An Englishman in BBQ Sauce
British barbecue lover Gavin Cleaver girds his loins at Lockhart Smokehouse.
Leaving the cozy confines of the British countryside and pretty much everyone I'd ever met 5,000 miles away wasn't an easy thing to do. I'm still surprised I did it. I didn't grow up (in Watford, and then the Cotswolds, since you're asking) thinking to myself, "One day, I'd really like to live in Texas." We Europeans have a very fixed idea about what Texas must be like, and those fixed ideas aren't immensely appealing. Many of those stereotypes have been confirmed. There is a surfeit of hats, trucks and guns (I had never seen a live gun before moving out here, and then a friend took me to a gun show downtown, and I am yet to recover), a mind-boggling amount of freeways and roads, precious little rain and intense heat.
I have, however, been surprised on many levels. First, you guys are some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met. In Britain, we treat each other with a lingering sense of suspicion, and if someone tries to talk to one of us, we normally take it to mean they are either insane or want something. That's if we can hear them over the howling rain and the deafening roar of our own indifference. In Texas, people try to be genuine, nice and personable. It's a world of difference, and I would think the effect has been doubled by my accent, which means I get treated like an unwilling minor celebrity wherever I go (my favorite example of this being a group of Mexicans in a downtown sushi bar insisting on buying me shots all evening just so I would keep talking in a progressively more slurred British accent).
Second, the food has been a revelation. I'm fairly sure, as a sweeping generalization, that we Brits don't have the most discerning palates. We are well-known for our deeply bland foods, for stodgy, hearty meals that occupy the stomach for days. I was prepared before I moved for every restaurant to be a McDonald's-style chain, and them all to be full of people on mobility scooters. It turns out that is only one in every four restaurants, which has been a very pleasant surprise.
The mystique of Texas barbecue appealed massively to me. In Britain, a barbecue is something you do in between rainstorms, in the six weeks or so of good weather we get once every two or three years (we're also fantastic at complaining about the weather in Britain), and it always features a previously frozen hamburger, an unwilling chicken leg and, for the extremely adventurous, a lone sausage. A packet of crisps and a lettuce are purchased as prime accompaniments, and everyone has a beer. These are big events for us. If we hear a friend of a friend is planning on braving the weather forecast and putting on a barbecue on a Saturday, we'll be round there at 11 a.m., thus ensuring access to the eighth-of-a-pound hamburger and the pick of the Tesco sesame seed buns.
The first time I stepped into the original Sonny Bryan's, I was mesmerized. Everything was made of wood, we all sat at school desks, the sauce was like some sort of delicious alien goo and nothing mattered except the meat (well, maybe their dinner-plate sized onion rings). Even though I'd never really written a blog in my life, I thought I'd write one about this, as it was my favorite thing about Texas so far.
I wrote one blog, posted it to reddit.com to see if anyone would like it, and there it was picked up by the Observer's esteemed web editor and person subsequently responsible for the blogs of the last few months, Nick Rallo. He decided that a confused man with no experience or even frame of reference regarding what he was eating was the perfect fit for the Observer's food blog, which was clearly full of too many people who were eating things they were vaguely aware of. My complete inability to distinguish between "good" and "bad" (except in the case of Dickey's, which was like eating a child's sandpit) when it comes to barbecue is alive and well. Really, it's all good. A pile of smoked meat is a wonderful thing. I am sure there are many tricks, important techniques and key things to remember when making good barbecue. I remain totally unaware of any of these aspects, or how they might relate to the flavour of the meat. In this way, I remain fresh, the virgin that Nick first exploited, if you will (and I know he will).
I rather like it here in Dallas. I have picked up an excellent job I enjoy up in Lewisville, I spend my spare time writing this absolute bunkum you currently read and I grow fatter and fatter at an alarming rate. Treating the entire journey like an adventure, which is I think the best way to tackle being ripped out of your comfort zone, country and continent for a few years, means that you purposely seek out new and strange situations, leaving you with some tall tales to tell when you return to wherever it is you're from. Really, all that's left of an adventure after it ends are the stories you can tell. As an English barbecue writer in Texas, I've been to some weird places, had some bizarre stories to tell and eaten myself half to death, so I must be having a hell of an adventure.
Hard Eight BBQ
This place looks serious about barbecue. There's smoke everywhere (seriously, standing in line is both delicious and uncomfortable) and its two barbecues are larger than most English front rooms.
