An Englishman Reviews the Lunchtime BBQ of Sonny Bryan's, Pecan Lodge and Soulman's
Barbecue isn't just a dinner food.
Oh no. It's a round the clock affair (although my mooted chain of restaurants Brisket for Breakfast is yet to take off). Many lunch-only barbecue venues exist around Dallas, and what nicer midpoint to the working day is there than an injection of hot meat and sauce? No, I'm not even trying any more. Barbecue as a lunch food is so very popular that the queues at such establishments can be great in length and tiresome in nature. I like barbecue for lunch a lot. However, barbecue for dinner seems more socially acceptable, as it is nigh-on impossible to come away from any Texas barbecue joint without a gigantic plate of beef and that's a dinner sort of deal, right? Barbecue for lunch is like something out of the last days of the Roman Empire. Maybe, amidst all the vomitoriums and the orgies, they enjoyed tenderly cooking some meat over some wood smoke, and eating it relatively early in the day. Maybe not. I'm not a historian. All I can say for sure is we'll never know.
I'm not sure, really, that Texans see it this way. I think the train of thought going on there is, it's delicious, and I can obtain it for lunch, so why not just have it for lunch? This clear-thinking logic is commendable, and indeed quite dangerous. If I have barbecue for lunch I am pretty much set for the rest of the day, and can't eat much else. I obviously need to man up. Sorry, Dallas. I feel like lunch barbecue places are sort of different to dinner ones, and hopefully I will explain why as I go. Anyway, by way of my continuing adventures, here are some of the places you can get a good hearty authentic barbecue lunch.
I actually reviewed this place for my first-ever blog post about barbecue, before the Observer noted the virtual circus act a foreigner reviewing BBQ could become and started throwing me peanuts to do tricks for them (tricks I am absolutely delighted to perform, it should be noted). I was more than happy to go back.
Sonny Bryan's is, aside from the meat, an absolutely awesome venue, as it is largely a shack which smells of wood smoke and sauce. The tables are freakin' school desks, people. School desks. The sauce at Sonny Bryan's is the whole reason I got into barbecue sauce. It comes warm in beer bottles, and it's amazing.
For me, it's the pinnacle of Dallas barbecue sauces so far. I would happily put it on anything and then eat that thing. I got the plate of chopped brisket and sausage ($12.99), with a side of onion rings bigger than your head, if you have quite a small head. That was a bad comparison. Richard got a pulled pork sandwich ($5.99). Anyway, the meat's really pretty good, as long as you're a fan of eating sideways, very carefully, so you don't knock anything on to your accomplice. On balance, I'd much rather they retained the desks and the atmosphere than went for a less dangerous dining experience. The thought I might get covered in sauce at any moment isn't particularly a drawback.
One thing about lunch places, is that the food tends to be kept warm out front under lamps rather than brought straight from a smoker, and so I reckon a lot of the time it gets a bit dried out by this. The brisket was pretty dry and chewy, although any sin can be disguised by that heavenly sauce. Richard's pulled pork sandwich is really a lot tastier than the brisket, and I reckon the pulled pork at SB's is better than the rest of the meat on offer. Plus, an actual sandwich, no matter the size, feels a lot more like lunch than the huge plate of meat I ordered.
Up next: Soulman's BBQ
A rather well-hidden place, this one, down on Regal Row and John W. Carpenter freeway, we only noticed it thanks to Sarah (whose fabulous photos you might have noticed lighting up this blog the last couple of weeks). It looks pretty kitsch and fun, a bit like a barn with delicious meat in it, and has a diner kind of atmosphere inside, check tablecloths and all. Again, the meat is kept out the front under heating lamps for ease and speed of service, but given the size of the Monday lunchtime crowd, that doesn't really seem necessary. I get the same as at SB's, brisket and sausage, and again Richard gets pulled pork. Sarah goes for the half-chicken, as after coming with us on a couple of BBQ trips she's worried about the BBQ lifestyle, and especially the BBQ for lunch lifestyle. She even leaves part of it to take home. So adorable.
OK, so, look, I'm no expert, as I feel we have established, but this meat didn't really taste of much beyond meat. Like, there was no smoky taste to it. Richard's pulled pork tasted exactly like the charcoal hog roasts so beloved of British outdoor events, where you add apple sauce to accentuate the flavor. My brisket was pretty dry, and although the sausage had the pleasing taste of a proper Polish kielbasa, it felt like that flavor was predetermined, not anything to do with what the restaurant did to it. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but I just didn't see it. The sauce was pretty run-of-the-mill. Even Sarah, whose enthusiasm normally knows no bounds, seemed distinctly underwhelmed.
So far -- BBQ for lunch is not a patch on BBQ for dinner. But wait -- what's this rising from the ashes of a lunch-time meat fest? Is it ... could it be ...
Up next: Pecan Lodge
Right. Wow. I have no words for this. I spent the next three days after this visit in a state of shock. From the beginning, is it?
Obviously everyone has heard of this place by now. Ever since it got featured on a certain TV show, the line (queue, strictly) has been huge and off-putting, and everyone has rocked up to give it rave reviews. Let me be the latest to do so. After about a 30-minute wait, which I am reliably informed is not bad at all, we got to the front and got a pound of brisket ($15), a half-pound of ribs ($7.50) and the Hot Mess ($9) between three of us. It gets brought to our table straight off the BBQ.
The difference between this and the other lunch venues is stratospheric -- the brisket is divine, so juicy and smoky that you can smell it from a mile off and it'll fall apart if you wave your hand near it, and the ribs are beautifully done and all. The rub they put on the meat is mesmerizing, whatever it is, and is so smoky and beyond tasty that it makes the outside of the meat worth fighting over, and the ends of the brisket we get, with the little caps of melted fat, are a small taste of heaven. The Hot Mess is no small feat either -- a massive sweet potato cooked until the insides turn into a gloop, laden with cheese, brisket, bacon, onion and sour cream, it's a counterpoint to the meat and the one side I would deem wholly worthy of sitting alongside barbecue meat.
Their sauce isn't great -- it's a bit of a shock to the system as it's so spicy and smoky, without any real hint of sweetness. By God, though, the meat doesn't need it at all. It's there, and I ignore it throughout. That's the real measure here. Pecan Lodge is absolutely a different class of lunch restaurant. You'll feel terrible afterwards, but in a really, really good way, and the memory of the visit will linger. I can picture the brisket when I close my eyes. It's that good. I'm going back there very soon for a full review, and I haven't been this excited since I last visited a country with free healthcare. At this rate, I will be needing a lot of free healthcare. You don't need to go, though. The line is really long. It's not worth it, stay away.
Go to Sonny Bryan's.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.