Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Heading east to Big Smith's Bar-B-Q in Sulphur Springs

We first heard of Big Smith's Bar-B-Q after our first East Texas BBQ Tour story was published in The Dallas Morning News a couple of years ago. Several readers wrote to tell us we had missed the best BBQ in East Texas. They urged us to visit Big Smith's, located 8 miles south of Sulphur Springs on on Hwy 154.

We put it on the list and intended to get there for a visit. The problem was, we always try to hit two or more joints when we head out of town, getting a sample of BBQ available in the area. Quite frankly, we couldn't find a decent BBQ joint anywhere nearby. And that's good for business as far as owner/pitmaster Steve Smith is concerned.

We drove right by Big Smith's the first time, the little BBQ joint made out of an old barn kind of sneaks up on you. We hooked a u-turn and pulled in the gravel parking lot. As usual, Marshal Cooper and I started our visit by trying to do some intel around the pits and woodpile.

Around the corner came a big guy who looked like he owned the place. "Can I help you with something." he asked. Marshall responded how we came from Dallas, how he was a backyard cook, how we love to eat BBQ.

The tension was broken and that's how we met Steve Smith, aka "Big Smith." They were past the lunch rush, so we nibbled on a three-meat plate and talked the barbecue with Steve for most of the next hour. He has been in business for 22 years and knows the BBQ business inside and out.

Big Smith's is a very comfortable joint, with peanut shells on the floors. The walls are covered with taxidermy, antiques and country kitsch. Thousands of empty Tabasco bottles line the ledges near the ceiling in the main dining room. That's a lot of heat that has been consumed at Big Smith's over the years. In fact, Steve says he ran out of room for more bottles five years ago.

The joint has been added onto twice and now seats around 100 customers. We saw a steady stream of folks stop by on the lazy Thursday afternoon we were there. He says they are always full for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.

"I'd rather have a small place that's full than a big place that's half full," Steve says.

We ended up ordering a three-meat plate with two sides. Unfortunately they were out of ribs, though both pork and beef ribs are on the menu. We had already visited another joint that day, Fatboy's BBQ in Ladonia, so we opted for a double order of brisket and one of smoked turkey. For sides we got fried okra and french fries.

Both meats were smokey and cooked well. The turkey was tremendous, reminding me of the turkey at Stanley's Famous Pit BBQ in Tyler, which is among the best I've had. The lean brisket had a good smoke ring and crust and wasn't too dry, sometimes an issue with the flat end of the brisket.

After we ordered, I was busy taking photos as a couple of the locals got their orders. Marshall urged me over to check out the chicken fried steak one of them had ordered. It was as big around and three times thicker than the dinner plate it came on, topped by Texas toast. This steak could feed a family of four.

The guy who ordered it said Big Smith's chicken fried steak is legendary in the area. I watched as he polished his off his meal, no problem. He smiled and said, "If you think this looks good, you better try the onion rings next time."

Note to self: Always check in with the regulars and locals before ordering at a new place.....

Big Smith's Bar-B-Q, 9601 Texas 154, Sulphur Springs, 903-383-2706. Open Wed-Sat 11 am-9 pm, Sun 11 am-2:30 pm.‎

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Monday, February 27, 2012

Details are leaking out on BBQ Pitmasters season 3

We've been watching closely as little tidbits have been floating to the surface on season three of BBQ Pitmasters on TLC.

Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper and I were over visiting Jambo BBQ pit builder Jamie Geer in Burelson last month when we first caught wind of the new season. Jamie casually mentioned that a producer from Pitmasters had just called him that morning and TLC was proceeding with another season.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Smokey John's BBQ on Gaston in Dallas - a quick look

Posse member Guy Reynolds checks in after a visit to Smokey John's Bar-B-Que and Home Cooking, located one block southwest of Gaston & Haskell in Dallas. This is a lesser-known second location of Smokey John's, the original one is located on Mockingbird Lane.

We've done several stories at The Dallas Morning News about owner/pitmaster John “Smokey” Reaves and bible study services held at the original location for many years. 

Here's Guy's mini review:

I went to Smokey John's on Gaston by Baylor Hospital last week.

Although it's in my 'hood, easy walking or riding distance from home, it'd been eight or nine years since I'd been in there because I remember being underwhelmed the time I tried it before. It was actually pretty good.