It's like a festival of meat. This place is very different to my two usual lunch-time hangouts (Mike Anderson's and Sonny Bryan's). I have to order the meat from a man at the front (a task made awkward by my accent, like every other interaction in Dallas), get it weighed by the pound, and then take it through a roller coaster of sides, desserts and bread.
I get a half pound of brisket and a half pound of sausage ($16), my stepson gets a half pound of sirloin and some ... brush poppers? I think it was chicken wrapped in bacon ($11). My friend gets brisket and jalapeño sausage.
Our brisket is cut from the new brisket, wrapped in foil at the back of the barbecue. I luck out and get the blackened and crispy end piece. I should point out at this juncture I haven't eaten in a day, simply to prepare myself for this moment. I am having to restrain myself from jumping as he struggles to unwrap the foil using only a knife. "QUICKER! USE SOME TONGS!" I don't say, as I am English and thus very polite. I take it inside, and I am angry at the sides. Angry.
They have no business here. Why would I want corn at this juncture?
Someone in the line asks me where I'm from. I get this question a lot, and normally deal with it very well, with small talk and friendly discussion. Not today, sunshine. "LONDON!" I snap, and then immediately turn back to the line, which has ground to a halt because some simpleton has picked out the wrong side and is exchanging it. "LEAVE THE SIDES! THEY'RE POINTLESS!" I inwardly cry. Again though, I am polite to a fault, and simply stare at his head in fury.
I find all the barbecue sauce (both original and red apple cider barbecue sauce), pour them into cups and walk-run outside with my prize, leaving my stepson to fend for himself in the cruel world of barbecue, asking if there is any tomato sauce to an incredulous reaction from my friend (I told you British people have no idea what's going on with barbecue).
The actual food is a blur of joy. The brisket is phenomenal, crisp and melting and tender. It's like a kiss from a beautiful woman who has just eaten some delicious meat (yes, I know). The sausage is fine, but it's no brisket and eventually I grow resentful toward it for not being brisket. I wish there were a meat exchange program. It was my stepson's first experience of barbecue sauce. I give him some brisket, tell him to dip it in the sauce and wait for the reaction. The reaction is this: He physically leaps for joy, and in doing so sends his drink flying. Another British convert.
5410 Harry Hines Blvd., 214-630-0735
I'd have to say that, if there's one place that convinced me barbecue isn't just a treat but rather a pursuit, it's Mike Anderson's. I anticipate lunch visits with the sort of religious fervor that you, a sensible person, might reserve for a more momentous occasion, such as a well-deserved holiday or your own wedding, say.
I long for the day Mike invites me into his backyard (!), to sample his sauce (!!). Yikes.
OK. So, Mike Anderson's is very much a lunch-time venue. It isn't open past 2:30 p.m. Even if you wanted dinner there, Mike wouldn't be having any of it; he's probably got a very busy evening planned and none of it involves serving you BBQ.
We end up with two three-meat dinner plates ($12.95 a shot) containing sausage (delicious), pulled pork (delicious), turkey (a questionable BBQ food), pork tenderloin (don't even remember it) and two helpings of brisket because goddammit brisket is incredible. There, glistening serenely next to Mike's right hand like some sort of BBQ Holy Ghost is a vat of sauce. I load up a bowl and perform my now customary sprint, stopping only to snaffle some BBQ beans and some fries, or chips as I will confusingly continue to call them.
Wife Richard's favourite thing about the entire Mike Anderson visit is one particular side, the cheesy cornbread bake. The cheesy cornbread thingy-wotsit isn't bad at all. It's not the point, though, is it? I didn't come to a place like this to eat cheese.
As I chew happily on brisket, a sad realization dawns on me. This brisket isn't quite as good as Hard 8. This is, literally, the first critical thought I have ever had relating to BBQ.
Don't get me wrong. The brisket is delicious. I would take 3 grams of it over a thousand kilos (that's right, European measurements now, deal with it) of that ridiculous corn stuff that my wife has polished off at the expense of a pristine, untouched plate of meat.
400 West Davis St., 214-944-5521
Lockhart Smokehouse is definitely the place that had been most relentlessly recommended to me by everyone. It had become something of a mantra — get the clod, use your hands, no sauce. You can see the problem with this, aside from what on earth clod is. I built this blog on barbecue sauce, in much the same way Starship built that city on rock and roll. The idea of Texas BBQ without sauce is anathema to me. Still, I don't really know anything, as we have hopefully established by now. I decided to go with it. All the meat. No sauce. Obviously no sides though; this isn't some sort of party buffet for 8-year-olds.
