Friday, February 28, 2014

Soft on gassers? Not so says Posse member Bruce Tomaso.....

Snow's BBQ pit boss Tootsie Tomanetz tends the pits as the sun rises over Lexington. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

By Bruce Tomaso/Texas BBQ Posse

Gary Jacobson is a friend of mine. He’s a gifted writer, an extraordinary journalist with a sharp wit and a sharper mind.

And he knows his barbecue. He’s been riding with the Posse longer than just about any of us.

So it pains me to say this:

On the subject of gas-fired smokers, Gary Jacobson is full of gas.

A few days ago, he wrote on this blog that “perhaps we have mellowed a bit” on the question of whether meat cooked with gas is worthy of consideration alongside true, wood-smoked Texas barbecue.

“We're just not as militant about using wood as we once were,” he said.

I still haven’t figured out how to leave a comment on this damned blog, even though I’ve been contributing to it, off and on, for a couple of years now.

If I had, Gary and his pro-propane pals would have read this comment from me:

“Speak for yourself, homes.”

I like my gas fireplace at home, because I don’t have to clean out ashes and I can turn it off when I leave.

I like my barbecue cooked with wood, because that’s the way you do it.

Gary’s flawed conclusion was based on Posse visits to a couple of joints that cook with gas and turn out good food. (He actually wrote “damn good” food, a difference that may not be worth quibbling over, even though he’s wrong. It was good.)

Here’s what I say: Scroll back to the top of this page and see what’s written there, plain as a hickory log. The mission of the Texas BBQ Posse, its very raison d’ être, is to travel the state “in search of the greatest smoked meats.”

It says nothing about “good.”

Is it possible to turn out decent barbecue using the same fuel that powers forklifts, Zambonis, and hot air balloons?

I guess it is.

Is it possible to turn out world-class barbecue on a gasser? Divinely inspired barbecue? Smoky, flavorful, perfectly crafted barbecue? The kind that conjures up daily lines at the doors of Franklin, La Barbecue, Pecan Lodge and Hutchins? The kind that devotees gladly drive hundreds of miles to enjoy at Snow’s in Lexington, or Louie Mueller in Taylor, or Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton?

If so, I’ve yet to find it. Until I do, I remain as militant as ever.

In the meantime, I’ll regard my friend Gary’s lapse in judgment as evidence that sometimes even brilliant people can be spectacularly wrong. (Want more evidence? Check out this video.)

Hutchins BBQ in McKinney can hang with Austin's best and it's open all day

(L-R) Jim Rossman, Kathy and Steve Hunt, Gary Jacobson, Michael Landauer, Bruce Tomaso and Gary Barber at Hutchins BBQ. (Photo by Tom Fox)

For quality, the barbecue benchmarks are clear for Tim Hutchins, owner of Hutchins BBQ in McKinney.

"We're shooting for those guys in Austin," Hutchins said during the Posse's recent visit to his joint. He said he and his crew regularly travel to the new BBQ Capital of Texas to sample the fare at places like Franklin BBQ, la Barbecue and John Mueller Meat Co. They also visit Pecan Lodge in Dallas.

But Hutchins is even more ambitious. Many of the top joints in the state are open only a few hours a day. They close when they run out of meat.

"We want to serve great barbecue10 hours a day instead of just 2," Hutchins said. His place, which made Texas Monthly's Top 50 list last year, opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Hutchins BBQ won The Dallas Morning News' recent barbecue poll of readers. The Posse went there with Steve and Kathy Hunt, who live in McKinney and are regulars at the place. Steve won a meal with the Posse. He was randomly selected from among those who Tweeted a link to the poll.

Kathy ordered brisket and chicken. The rest of us -- we totaled 8 -- ordered the all-you-can-eat $16.59 special, which may just be the best barbecue value anywhere.

Everything -- brisket, pork ribs, turkey, chicken, pulled pork, sausage -- was good. The ribs were tremendous.

"These ribs are meat candy," Posse member Tom Fox said.

"This is just too pretty to eat," Posse member Jim Rossman said.

"The rub they apply is ridiculously good," Steve Hunt said.

Rossman and Hunt said they were the best ribs they had eaten in a long time.

Just before cutting and serving, general manager Dustin Blackwell applied a glaze to the ribs. When he stopped by the table, we asked Blackwell the ingredients.