Ribs were tasty but not fall-off-the-bone tender like I prefer. They were pink through to the bone and had nice smoke flavor. The rub was practically non-existent though.

Brisket, cut from the fatty end, was excellent and required no sauce.

The pork was cut from what looked to be a butt or a shoulder? I'm not pork pro but it definitely wasn't the usual pulled pork served most places; it was sliced like brisket. It was a tad on the overdone side and dry but very tasty.

I had sauce served on the side and barely used it.

The side dishes, yams and collard (or mixed?) greens, were both excellent accompaniments.

Here's a link to Smokey John's website and menu.

Smokey John's BBQ, 3909 Gaston Avenue, Dallas, 214-515-0787. Open Mon-Turs 11 am-4 pm., Fri 11am-6 pm, Sat 11 am-4 pm.

Photos ©Guy Reynolds

Friday, February 24, 2012

More BBQ Signs of Our Times

Odom’s Bar-B-Que, 1971 Singleton Boulevard, Dallas.

A Posse rule of thumb: The more homemade the sign, the more down home the barbecue.

BBQ Signs of our Times is back again, this time with a mix of new and historic photos. This is our fifth blog post on classic BBQ signs.

If you happen to see a cool sign while you're out on the Texas BBQ Trail, please snap a photo and keep us in mind. If you're a fan of our Texas BBQ Posse Facebook page, you can upload a photo for us to include on a future BBQ signs blog post.


Waiting in line at Franklin Barbecue, Austin. 
FDR passes Joe's Barbecue in Dallas, date & photographer unknown.
BBQ wood for sale, near Lancaster.  Photo by Guy Reynolds
1940: Sign on highway from in Pineville, Louisiana.  Photo by Marion Post Walcott/FSA
 Augie's Barbed Wire Smokehouse Barbecue, San Antonio.   Photo by Gary Barber
1940: Big Chief Barbecue stand near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia.  Photo by Marion Post Walcott/FSA 
The original Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse BBQ, 202 Inwood Road, Dallas.
Menu on butcher paper at Franklin Barbecue, Austin.
The sign you don't want to see at Franklin Barbecue, Austin.

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse, unless otherwise credited.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The wood versus gas BBQ debate rages on: "extramsg" responds to his critics

We were introduced to blogger and Portland, Oregon, deli owner extramsg last week when he responded to Gary Jacobson's post The wood versus gas BBQ debate continues as we analyze a Southern Pride recipe.

His take on the piece? "Ah, bullshit."

You can read his initial comment under the original blog post to get the gist of his argument. Basically, he says that he can cook BBQ every bit as smokey as the best wood-fired Texas BBQ joints on his gas-burning Southern Pride oven.

To that, I say: "Ah, bullshit."

When extramsg sent a lengthly followup comment last night, we felt it deserved a separate post to further the lively wood vs. gas debate.

It's an emotional issue to say the least, but please read his comments with an open mind and let us know what you think. (Note: The Daniel that extramsg refers to is Daniel Vaughn, aka the BBQ Snob, who writes the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. Daniel also weighed in on the wood vs. gas debate.)

extramsg writes:

Pastrami and BBQ brisket are different, for sure, but I have made BBQ brisket many times in both an electric Cookshack and a Southern Pride (and by more traditional methods). eg, we do a BBQ day twice a year (4th of July and Labor Day) at K&Z where we serve about 400 covers of Q along with our usual deli stuff.

I personally own a Cookshack. But before K&Z opened full-time in its current location, we spent two years making it in a barrel smoker with a firebox. Once a week was deli, once a week was BBQ. So I'm very aware of the differences in the products they produce. (And it's probably worth noting that I'm a KCBS certified judge and have judged events, have eaten at many of the major BBQ joints in the country, have written articles surveying BBQ in the NW, etc.)

The question I have for all of you, though, is whether you've done the same? Daniel, have you ever tested it? I know a couple people there in Dallas that would probably be happy to lend you their Cookshacks for the testing. Do the same rub, meat, wood, and temp and blind taste the difference?

Personally, I find the most difficult issue for some of the electrics to be a good bark, since some max at 250 degrees and are so small the humidity is very high inside. However, I've had no problem getting really nice barks on pork butts. And the Southern Pride we have has convection fans and can go hotter than 250, making bark easy enough to produce.

