warehouse catering business in Farmers Branch. Customers eventually convinced him to open for lunch one day a week. David’s BBQ was good, but he struggled to get consistent quality beef from his suppliers.

“I just wasn’t excited about big companies and the ups and downs of their products,” David recalls. His supplier told him about a ranch in central Texas raising Akaushi beef, one of four breeds known as wagyu. After getting his hands on HeartBrand’s Wagyu Beef Brisket, David knew he had found the consistent quality he was looking for.

In the Design District, Maple and Motor’s Jack Perkins have launched Slow Bone, a quality barbecue promising the masses. The barbecue’s growing popularity meant long lines and quick sales at places like Pecan Lodge and Lockhart’s. Perkins claimed to have solved the riddle and promised extended hours with no sale or sale of yesterday’s leftovers. Perkins had plenty of experience running Dallas’ Maple & Motor burger joint, but the foray into barbecue was unfamiliar territory for the restaurateur. Shortly after opening, Perkins hired longtime Dallas chef Jeffrey Hobbs to bring a chef’s sensibility to the barbecue world.

And in Fort Worth, Travis Heim had started making pop-ups to scratch his meat-smoking itch, which turned into the Heim Barbecue food truck in 2015. The burnt ends of the chest were already considered a bite of barbecue nirvana, but Heim turned the burnt end on its head when he started drying pork belly seasoning cubes and then sautéing them in his smoker. Heim’s bacon-scorched ends became the talk of the town, and Heim’s success led to a Dallas location in 2020.

Click to enlarge The Jabo sandwich from Smokey Joe's: chopped brisket, baked beans topped with jalapeños - KATHY TRAN

The Jabo sandwich from Smokey Joe’s: chopped breast, baked beans garnished with jalapeños

Kathy Tran

And after

Even though we believe that the popularity of barbecue could one day peak, we have given up on predicting when that will happen. New entrants enter the fray with regularity, influenced by the successes of their predecessors as well as the legendary names in the trade. But with a cuisine so steeped in tradition, the question becomes how to stand out.

For some, like Kris Manning’s Smokey Joe’s BBQ, it meant relearning everything he knew about barbecuing after buying his father’s restaurant in 2013. Manning added a pair of quirky new smokers to the restaurant, then painfully removed the old steel and brick smoker his father had built. in 1985.

“They kept starting fires,” Manning said, after realizing he couldn’t risk his restaurant because of sentimentality. While aware of his clientele who loved his father’s barbecue, Manning knew he would need to evolve to stay relevant.

“Growing up, I used to go to my dad’s restaurant and I would never eat at any other barbecue places,” Manning told us in 2020. is going to different barbecue places.” Manning’s success has come from keeping his longtime customers happy while cooking up a barbecue that has fans all over the area raving.

For other newcomers, barbecue mixes with other cultures and cuisines with great results. In 2018, Zavala’s BBQ in Grand Prairie taught us that beef brisket can still be stellar when served with tortillas and its magic green salsa. Blending Zavala’s Hispanic heritage with typical Texas cuisine yields impressive results. And in East Dallas, Loro brings a touch of Asia to Texas thanks to chefs Tyson Cole of Uchi and Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. Led by masters of their respective cuisines, Loro blends two cooking styles in new and imaginative ways.

While we are certainly students of tradition when it comes to Texas barbecue, the history of the kitchen, itself a blend of traditions and cultures, is something we will always respect, especially when a barbecue shows that level of pride on the menu. . But it’s hard to ignore where barbecue is heading, as even more fusion of cultures and cuisines produces barbecue that’s still top-notch with unique twists that deliver something new and exciting. Texas is a big state, and at our big barbecue table, we’re thrilled when old-school and new-school joints have a seat to share their stories.

Read here to find out what we consider Dallas’ must-have barbecue.

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