"A real simple sweet glaze," he said, without elaborating.

Trade secret?

Blackwell nodded, smiling.

When Hutchins stopped by our table, he said that his goal is constant improvement. That's why he and and his crew regularly make pilgrimages to other top joints.

"We're trying to be cool," Hutchins said. "We're trying to get into the fraternity."

Hunt, who works for Dell, told Hutchins that he was moving soon to Austin.

"If you ever get ready to open there, I think you can give them a run for their money," he said.

Hutchins laughed.

"I think we've got a little more training to do," he said.

The Posse agrees with Hunt. Hutchins can hang with Austin's best right now. Make room in the BBQ Fraternity.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Baby Back Shak has a new look, same great food

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse member Irwin Thompson alerted us to a remodel at the Baby Back Shak, a longtime Posse favorite joint.

We've always loved the ribs and boudin, along with the turkey and even the Shak beans, but the building, which was totally void of windows, was always very dark and the decor was mid-70s with faded sports photos on the walls.

The way a place looks has never stopped us from enjoying Clarence Cohens great food, but I have to say, the changes -- especially the new front door and wall of windows -- makes a huge difference.

The two sides of the building have been repainted bright red with very bold logos. The side of the building facing downtown remains untouched. Gone is the old smoking pig mascot, replaced by a larger-than-life caricature of Clarence, who's now proud to tell everyone he's the "King of BBQ."

Inside you'll find new gray paint on the walls, and the old, tired photos are gone. A very nice, lighted "BBQ" sign adorns the main dining room, along with a very nice galvanized metal covering on the counter.

The beloved smoking pig logo is gone at the Baby Back Shak.
(Photo by Guy Reynolds)
Tables don't wobble anymore and they're covered with nice checkered tablecloths. The old wooden chairs are gone and very nice, light, sturdy alumnium chairs are quite comfortable.

Clarence teased us with a possible new menu item -- spaghetti with a very flavorful red sauce. We're not sure how serious he is about selling spaghetti, but it was very tasty.

As he came to our table to see how we liked the food, Clarence mentioned he'd just finished filming a "Bar Rescue" type of TV show that should air in late March or early April. He said he'd give everyone plenty of notice when a date was set, so watch this blog or the Posse Facebook page for updates.

The food today was very good. I ordered a brisket and rib platter with two sides of boudin.

The ribs were fantastic as usual. The brisket, while far from perfect, was better than I expected, but could stand to be a bit more trimmed of fat. There also wasn't any visible crust.

Do yourself a favor and order ribs and turkey or just skip to the boudin, which was perfectly cooked, with a crispy snap to the casing and rich, peppery filling that didn't fall apart when I took a bite.

The Shak is the only joint I frequent with boudin on the menu. You can get it as a platter on its own or as a side (or two) on platters with other meats. I'm proud to say a platter with meat and two sides of boudin is known in the Posse as the "Rossman Platter."

I forgot to ask Clarence about the Shak's air conditioner, which is famous for not being able to keep up with demand in the summer months. I'm hoping some of the upgrade budget went for A/C.

It is great to see one of our original favorite places make some much-needed upgrades, and it was even greater to know the food is as good as ever.

Baby Back Shak, 1800 South Akard St., Dallas, 214-428-7427. Open Mon-Thurs 11am-5:45pm, Fri-Sat 11am-6:45pm.

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse photo by Jim Rossman

Posse photo by Jim Rossman


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is the Posse going soft on gassers?

Massive wood pile outside Smitty's Market in downtown Lockhart. (Photo by Jeff Haynes) 

In the 4-year history of this blog, no topic has incited more passion than the wood-fired versus gas-fired smoker debate.

The Posse has been pro-wood. All wood. Almost to an extreme. We once called out Texas Monthly for including gas-fired joints on its Top 50 list.

But perhaps we have mellowed a bit as at least one of us edges ever closer to Medicare eligibility. On our recent Mid-Cities mini-tour, we liked the food at Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse in Arlington even though the ribs and chicken are cooked on gas-fired pits in Terrell and transported to Arlington. Their brisket is cooked on wood-fired Oyler pits.

"It's all about the meat," Posse veteran Jim Rossman said. "No matter how it's cooked."