But the issue here was smoke. Truth is it's VERY easy to make BBQ smoky in an electric or gas that uses chunks or split wood. Why don't more places do it Texas where smokiness is such a traditional component? I have no clue. Why do so many places have shitty sides, chewy ribs, and undercooked or dry meats? None of that is a matter of the equipment either.

Daniel, you had the pastrami and the stuff I made was a hell of a lot smokier than what I got at Lockhart a couple days later. And that smoke flavor had to compete with the cure flavor. (Normally I'd make it less smoky but I was using pecan, which I hadn't used before, and so used extra thinking it might be like a fruit wood rather than the oak I usually use.)

I think it would be worthwhile to stop echoing some know-it-all's professed expertise on some BBQ forum or blog, passing it down like oral history that's more myth than science. No more unearned snobbery based on faulty logic about all-wood vs wood-electric vs wood-gas.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

BBQ trip to Uncle Willie's and Mama E's in east Fort Worth

In our never ending quest to find the best BBQ joints in Texas, Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper and I recently headed west to Fort Worth to check out a couple of places we hadn't been yet. Both joints, Uncle Willie's BBQ and Mama E’s Bar-B-Q & Homestyle Cooking, are on the east side of town on Rosedale Ave., located about ten minutes apart.

The Posse went on a Fort Worth BBQ tour in spring 2010, but we were trying to find a new stop or two beyond our two favorites from that tour. After that trip, Off the Bone in Forest Hills and Longoria's BBQ in Everman have become a perennial Posse favorites, the kind of places we send out-of-towners who want to try some really good Texas BBQ on the west side of the Metroplex.

A group of MedStar paramedics enjoy lunch at Mama E's BBQ.

Our plan was to order sliced brisket and pork ribs at each place, the basic staples of judgement for any good Texas BBQ joint. We were first to arrive as Uncle Willie's opened for weekday lunch at 11 a.m. It's located at the southwest corner of Rosedale St. and Miller Ave., in a somewhat desolate part of east Fort Worth. I had high hopes for this joint after a stellar 4-star review by BBQ Snob Daniel Vaughn.

Seeing the empty parking lot, I jumped out to get a good, clean photo of the building before the front was blocked by cars. Within a minute the guys working inside poked their heads outside, curiously asking me what I was up to. Just like to take photos of where I eat, I responded. We were hoping to meet owner Willie Brown, brother of Off the Bone owner Eddie Brown, but he unfortunately wasn't around that day.

Wood rack in front of Uncle Willie's BBQ.
Marshall Cooper tries the pork rib at Uncle Willie's.

It took 15 minutes or so to get our order as the brisket "wasn't quite ready yet." I've heard that now several times over the past couple of years and it usually means you're going to get some chewy brisket that needs to be cooked another hour. That certainly was the case here. On the other hand, the ribs were meaty and tremendous. They were cooked perfectly with a nice rub and a kiss of smoke, definitely setting us up for a return visit, where hopefully we can meet Willie Brown and get a pit tour for Marshall.

Americana on the walls at Uncle Willie's BBQ.
Our lunch of sliced brisket and pork ribs at Uncle Willie's BBQ.

We headed east on Rosedale St. for our next stop at Mama E's Bar-B-Q & Homestyle Cooking, which is located just southeast of the intersection with I-35 West. I'm always a sucker for any restaurant occupying an original 60's style KFC building, and this was no exception.

Our reception was a little more friendly than Uncle Willie's as Tamila Edmond greeted us with a smile at the register. There's a huge dry-erase white board just to the left of the counter with dozens of dining choices, both BBQ and soul food. We ordered our standard sliced brisket and ribs, with white bread and sauce on the side. I'm pretty sure we missed some great sides and other offerings, as detailed in this recent review of Mama E's.

Decisions, decisions at the menu board at Mama E's BBQ.
Our sliced brisket and rib lunch at Mama E's.

Marshall and I got our order and dug in. The meats were average, especially when compared to Uncle Willie's. The brisket had a roast beefy quality, dry and overcooked by most standards. It was probably better chopped and sauced and served on a bun. The ribs were cooked well, but short on rub with little or no smoke.

Our conclusion is that Mama E's in probably not a place for Texas BBQ hardcores looking for the best joints in the state. Tamila and her mom Ernestine, aka Mama E, could not have been more gracious and nice to us during our visit. However, it's a friendly family restaurant, serving good food with a loyal following. Also known as the ingredients of a successful restaurant.