Parking around Lockhart is pretty difficult, but you can always get a side street or something and walk a bit, something that seems as alien to Dallas as a sauceless brisket does to me. You can smell the glorious combination of smoke and meat that is Lockhart from like a block away. The venue is legit, from its concrete floors to its Texan signs on the wall to its dark and shady bar. It's everything I dreamed of when I somehow ended up living in Texas.
The advance party returns from the well-hidden meat counter with bad news. They are out of clod, chicken and burnt ends! I am destined never to discover what clod is. I knew we should have got here at 11 a.m. and eaten barbecue all day. Still, though, there is brisket galore. More brisket than I could ever hope to eat. I get a pound of brisket ($15), a special Kreuz sausage for $5 and three ribs for about $6. This is between three of us, I hasten to add. I'm not a machine.
This won't be a review so much as a eulogy to the meat that has departed this earth. The sausage is fantastic, the outer skin has bite and snap, but the innards are crumbly and meaty. No crap goes in these sausages. The pork ribs were wonderfully smoky, tender and delicious.
The brisket though. It deserves its own paragraph. It's insane. I have no idea how I'm going to describe it. It falls apart in your hands, and the meat isn't even the best bit. The burned outsides and the fatty parts pretty much make me cry. They're weirdly sweet, but chewy, meaty and smoky. Imagine if someone made the greatest chocolate you'd ever tasted, but out of delicious meat. Then imagine you were surrounded by your best friends and your family, and that someone was paying for you to eat this chocolate meat, while you drank incredibly cheap alcohol. Exactly.
As for the sauce? It's like putting some really delicious crack in front of a crack addict that only very recently stopped using crack. Resistance is futile.
5144 Mansfield Highway, Forest Hill, 817-563-7000
This barbecue joint is legit in a way that Lockhart Smokehouse or Sonny Bryan's isn't — you could easily mistake it for a gas station, building-wise, and there are no stylized frills whatsoever. It's not trying to be anything.
We order a rib basket ($7.99) and a two-meat plate of brisket and sausage, with sides of macaroni cheese and okra ($12.99). I get a raspberry iced tea and can hear my forefathers weeping at this desecration of tea. We go to the fast-food style booths, and it comes out in the adorable little red baskets, fried-chicken style. There is a ketchup-squeezy-bottle-dispenser-thing of BBQ sauce, which worries me. I needn't have worried. The sauce is an absolute beauty, kind of spicy and sweet, with a definite tang of vinegar.
The brisket, well, Lockhart has ruined me. It was OK, pretty good, nothing special. The smoky outside is very nicely done, but there's not enough of it. The sausage, again, pretty good. The ribs, though. Christ. They are pleading to fall off the bone; they are burnt crisp on the outside and melt in the mouth on the inside. By the time we are done with them, the once-full squeezy bottle of sauce is one-third full and there are entirely clean ribs scattered around the table. It requires all my restraint not to simply put sauce on the bones and use them as some sort of horrific Popsicle.
Mama Faye's BBQ
2933 Commerce St., 214-486-9846
To my eternal shame, for all the time I have spent in Deep Ellum I had no idea of the existence of Mama Faye's BBQ. Neither, it seems, do the other residents of Dallas. The restaurant is completely deserted when the stepson and I enter — we had a long debate, standing outside, over whether the place was even open, it looked so dark inside. We did then notice the flashing neon "OPEN" sign round the side of the entrance and felt rather stupid.
Inside, it's pretty stark, with a few tables and an empty stage, and the lights are so dim that I can barely make out the menu, although this might just be old age setting in.
It's a sit-down, not a meat-counter sort of place, but I'm back to ordering by the pound and feel like a real man again. Texas barbecue truly is a manly pursuit — you're asking someone to bring you a particular weight of smoke and fire-cooked meat, and that particular weight is almost always excessive. No one needs to personally consume a pound of beef, but there is a primal joy inherent in doing so. We get half a pound of chopped brisket, half a pound of sausage and half a pound of the baby back ribs, because I am ignorant as to how those will taste. The barbecue sauce is extra cost (!) and our waitress takes one look at us and decides we definitely need the mild one.
The meat comes out, with the chopped brisket in an appealing mountain of caveman happiness, and the portions are BIG. Huge, really, far more than enough for the two of us, and I stupidly ordered some mac and cheese (which, by the way, is clearly homemade and very tasty) for the kid and all. The meat is really superb — it could hardly not taste of smoke in a place like this, but it's deliciously juicy and tender and wonderful and I'm running out of words but mmmm my God it's tasty.
