Picking a Bone With Pecan Lodge
Barbecued brisket is a finicky son of a bitch. Cook it too fast and you'll be left with a dry, rubbery hunk of beef the size of your grandmother's purse. Cook it too long and you can end up with a pile of loose, stringy meat. Smoke a perfect brisket on a cool spring morning and you'll get one result. Precisely follow the same steps with a bit more moisture in the air on another day and you'll end up with a bomb.
The variability can make evaluating a barbecue restaurant difficult. On one visit a slice of brisket can present an absolutely transcendent network of muscle fiber and fat held together only by a wish. A few days later a comparatively dry hunk of meat will make you wonder if your slowly fading brisket memories were nothing but a dream. What separates the great barbecue pits from the mediocre and terrible ones is hitting the mark far more often than not.
Pecan Lodge has produced various qualities of barbecued meats since Diane and Justin Fourton opened the restaurant at the Dallas Farmers Market in 2010. What's constant — in addition to the improved consistency they've honed over three years of smoking — is the ever-increasing procession that's stepped up to devour it.
Last spring, the line was modest. On busy days, 30 people might have stood in a queue while they waited for smoked brisket, sausages, ribs and the occasional order of fried chicken. Then a chance appearance on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives catapulted the count to more than 100. What used to stretch from the front counter toward the front door of Shed 2 had to be rerouted so other businesses could get to their customers.
While an appearance from Guy Fieri always produces a surge in business, the extra attention is often a flash of flint. Yet more than a year after the Food Network feature ran, the line at Pecan Lodge is still epic, and as other publications have given attention to the Fourtons' barbecue, it has grown even longer. What's happening at Pecan Lodge is more than just the Fieri factor — the line is a testament to the exceptional food that's served here.
Franklin Barbecue, Snow's, Louie Mueller: The best Texas barbecue joints are known as much for their lines as their smoked meat. The wait at Franklin in Austin can cross three hours on the weekends, and people happily pass the time drinking beer. The line is an event and attraction as much as it is the admission price to barbecue fit for deities. The line is also as close as one gets to a genuine barometer of appeal. Yelp stars can be rigged, but every person on his or her feet (or sitting on a portable stool) is a legitimate fan.
There are no beer drinkers queued up in Shed 2. Instead, coffee cups and strollers dot the stream of people as it grows. Arrive a little after 10 a.m. and you take your place some 50 patrons back. By 10:30 the line easily tops 100. At 11, when the cowboy call of a triangle sings the opening from the front counter, the line stretches the entire length of the building — about 200 people.
After sitting in a bath of 250-degree smoke for up to 12 hours, the brisket is already cooked, but slicing meat to order and handling special requests for hundreds of people takes time. You can wait up to two hours for your chance at the counter at Pecan Lodge, bringing a new meaning to the term slow food. But ask anyone who's dragging a napkin across a grinning, greasy mouth (provided it's not already occupied by another hunk of brisket) if the wait was worth it and you'll hear a resounding yes. While barbecue joints dot the state like pizzerias pepper New York, they seldom serve good food. To sample the best of the best in Texas barbecue, a wait is often mandatory.
The brisket is good, but you'd be a fool to stop there, especially after standing on your feet for half a Saturday morning. A smoked sausage dipped in a sweet and slightly tangy barbecue sauce is a perfect marriage. Ground and cased on-site, these links will ruin hot dogs forever. Pork ribs soak up smoke in a way that beef does not. The meat sports a pink kiss of mesquite and pulls from the bone gently without falling apart.
If you like the carnal act of tearing meat from the bone, perhaps you'd like something a little bit larger. Order a single beef rib on your own and you'll be set for the day. The quivering brick of meat perched on a protruding bone is at once intimidating and intoxicating, but the flavor of this cut rivals even the brisket. Whether tackling the rib alone or with a friend, you've made a good decision — provided you got in line early enough to secure one. The beef ribs are the first cut to sell out every day.
Justin Fourton stands at a lumbering 6-6, but it's not his height that intimidates his customers as he walks the line about an hour after opening. Fourton weighs each morning's bounty and carefully tracks the cuts as they're tossed on paper-lined trays and shuttled to the counter. When the brisket runs low he counts customers as they stand, doling out fate like a towering meat god.
Somewhere down that snaking leviathan of the hungry, a single customer holds a sign that strikes fear and disappointment into the hearts of everyone behind it. "Slim pickings," it reads, notifying everyone to the front they've made today's cut. For each pitiful soul to the rear, the message is that the brisket's nearly done. As a consolation for being the bearer of terrible news, the sign-holder gets to eat for free.
Arriving early not only assures a shorter wait, but also increases your chances that you'll get the cuts you want. Attrition is high after the pink sign makes an appearance, and spirits are low behind it. Don't feel too glum, though. Tomorrow's another day. The line will be there waiting for you.
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