Jambo Texan sandwich at Jambo's BBQ Shack.
Our trip last year to Jambo's BBQ Shack in Rendon probably started our reconsideration. Run by Jamie Geer, builder of the famous Jambo wood-fired pits, the joint used an Ole Hickory smoker fired by gas and some hickory wood.

"Got to," Geer said when asked why he was using gas.

His food was damn good.

Don't get me wrong. We still favor wood-fired smokers. A trip to La Barbecue in Austin last weekend reinforced that feeling. At the moment, no one in Texas is smoking better brisket than John Lewis. It was terrific.

But at the Posse, we're just not as militant about using wood as we once were.

Besides, there are other considerations. We stood in line two hours at La Barbecue. We walked in, ordered and got our food right away at Crossroads.


Monday, February 17, 2014

The food takes a back seat to the atmosphere at North Main and Hard Eight

A pitmaster tends the smoker at Hard Eight BBQ in Coppell. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

North Main BBQ has lots of fans. We know that. Ever since the very first Posse tour five years ago, readers have told us that we need to get to the Euless joint, which is only open Friday through Sunday.

Tardy but determined, we finally made it during our Mid-Cities mini-tour.

North Main was our second stop, sandwiched between Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse in Arlington and Hard Eight BBQ in Coppell. It was nice, relaxed tour, covering 60 miles in 3 1/2 hours.

After we ordered at North Main and as we were sitting down, a server who discovered we were the BBQ Posse came over and chewed us out.

"We've been open 33 years and you're just now getting here?" he said.

We pleaded guilty. He went and got owners Ray and Hubert Green, son and father, and we had a nice talk while we waited for our food.

In the beginning, the Greens' main business was trucking. You can see the sign -- Green's Trucking -- on the building behind the barbecue joint. Cooking barbecue started as a way for all the subcontractors they worked with to get together and review the week's progress.

"Redneck networking," Ray said.

The sign at North Main BBQ in Euless say it all. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)

As word got out, people started showing up to buy barbecue, ribs, onions and sauces at first. And the Greens started selling. Open initially only from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Fridays, they would sell a couple of hundred pounds of ribs a week.

"You had to call in an order by Wednesday to get it Friday," Hubert said.

Eventually, they expanded into the current building and opened a real joint.

Now boasting "The Best Barbecue Anywhere" and with some "World International" rib championship banners to support the claim, the place cooks about 4,500 pounds of meat a week, Ray said.

That's 1,800 pounds of brisket, 1,800 pounds of ribs, 400 pounds of chicken, 300 pounds of sausage and 200 pounds of pork butts.

"In Texas, barbecue is a food group," he said.

Along with the main production smokers, which are gas-fired with hickory wood added for flavor, the joint also has one of the most unusual rigs we've ever seen: an anatomically correct armadillo. Put wood in the mouth and smoke comes out the tail.

BBQ competition trophies line the wall at Main Street. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com) 

What about the food?

We ordered brisket, ribs, chicken breast, sausage and pulled pork.

"I don't think there were any parts of those meats better than the first place," Posse member Jim Rossman said, comparing North Main and Crossroads Smokehouse.

Other Posse members agreed, with one reservation.

The rib I ate was cooked perfectly. The meat needed only a slight tug to get off the bone. But it could have used more smoke flavor and more kick in the rub.

Ribs & brisket at Main Street BBQ. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves)

Our next stop was Hard Eight, which finished second to Hutchins BBQ in McKinney in the recent readers poll by The Dallas Morning News. Hard Eight is a huge place, like Kreuz Market in Lockhart.

Some of us had been to the Hard Eight in Stephenville, Jewel's favorite bbq joint. But we had not been to the Coppell location.

The setups are similar. The pits are located at the entrance. This allows barbecue to become performance art. As diners get ready to order, they can watch workers shovel hot coals from the burning station into the cooking pits.

For briskets, Hard Eight seals the meat at high temperature on direct heat, then wraps in foil and finishes at much lower heat. Total cooking time can be about 12 hours, a pit tender in a cowboy hat said.

We ordered brisket, ribs, sausage and a specialty item: bacon-wrapped chicken with jalapeño.


Meats on display at Hard Eight BBQ. (Photo by Michael Meadows)

"This sausage is not bad," said Michael Meadows, president of the Dallas Zoological Society, on his first tour with the Posse.

After a few moments, Meadows modified his stance.