Having a chopped brisket allows you to properly mix it with the sauce, which, by the way, is fantastic, one of the best I've ever had, and worth the extra $2. The sausage is spicy (too much for the stepson) and has a texture similar to the one at Lockhart's, so is essentially extremely good, and the ribs are like little pockets of smoke wrapped around a bone, and the meat falls off at the drop of a hat. Brilliant stuff. Not only that, the bill for all of that, plus two drinks, came to $26, which is just astonishingly cheap. I'm used to paying around $35 to $40 for that much food.
This place comes highly recommended. I know almost everywhere I go comes highly recommended, but this really is extremely good. They also offer free local delivery.
901 Fort Worth Ave., 214-393-4141
It's nice to see a barbecue place throw me a sort of curveball and make me feel like a stranger adrift in some meat-filled wilderness, replicating the confusion and wonder I felt when I thought pulled pork was what you got at a Texan barbecue, and when my stepson thought ketchup was a legitimate condiment.
I knew something was up when there was a valet. I was absolutely not dressed for any sort of restaurant encounter (seriously, I haven't worn actual shoes since about April and it's impossible to go anywhere in my car without stepping out smelling like a farm animal), and alarm bells immediately started ringing. Given that the valet wasn't at his desk, I made the brave, some might say rude, decision to just park myself. Unfortunately, by the time we got out and walked to the restaurant the valet had returned, and his look was one of disdain and confusion. Disliking confrontation, as an Englishman, I just slipped quietly past him, pretending to be enthralled by Family Dollar over the road. We got in and there were menus, waiters and an attractive restaurant set-up with tablecloths and neatly folded cutlery holders. Where was I? Was this Texas barbecue? Was I even in Texas any more?
I was longing for a meat counter and a man with a knife and weighing scales. I decided, because fuck it, to order some sort of bloody mary/Lone Star beer/barbecue sauce mash-up drink, which was an odd choice, but I wanted to see if barbecue sauce could be involved in any sort of passable drink. Answer: No, no it cannot.
Did I mention the whole restaurant smells delicious? Apparently they smoke all their meat for between eight hours and two days, and that comes at the "cost" of making everything in a mile radius smell of lovely smoke. Anyway, we got the Big Rib ($25) and the brisket ($18), because obviously heavily smoked brisket is going to be good. When the Big Rib came out, it was abundantly clear I was still in Texas. It was the size of a very small house (I'm no good at comparisons). Richard described it as "a shoehorn for a giant." I was very pleased. The meat came well presented, with specially selected sides AS PART OF THE OVERALL DISH, which again is confusing and scary to me.
Dickey's Barbecue Pit
Many, many locations
For every gourmet $20 cheeseburger, there must be a McDonald's. For every independent Mexican restaurant that cooks fresh to order, there must be a Taco Bell. For every $40 steak, there must be ... a really cheap steak. You get the idea. So, barbecue food is popular round these parts. By what I am going to call "Gavin's Law," there must be a fast-food version of barbecue, mass-produced for the meat fiend on the go. And so there is.
Enter Dickey's. They're everywhere. The first one I went to was shut because of a power outage, so I drove three miles down the road to the next one (on Valwood Parkway in Carrollton) and then passed another one on the way home. In that case, they must be popular.
They're all decked out, Texas-style, with all the things you think an authentic barbecue place should look like. They smell of smoke and meat. You can order beef by the pound. It's all wrong, though. It's like a tribute act to a proper barbecue place. The smoke smells wrong, there's a fast-food element underlying the wooden fixtures and fittings, and, most important, the beef is God-damn awful.
I got three meats and four sides. It came to $26. Firstly, as we have established, I like meat. This is a given. I was apprehensive before starting, but as it turns out the sausage and ribs aren't that bad really. I mean, I'm being generous, but it was all right. Smoked sausage is kind of difficult to mess up, as long as you cook it properly (read: it doesn't need actual barbecuing if you get the right sausage in). The ribs were a good texture, if a bit dry, but largely flavourless until dipped in the sauce, which is over-sweet but pleasingly smoky. The beef though, Jesus. It was like eating sand. It was drier than eating a packet of cheese crackers, minus the cheese, on a summer's day in Texas. It didn't even taste of anything. There was no reward for the endless chewing, just disappointment, shame and regret. I've eaten more appetizing floor tiles.
