Worth the Wait: Why We Stand in Line for Texas Barbecue

The line at Heim Barbecue's trailer on a recent Saturday morning. From where we stood, it took 90 minutes to order. Worth it.
The line at Heim Barbecue's trailer on a recent Saturday morning. From where we stood, it took 90 minutes to order. Worth it.
Beth Rankin

In the documentary It Might Get Loud, guitarist Jack White shows off a 1950s-era Kay archtop guitar as an example of what he looks for in an instrument. “I keep guitars that are, you know, the neck’s a little bent, and it’s a little bit out of tune,” he explains. “I want to work and battle it and conquer it and make it express whatever attitude I have at that moment. I want it to be a struggle.” Sure, you could buy a new guitar and learn some chords and make music, but putting in the extra work is what defines White's artistry.

The same can be said about Texas barbecue. Read any interview from the big names — pitmasters speak of days that start well before dawn and end after sunset, all in the name of perfect brisket. Diners drive out of the way and stand in long lines to get a taste, with no guarantee that meat won’t be sold out when they get their turns at the counter. Waiting in line is as much an intrinsic part of Texas barbecue as the meat itself, which seems unmatched by any other cuisine. But do we have to wait?

To get the good stuff, the answer is definitely yes. When it comes to smoking meats, “low and slow” is the name of the game. Eight hours in the smoker may turn out some decent ribs, but 14 hours may only be a starting point for brisket. When a favorite place runs out of food, it’s not as easy as tossing another brisket or rack of ribs in the smoker; they would’ve needed to know when they would run out yesterday. Supply can and often will be outpaced by demand. The key to avoiding the dreaded “sold out” sign is to queue up early.

Down in Austin, Aaron Franklin’s eponymous spot is just as famous for its brisket as it is for the hours-long wait. Here in DFW, joints like Pecan Lodge, Slow Bone, Lockhart Smokehouse and Heim Barbecue are regularly mentioned as some of the best when it comes to barbecue, but it also likely means a long line. Why? Simply put, the food is worth it. “If the quality goes, nobody is going to stand in line for something that is just mediocre,” says Pecan Lodge’s Diane Fourton. “You can go a lot of places and find mediocre.”

To prove Fourton's point, we headed to Coppell. Hard Eight BBQ normally sports a line spilling into the parking lot shortly after it opens. In contrast, there’s a Dickey’s less than a mile away — the hungry can walk right into it during the lunch hour, and another half-dozen are nearby.  

The fare at Dickey’s is as inoffensive as barbecue gets. A three-meat plate of brisket, ribs and sausage were all devoid of what passes for smoke or seasoning at more popular joints. It didn’t even look good under the harsh fluorescent lights in the buffet line. Edible, quick and easy are not components of good barbecue. Down the road at Hard Eight, diners have a choice between lean or fatty brisket covered in delicious bark, plus pork ribs, sausage and sides with complex flavors and palatable hues.

There are downsides to going to Hard Eight, particularly at lunch on a weekday. Parking can be abysmal. The wait in line is anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes before a customer gets to the pits to place an order, which, depending on the weather, can be a blessing or a curse. Smoke pours from the pits, which can irritate sensitive eyes and permeate clothing. The location itself is somewhat remote, in what amounts to an industrial park somewhat adjacent to Coppell’s “historic old town” area.

Local pitmasters are hardly sadists and they realize that waiting in line only to get turned away is sure to make for angry customers. Pecan Lodge’s new location in Deep Ellum allowed them to add two more smokers and a second cutting line to keep up with demand. Lockhart staggers its smoking sessions into a lunch and dinner cook, although items will still run out as the day carries on. Smaller places like Cattleack BBQ in Farmers Branch and Winners BBQ in Plano have told customers that they’re smoking more meat in an attempt to accommodate everyone.

But there’s little a carnivore in need of his barbecue fix can do, other than get there early and make a friend in line. Just as it’s a struggle to create top-notch barbecue, it can be a struggle to get it on your plate as well. It’s simply part of the experience.

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