"I would move that to outstanding," he said. "I like the jalapeño kick. That's probably why I'm not a big fan of the sausage at Pecan Lodge."

He thinks the sausage at Pecan Lodge, considered by many to be the best joint in North Texas, is a little tame.

Overall, the Posse didn't give the food at Hard Eight high marks.

"The beans are the best thing here," said Georges Badoux, an accomplished chef and custom tour guide making his first trip with the Posse.

Georges got no argument from Posse regulars.

North Main BBQ, 406 N Main St, Euless, 817-267-7821. Open Fri-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 11am-4pm.

Hard Eight BBQ, 688 Freeport Pkwy, Coppell, 972-471-5462. Open Mon-Thurs 10:30am-9pm, Fri-Sat 10:30am-10pm, Sun 10:30am-6pm.

Watching over the pit room at Hard Eight. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)

Diners on a Saturday afternoon at Hard Eight BBQ in Coppell. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)

Hard Eight also has a huge outdoor seating area for barbecue diners. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)


Thursday, February 13, 2014

See the photos: Lockhart Smokehouse Plano is open for business

Lockhart Smokehouse's second location is near the corner of 15th & K Streets in old downtown Plano.
(Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse) 

February 12, 2014, may go down in history as the day great barbecue finally came to Plano. In the past, if you wanted good BBQ and lived in Plano, you had to drive to either south to downtown Dallas or north to McKinney. Sad but true for a city of 272,000. Then Lockhart Smokehouse came to town......

The Posse first met the Lockhart crew when we snuck into the original location in Oak Cliff before they opened in February 2011. Their opening week coincided with the infamous Super Bowl ice storm that paralyzed D/FW that year.

With hard work and determination, they overcame the ominous start to become a top 50 BBQ joint in Texas, as named by Texas Monthly magazine in 2013.  In the world of Texas barbecue, that's a major accomplishment, especially in less than three years. Lockhart Smokehouse has proved to be a pillar in the renaissance of great barbecue in the city of Dallas.

Diners wait to order at Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Co-owners Jeff Bergus and Tim McLaughlin were wanting to establish a second location in Collin County, but were patient enough to find the perfect location. When Tim found this location in the burgeoning dining destination of downtown Plano, they began the hard work to make that happen.

The Plano location is almost exactly the same size as Oak Cliff and the menu is identical. Pitmaster Will Fleishman has moved north to become general manager of the new restaurant. Will is running two large Bewley pits, giving him almost twice the pit capacity of the Oak Cliff location.

With the opening of Lockhart Smokehouse in old downtown Plano, the BBQ drought is finally over in this neck of the woods.

Lockhart Smokehouse, 1026 East 15th St., Plano, 972-516-8900. Open Sun-Sat 11am-9pm or until the meat runs out, bar open until at least midnight.

(L-R) Co-owners Tim McLaughlin and Jeff Bergas pose with general manager Will Fleishman between the dual Bewley pits at Lockhart Smokehouse Plano. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

View from the balcony of Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Mike Singleton cuts meat for Lockhart Smokehouse customers. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Sausage from Kreuz Market in Lockhart is a staple at Lockhart Smokehouse. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Baby Jesus watches over the briskets in the Lockhart Smokehouse pit room.
(Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)


Arlington's Crossroads Smokehouse stands out during the Posse's Mid-Cities mini-tour

Brisket is sliced at Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse in Arlington.  (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com) 

It has been a few months since the Posse went on a barbecue tour. So, it was nice to get back on the trail again this past weekend, if only briefly.

We ate at three joints during a 60-mile, 3 1/2-hour mini-tour through the Mid-Cities between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Over the course of the tour, a couple of Posse members made cameo appearances, but our main group numbered 8, including some newcomers: Michael Meadows, president of the Dallas Zoological Society; Mark Vamos, who holds an endowed chair in business journalism at SMU; and Georges Badoux, an accomplished chef and custom tour guide.

The itinerary for our mini-tour, developed by Jim Rossman, included Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse in Arlington, North Main BBQ in Euless and Hard Eight BBQ in Coppell.

Hard Eight, a chain of three joints, finished a close runner-up to Hutchins BBQ in The Dallas Morning News' recent barbecue poll of reader favorites.

Surprisingly, Crossroads was the standout on the day of our tour. The chicken breast, brisket and sausage were good, the ribs flavorful if a bit mushy, and the homemade bread terrific.

