When popping into a Texas barbecue restaurant to try one of the state's signature dishes, include in your pre-meal prayer a nod to the patience that went into preparing that smoked meat you're about to savor. "Patience is a virtue" may sound a bit proverbial, but it's also a trait that the state's pit masters know quite well, especially when it comes to smoking the cut that Texans prize the most: beef brisket.
"Our brisket cooks for 15 to 18 hours, depending on their size and how many briskets we're cooking on the pit at the same time," notes Justin Fourton, whose restaurant Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum consistently is ranked among the top five barbecue spots in the Dallas area.
"Regardless of what someone is cooking—brisket, ribs, sausage, etcetera—the main thing is to be patient and not try to rush the cooking process," he said. "Be sure to leave plenty of time for your food (to) cook—it's better to have it finish a little early and keep it warm in the oven or a cooler than to take it off too soon ... the extra resting time will actually help improve the quality of large cuts like brisket and pork butts."
A Native Beginning
Many historians credit the Caddo Indians as Texas' first barbecue pit masters more than a thousand years ago when they cooked venison and other game they caught over smoldering wood in the eastern part of the state.
The Caddos would be joined in the late 1600s by Spanish settlers who brought their own style of cooking meat, barbacoa, with them, and then, in the 1830s, in central Texas, by German and Czech immigrants whose markets sold fresh-butchered meat, yet smoked the leftovers in enclosed vessels for longer safekeeping.
Enter cattle drives in the late 1860s that followed the Chisholm Trail northward to Kansas railheads, during which thousands of cowhands and trail drivers were fed from the flocks they tended and took their style of cooking, now more universally known as “barbecue,” with them. Northerners respected it enough that they would adopt their own styles and variations regionally. Back in Texas, meanwhile, the evolution continued: There became not only east, south and central styles, but also west, each varying with such factors as what kind of pit or smoker is used or what sort of wood is burned.
Brisket Is King
When newcomers to Texas try some ’cue for the first time at one of the nearly 2,500 such restaurants or joints that exist today (the most in any U.S. state), they generally can expect meat cooked more in the central or Hill Country style. And the star dish that will be presented to them will be the beloved brisket. Cut from the breast of a cow where the meat is marbly and fat, a brisket can weigh eight to 20 pounds, with the average size tipping the scales at a dozen.
Usually sliced in front of customers as they begin to snake through a barbecue line, a slow-cooked brisket done right will feature a blackened outer layer that reveals juicy, inner layers of beige and faint pink as the slicer's sharp knife glides through the slab. First-timers in line also are wise to order up some sausage—spicy, Czech-and German-influenced links, also steeped in the central tradition—if they want to say they've tried Texas barbecue. They might add a third smoked meat—say, some beef ribs, chicken or pork—to the plate, and then it's time to decide on such sides as baked beans, cole slaw, collard greens or potato salad. (Note: One side usually is plenty, because of the hearty meat servings already received. Grab a Shiner Bock beer for an occasional palate refresher, and the only task that remains is trying to put down the fork.)
Sauce in Texas is more of an afterthought. It generally is served on the side, if at all; many Lone Star barbecue aficionados eschew it. However, some joints are known particularly for their sweet yet spicy, tomato-rich concoction and recommend it for such cuts as beef ribs or pulled-pork or brisket sandwiches.
The Life of a Pit Master
Smoking a brisket is a process that can take up to 24 hours and easily fill a pit master’s day. Most minders of the pits use horizontally shaped, offset smokers, which feature a wood chamber for mesquite, post oak, hickory or cherry wood to the right and a central chamber through which smoke and controlled heat pass to the main grill on the left.
For Matt Dallman, co-owner and pit master of 18th & Vine restaurant in Dallas, brisket prep on his Oyler smoker, manufactured in nearby Mesquite, begins with a mustard slather on the hunks of meat and then coating and letting them sit in a "good rub" of seasonings at least six hours, "up to 12 hours if you can."
As for actual smoker time, "I recommend brisket 12 to 15 hours," he said.
Dallman's restaurant actually serves Kansas City-style barbecue, including ribs, yet has ranked as a top newcomer to the Dallas scene since opening in 2015. He learned to cook barbecue in KC-area competitions and met his Baylor Bear wife, Kimi, while both were in college—he was attending the University of Kansas at the time. At KU, he also gained an appreciation for jazz through a course he took. From that confluence, the 18th & Vine name was born: It’s eponymous with the KC intersection where that city's own form of barbecue would rise, along with music played by such jazz greats as Count Basie and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Guests to the Dallas reincarnation are treated to a 1930s, speakeasy decor, replete with a jazz club upstairs.
Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum has helped up the ante of the culinary art even higher, but it does have longtime Texas roots.
The menu at Pecan Lodge is a combination of cooking styles and family recipes from Justin Fourton's and wife Diane's Texas grandparents; its name comes from his grandfather's ranch near Abilene. When they first started serving barbecue at the Dallas Farmers Market, the Fourtons basically were starting a catering business that served up brisket for the masses to taste and buy. Long lines soon followed. When the farmers market space eventually was sold, the Fourtons plunged deeply into their savings to open their Deep Ellum restaurant space, where long lines for their fare remain.
The Dallas Observer, in fact, says Pecan Lodge's is "Dallas' bar-none best brisket."
"I think our focus on quality and authenticity is what sets ours apart," Fourton said of his brisket-cooking style.
Don't Forget the Burnt Ends
Pecan Lodge and 18th & Vine both also feature an item that continues to sizzle in popularity among newer barbecue fans: burnt ends. Pit masters cut up the shorter-ended, more fatty portion of the brisket, known as "the point," to make these shorter strips of downright delicacy that burst in flavor.
"Burnt ends are a special cut of meat that is highly marbled, extra smoky and glazed with our barbecue sauce," said Fourton. "They are only available in limited quantities and usually sell out fast."
Dallman, meanwhile, pulls points from his big Oyler smoker, after a lengthy cooking time, and then “post-cooks” the ends further in a smaller smoker. Burnt ends, he said, are "kind of a trademark of Kansas City barbecue,” but added, "I think there's a growing popularity of burnt ends in Texas, especially with as brisket-centric as the state is.
"Fifteen years ago, I had to explain to people what ‘burnt ends’ were, but now it's kind of what everybody comes in for."
Along with any other form of Texas barbecue, of course.