Then we get to the price. The brisket is $15 a pound! It's the same cost as going to Lockhart Smokehouse! Let's refer to Gavin's Law. In all those other examples, the point of the low-end option is that it's one-quarter of the cost. If a beautifully prepared, fresh-ingredient beefburger was the same price as McDonald's, why the hell would you ever go to McDonald's? And so my problem with Dickey's. If I can get brisket which, two months on, I still have dreams about in which I am caressing the brisket and it whispers to me, "Gavin, I love you and I only want for you to be happy," why oh why oh why would I get a fast-food version that is the SAME COST?! I don't understand.
6600 Snider Plaza, 214-987-9188
First off, what on earth is this place doing in University Park, next to boutiques, furious SUV drivers and the stench of old money emanating from SMU? It has denim on the wall for goodness' sakes. Denim. I'm not sure that's even a design choice; they probably needed a quick fix for the collapsing wall. It's more out of place than a liberal Englishman in Texas during election season. They could probably get a blog out of it.
So, yes, Peggy Sue is older than old school. It is from a time before schooling (which, if you're in DISD, is the present day). It is dark, the booths are small, the walls are covered in black and white pictures, music from the '50s and '60s is forever on the stereo, and it serves root beer in glass bottles. If the restaurant was a person (and I'm not suggesting it is, even though corporations are apparently people now), it would probably regard the civil rights movement as so much newfangled bunkum. It also serves really quite delicious meat.
Getting a three-meat plate of brisket, pulled pork and sausage, and a rib plate of baby-back and normal between the three of us, we easily had enough food even without the four generously sized sides (I recommend the cheesy squash casserole as something a little different from the endless parade of mac and cheese). There was even a small jug of warm, tasty barbecue sauce. It was quite delightful. The pick was the baby-back ribs, though, by far. They had a lovely sauce, were frightfully tender and all-round awesome. The pulled pork was also notably smooth, and when frantically mashed into the barbecue sauce (I suggest getting a 12-year-old high on root beer to perform this task for you) formed some sort of delicious lumpy meat gravy sauce, the invention of which I am claiming right here and now. (I am aware people might have done this before, and I don't care, that's over now. I am the Bill Gates of delicious lumpy meat gravy sauce, but I do need a partner who is good at naming things to come on board.)
2625 Old Denton Road, Carrollton, 972-245-3565
When my stepson and I were shown to our seats, I noticed that the center of the table was a suspicious-looking silver disc. Brushing this aside as "something Korean," I quickly ordered two all-you-can-eats, specifically brisket (all you can eat brisket!) and barbecue pork (all you can eat pork!). Before the meat arrived an array of side dishes in small bowls was brought to the table. I can't even hazard a guess at what they were. Most places, even when something is unfamiliar I can at least take a stab ("that looks like warm meat"), but here I was surprised when things were cold, when things were vegetables, when they were (presumably) fish. I had no idea what was going on.
Finally, to ease the mental anguish I was experiencing, huge plates of meat were brought out. The server leaned over, clicked a button next to the disc, and switched on what I now realize to be a gas hob. I noticed the meat was raw. Cogs started to turn, slowly, but there was definite turning occurring. I have to cook my own meat? On a gas hob? What element of this is barbecue? Bemused, but trying to rein in my surprise so as not to leave my stepson as scared as I felt, I put on the brave face of many a parent. "No, Lewis, this is perfectly normal. This sort of thing happens all the time. You kids are so funny!"
But then I was handed a simple pair of kitchen scissors by the server. Are you for real? I am going to chop up and cook my own food? I thought this was America! Where I was free to go to a restaurant and not cook! Is this meant to be entertaining? It's a single gas hob! I have no knife, just scissors! I felt like the newly divorced father in a tiny apartment entertaining his reluctant child for the weekend. "Let's cut our food up with scissors! Won't that be fun! Tell mummy I have knives and that I miss her. No. That sounds bad. Tell her I miss her. Forget about the knives."
Really though, the food was totally delicious. The thing is, though, I don't know how much of that was down to my amazing cooking skills. I turn meat like you wouldn't believe. I feel like brisket needs a lot longer to cook properly than 10 minutes on a gas hob, but I tried to ask for help only to slam hopelessly into the language barrier I often hit, this time one step further removed. Throwing caution to the wind, I simply ate all the meat in front of me, and then upon returning home went to bed at 5 p.m.
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