The cashier at Lockhart Smokehouse nodded as he rang up my order for the day's special, a smoked trapezoid of ivory-hued fish graced with three slim lemon wheels. "I'm glad we've got this," he said. "The vegetarians have been asking for something."
Putting aside the question of whether non-meat eaters consider rainbow trout a vegetable, it's a testament to the popularity of this Central Texas-style barbecue joint that even vegetarians want in on the fun. Every time I tried to recruit a dining partner for a meal at Lockhart, I was told "I just ate there," "I already have plans to eat there" or "I'm there right now."
Lockhart deserves credit for restoring the notion of community to contemporary barbecue culture. Meat connoisseurs have made heroes of the solitary, folk-wise old men who tend their idiosyncratic smokers and granddaddy's sauce secrets with vigilance. But while those pit bosses sometimes perform spectacular feats, barbecue is not meant to be a lonely pursuit. Nobody smokes a brisket for a solo dinner.
Lockhart has a handle on the village spirit that inspired the first American colonists to cook whole hogs over smoldering coals. It has insinuated itself into Oak Cliff, smoking corned beef for St. Patrick's Day and luring after-work drinkers with $2 beverages. The restaurant functions much like the meat markets that spawned the Central Texas joints atop serious barbecue acolytes' must-eat lists: It's a place for neighbors to get what they need and see people they know.
And, on the right days, it's also a fine place to eat brisket. While the quality of Lockhart's meats wavers—even a pretty red caboose of a smoker like the custom-made Bewley pit that sits behind the counter at Lockhart has a breaking-in period—the brisket on recent visits has been impeccable. That's an impressive achievement for a restaurant that could have satisfied itself with being a smoked meat theme park for tourists whose travel schedules don't include a trip to the barbecue capital that gives Lockhart its name.
Sorry, make that Barbecue Capital. In 1999, the Texas Legislature voted to make Lockhart "the Barbecue Capital of Texas." The town is home to four famed barbecue joints, including Kreuz Market.
Unfortunately, the back story isn't immediately evident to guests who wander into Lockhart the restaurant, many of whom aren't familiar with Central Texas barbecue traditions. After spotting me with a hunk of drippy brisket between my fingers, one visitor mistook me for a Neanderthal. "I'm from California," she explained apologetically when she stopped staring.
In the Californian's defense, few civilian eaters unschooled in Texas food history would know that Lockhart doesn't allow its customers to use forks because German butcher shops at the turn of the century didn't offer utensils. Lockhart is correct to uphold the prohibition on forks and sauce, but on behalf of the many eaters who shake their heads when learning they'd have to eat potato salad with a spoon, I wish it would offer a better explanation. There's a sign at the drinks station reading "No Forks or Sauce: A Family Tradition Since 1900," but the message doesn't make much sense in a restaurant that's obviously only a few months old.
Lockhart's cheery dining room, trimmed with corrugated metal siding and red paint, evokes a generalized old-timey idyll: The walls are hung with neon-lit beer logos, Tennessee license plates and Route 66 signs. If Cracker Barrel romanticized service stations instead of general stores, their restaurants would probably have the Lockhart look. The background music's usually tuned to bluegrass, and every table's set with peanuts.
The standard table setting also includes a paper towel roll, since barbecue's sloppy and there's only so much beef grease you can soak up with a slice of white bread. My favorite route to a barbecue mess is smoked sausage, which should spit juice when its skin is snapped. Lockhart's sausages are less viscerally pleasing, a letdown my dining companions variously attributed to too-thick casing, too little pork and too much grinding. I suspect the sausage could have benefited from more fat and pepper. Fans of Kreuz sausage will disagree.
In another instance of Lockhart hewing to tradition at the expense of excellence, I wasn't crazy about the pork chop. My thick chop was dry, and the smoke's reach was disappointingly shallow. Still, the chop was better than a rubber-skinned chicken so undercooked and unprepared for a public viewing that I felt a stab of shame when I saw it.
But much of the glee at Lockhart comes from creating a tabletop meat buffet, so if you skip the chicken, make sure to supplement with the shoulder clod, a cut rarely seen around Dallas. The shoulder's not as fatty as the brisket (you can check your own anatomy for confirmation), but Lockhart's is tender and sports a deep, bruise-purple smoke ring.
The pork ribs, pink as an Easter ham, are a work in progress, a staffer confessed. The sturdy meat clings to the bone, and the flavors of smoke and swine fail to harmonize. On my first visit, the ribs were a chore to eat. The second time around, they were merely forgettable.
Lockhart offers all the necessary sides for a smoked meat frenzy, including pickles, onions, raw jalapeño rings, sweet pickled jalapeños, fingers of cheddar cheese, white bread and saltines. Maddeningly, each side item is packed in a plastic bag. Since every meat order is wrapped in more butcher paper than necessary, the spoils of a meal at Lockhart are a study in environmental abuse. While I appreciate how much pre-packing simplifies to-go orders, I'm sorry Lockhart doesn't plate the garnishes for its staying customers just as many joints in the state's barbecue belt do.
Other more substantial sides include stiff deviled eggs, stuffed with a brisket-rich filling and stuck back in the smoker; a smoked potato salad with firm cubes of potato and a scattering of green onions; and a coleslaw heaving with mayonnaise. But Lockhart doesn't offer dessert, save a sad pile of plastic-wrapped cookies. That's an odd oversight and a boon for nearby Bolsa, which recently retained the services of Piecurious, a local pie bakery that specializes in fresh fruit pastries. Since the harsh acridity of smoke calls for a sweet sauce or a post-meal helping of peach cobbler—and Lockhart's obviously not abandoning its anti-barbecue-sauce position—a dessert would be a welcome menu addition.
Fortunately, Lockhart has mastered the hardest (and most critical) task for any Texas pit master: brisket. The counter guys are happy to slice to order, so if it's flavor you're chasing, ask for your brisket fatty, with a bit of burnt end if they're willing to spare it. The butt of a brisket looks stringy and charred, like a coconut salvaged from a fire, and has an unparalleled robustness.
Lockhart's brisket crust is so superb that it inspired my friend Daniel Vaughn—a barbecue blogger whose smoked meat opinions are so esteemed that when he tweeted that Lockhart patrons should steer clear of the ribs, the restaurant responded by offering a free rib to anyone who had seen the tweet—to deliver an impromptu sermon on pellicule, the tacky finish pit masters crave. Lockhart's brisket has it. It also has rich fat so beautifully rendered that I picked around the velvety meat to eat it. Mrs. Sprat would have a field day.
Lockhart's brisket is an eloquent reminder of why central Texas barbecue's an edible tradition worth saluting. And it's a pretty compelling argument for doing so without taking a road trip.