Before the door even closed behind us, Misty David belted out, "There's free beer in the cooler," and sure enough there was. There are worse ways to start your barbecue experience, and the box of iced Lone Star and Shiner Bock was in stark contrast to the offerings of the other businesses in the industrial park. Those who come to Gamma Road typically look for used office-cube furniture or a fine metals refinery. Only recently did a stop at Cattleack BBQ become feasible.
I pulled the metal tab on my can, and it cracked and hissed.
Now we were in a barbecue restaurant.
13628 Gamma Road, 972-805-0999, cattleackbbq.com. 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday-Friday. $$
Brisket $15 per pound
Sausage $12 per pound
Beef rib $15 per pound
Except the catering business owned and operated by husband and wife team Todd and Misty David is hardly a restaurant at all. The Davids serve sides and smoked meats out of a massive hot box, sodas out of a small reach-in refrigerator, and they're open to walk-up customers just two days a week for lunch. Until recently, there wasn't even a seat. The newly installed picnic tables made of lacquered yellow pine will make you feel like parking it for a while. So will a free can of beer.
And so will a nibble of free barbecue. The line was only a few deep, and when we got to the short counter, there was a small morsel of blackened brisket awaiting us. Todd worked like an industrious drug dealer, pointing to the nugget of beef and telling me I could have it if I want it, before slicing more brisket in front of me as I chewed. Watching slices of brisket unfold, glistening and fatty, while your teeth cut through the salt and pepper crust of some soulful barbecue screws with the synapses in your brain a little. It's hard to order anything but the brisket in a state like that, which it turns out is the wrong thing to do.
Cattleack set its roots in Todd's previous disaster restoration business. If a pipe in your warehouse busted or your storefront was damaged in a fire, Todd would show up with a team of workers that would clear out the rubble and return everything to new quicker than you could make out the check. That sort of speed requires a lot of workers, ones willing to stay on the job site for extended periods of time, and Todd figured he could keep his employees committed to their efforts with the barbecued ribs he learned to make as a kid in St. Louis. He'd serve both lunch and dinner on jobs that often grew to 50 employees. He learned to smoke brisket and other cuts, too. Meanwhile, Misty would take a rack of ribs to her business meetings. The other guys always brought stale doughnuts, so Misty always won. Together the Davids built a reputation for serious barbecue.
So when Todd decided he wanted to sell his business after 30 years of cleaning up other people's messes, catering seemed like a better alternative to shanking Titleists into the lake. They found a small commercial kitchen in North Dallas and installed a gas-fired Ole Hickory smoker.
When they had a catering job they'd come in and work a day or two, and when they didn't they didn't. It was like retirement only less boring, and smokier. They liked it so much they opened up for takeout on Fridays.
In just four weeks, the Davids started percolating upward through the layers of Dallas' barbecue nerdery. The Texas BBQ Posse, a group of bloggers who write for The Dallas Morning News, stopped by and blessed the brisket. Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, dropped by and gave them a nod, too. A line started to form. Meanwhile, Todd delved into books on charcuterie to continue to improve his barbecue.
After a customer pointed out his smoked sausages weren't so different from links served at other area barbecue restaurants, Todd set out to make his own and mastered the craft quickly. The house blend, a mix of well-seasoned pork and beef that's stuffed in a hog casing and smoked, is a coarsely ground and toothy sausage. When you pierce the link with a knife or fork it makes an audible snap, and dipped into just a little of their house barbecue sauce, a mix of American styles lightly laced with coffee flavors, the sausage is a revelation.
Todd also makes a hot beef sausage that's featured on the Toddfather, a barbecue sandwich that makes use of brisket and pulled pork for a holy trinity of smoked meats. It's topped with a restrained squiggle of barbecue sauce and served with a small container of sweet, vinegary coleslaw, and if you choose to unhinge your sandwich and dump it on, the salad adds a cooling crunch that cuts the fat and smoke.
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Todd may need to go back to school on the sides. The baked beans boast tender legumes that still hold their shape and strings of pork and pork fat, in a sweet, mahogany-colored sauce so thick you might call it a glaze. At times I contemplated ordering a beef link sliced on the top. Franks and beans, Cattleack style: eradicating your memories of terrible childhood lunches. They're almost worth a visit on their own. But the rest bring back memories of the lunch lady: a bland potato salad, a mac and cheese that is tepid and stiff, topped with oily crumbs. There's corn dressed in lime, cilantro and cheese that would be stunning if the cheese hadn't set up and the corn wasn't swimming in a runny sauce. The hot box is perfect for serving smoked meats, but it's doing a disservice to hot sides that aren't hot enough.
There's great smoked turkey, and an outstanding beef rib, too, but the measure of any Texan barbecue restaurant is the brisket, and the Davids' measures up. Despite the gas-fired smoker that will turn off some purists, the meat boasts plenty of smoky flavor and a thick, salty bark that bites with plenty of coarsely cracked black peppercorn. The meat has a firmer bite than the brisket slices that dissolve in your mouth like a wisp of thick smoke, but the fat is perfectly rendered and gives easily. It's also served with another side that really works — Southern charm.
Maybe it's because they're only open two days a week, or maybe it's because they sold that restoration business for more money than they'll ever need, but as I wrapped my mitts around a Toddfather, I watched the Davids work behind their counter with ease and indelible charm. Todd handed out free brisket-crack and walked customers through the menu, while Misty took the money, handed out business cards and gave side hugs. All of this was anchored by the ice-cold can in my palm, still dripping from the cooler.
If you want a chance at good brisket you can wait in line for hours, or you can drive for many miles, or, if it's late in the work week and you happen to be in North Dallas, you can duck your head in Cattleack and spare yourself the time and space. There's no line — not yet. If you're in the market for some cubicle fixtures, you'll be in the right place, too. Or you might just be inspired to dump the one you have.