"That bread's great," Meadows said. "Can you imagine making a barbecue sandwich out of it?"

"I just did," Posse member David Woo said.

On tours, the Posse usually avoids side dishes and only eats meat.

"This is big," co-founder Chris Wilkins said. "This place has bread so good the Posse has to eat it."

One reservation. Tour goers agreed that the barbecue at Crossroads and the other places we visited would have benefited from more smoke flavor and spice rubs with more pizzazz.

Crossroads is a big joint located in a strip center across the street from AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. When we stopped Saturday, workers hadn't yet finished installing the letters of the sponsor's name on the near side of the stadium roof. The sign read:

 "A  T  T     T A D I U  "

General Manager Dawn Brooks said Crossroads had been closed for a while, re-opened less than a year ago and now plans to launch night time service -- until 8 p.m.  -- at the end of March.

Our sampler platters of fatty brisket, ribs, chicken and sausage.  (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

She said the place has hosted as many as 3,000 for a tailgate party. There is an outdoor area with tables and a small bandstand behind the restaurant.

Eddie Deen, of course, is the caterer who runs Eddie Deen's Ranch near the Dallas Convention Center. The main staging area for the catering business is in Terrell.

Brooks said the brisket, ribs and chicken we ate were cooked in Terrell and driven to Arlington, an hour away. The sausage was cooked at the Arlington location.

Deen uses Oyler wood-fired pits and Southern Pride smokers, Brooks said, both common brands for large volume operations. Southern Pride's commercial smokers are mainly fired by gas, with some wood used for smoke flavor on their ribs and chicken. Briskets are cooked with all wood on the Oylers.

Meadows, who likes sausage with a little kick, said Crossroads' sausage had "a nice finish." Vamos, the SMU professor, called it "zippy."

Long time readers know everything is usually fair game on this blog. If, for instance, a Posse member confided that his first trip to Louie Mueller's in Taylor was much like his first trip to Wrigley Field when he was overcome by emotion and cried, it just might be published.

But with Vamos, who also reportedly cooks good barbecue, we have some restrictions. Since he does restaurant reviews for The News, we can name him and quote him, but we can't show him in a recognizable photo.

Food critics cherish their anonymity.

For the Posse, anonymity is almost impossible. We show up with so many people, cameras blazing, that it's hard to avoid attention.

Soon after we ordered and found a table at our next stop, North Main, a server came over and let us have it:

"We've been open 33 years and you're just now getting here?" he said.

Technically, it was a question, but it really was an accusation.

Guilty as charged, we said. Show us what you got.

We'll write more about North Main in a future post.

Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse, 1004 N Collins St, Arlington, 817-795-6900. Open Mon-Sat 11am-3pm or until the meat runs out. (Note: Crossroads will be adding evening hours beginning April 15, 2014)

Dining room and counter at Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse. (Photo by Michael Meadows)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An unusual smoker and some BBQ bling at North Main in Euless

North Main BBQ owner Ray Green and his infamous armadillo smoker. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)

Over the years, the Posse has run into some unusual smokers on the barbecue trail, such as Big Baby, used by pitmaster Jeremiah "Baby J" McKenzie.

Saturday we saw another: A 2,200-pound armadillo at North Main BBQ in Euless.

Logs go in the mouth and smoke comes out the tail. This smoker is anatomically correct, right down to its brass balls, says owner Ray Green.

"We made him for the Texas Sesquicentennial so he's in his 28th year," Green said. March 2, Texas Independence Day, is its "unofficial" birthday.

Green said he has hauled the smoker to special events around the country and it always attracts attention.

"We were going through Los Angeles on I-10 by the Staples Center and nobody would pass us until they took a picture," he said. "We were a rolling roadblock."

In a quick, 60-mile tour Saturday, The Posse ate at North Main, Eddie Deen Crossroads Smokehouse in Arlington and Hard Eight BBQ in Coppell. We'll write about the food in later posts.

If you go to North Main, be sure to ask Ray to show you the chain -- made of many miniature gold pigs with diamonds for eyes -- he wears around his neck.

"This is my 401(k)," Green joked.

"Barbecue bling."

North Main BBQ, 406 N Main St, Euless, 817-267-7821. Open Fri-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 11am-4pm.

Ray Green shows his barbecue bling. (Photo ©Daniel Goncalves/Fotobia.com)