Ernestine "Mama" Edmond and her youngest daughter Tamila work the counter and the kitchen.

  • Mama E’s Bar-B-Q & Homestyle Cooking, 818 E. Rosedale, Fort Worth, 817-877-3322. Open Sun-Mon 11 am-5:30 pm, Tues-Thur 11 am-7 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-9 pm. 
  • Uncle Willie's BBQ, 1506 Miller Ave., Fort Worth, 866-930-8156. Open Tues-Sat 11 am-7 pm.
Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pit Talk: Tips for choosing a backyard smoker

You have visited plenty of stops on the Texas BBQ Trail and know what good BBQ is. You've experimented on the grill in the backyard, but need to buy the proper equipment to take the next step of becoming a serious backyard pit master.

Here are a few simple tips and options to help you make the choice.

Determine how many people you want to cook for at one time, how often you will be cooking and  how much you want to spend. 

Slow smoking meats in the backyard is a considerable time commitment so consider the cost of a smoker as an investment that will help cook higher quality BBQ.

A good BBQ smoker is well-built with plenty of airflow, good draw and maintains steady & even temperatures at the grate. It also needs to be large enough to cook on while minimizing radiant heat from burning the meats. 

Insulated Smokers will tremendously help produce steady temperatures and heat over long periods of time, which is crucial for making good BBQ. Selecting a functional smoker to cook backyard BBQ to meet your criteria can be overwhelming due to the hundreds of choices out there. 

There are many different pits designs to choose from: bullet, off-set aka log burner/stick burner (which is an indirect type design with the firebox off set to one side), gravity fed charcoal, kamado ceramic cookers and pellet cookers. 

Electric and gas oven smokers have been purposely omitted by the author.

Below is a short list of some smokers that vary in design, size, results, and price. Again it gets down to the level of commitment you are prepared to pursue.

Smoker Name: Smoker Design Size Cost Fuel Insulated Firebox Website Comments
Barbeques Galore Offset Smoker

Off-set/stick burner N/A $349 Charcoal, wood chunks No
light gauge construction, possible initial entry-level for backyard, maintaining even temps for long periods could be challenging

Big Drum Smoker (BDS) Small

Direct small $475 Wood logs, charcoal No N/A
Big Green Egg (BGE)

Charcoal, wood chunks small N/A Charcoal, wood chunks Yes widely used by backyard cooks and competition pit masters
Brinkman - Professional Charcoal Grill

Off-set/stick burner small $379 Charcoal, wood chunks No
light gauge construction, possible initial entry-level for backyard, maintaining even temps could be challenging

Charbroil - American Gourmet Deluxe Offset Smoker

Off-set/stick burner N/A $158 Charcoal, wood chunks No
light gauge construction, possible initial entry-level for backyard, maintaining even temps could be challenging

Gator - Backyard Classic
Off-set/stick burner 20" x 32" $1450+ Wood Logs No N/A
Horizon (Smokey Joe) - 20" Classic Backyard Smoker

Off-set/stick burner 20" x 36" $995 Wood Logs No Well built.
Jambo Pits Backyard Model

Off-set/stick burner 24 inch diameter - 48 inch length with 24 X 24 X 20 insulated firebox $1800 Wood Logs Yes good build quality, cook very well, holds the heat and temps steady due to the insulated firebox and design.

Off-set/stick burner 24 inch diameter - 48 inch length $2395 Wood Logs No N/A
Lang 36" Smoker Cooker Model

Off-set/stick burner 36 inch length $949 Wood Logs No Smaller models are widely used by backyard cooks and the larger models used by competition pit masters
MAK Pellet - 1 Star General

Pellet Cooker N/A $1299+ Pellets No N/A
Stumps – Baby Model
Gravity-fed charcoal
  • Height with stack and caster 49” inches;
  • Depth with thermometer 24 1/2” inches;
  • Width with ball valve 36” inches;
$1350+ Charcoal, wood chunks Yes widely used by backyard cooks and competition pit masters
Superior – SS2 Model
Gravity-fed charcoal N/A $1900 Charcoal, wood chunks Yes widely used by backyard cooks and competition pit masters
Traeger - Junior Model

Pellet Cooker N/A $399 Pellets No N/A
Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM)