When Daniel Vaughn reviews a barbecue joint on his frequent jaunts throughout the state in search of the Holy Barbecue Grail, he knows the only way to form a real opinion on a spot is to order basically one of everything. So he was glad I was tagging along this time at Sammy's in Uptown, because two people ordering that much food looks slightly less ridiculous than one.
Vaughn became the country's (and presumably the world's) first full-time Barbecue Editor when Texas Monthly hired him in March 2013. Before that, and since 2007, he ran his own barbecue blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ. Ever since, he's taken what he calls little ridiculous trips around the state to try all the spots and has planned routes on family vacations around barbecue joint locations. He lives with his family in the White Rock Lake area and is the proud owner of an offset smoker of his own and two other grills. One is (the horror) a gas grill, but Vaughn says it's there just in case of emergency, or in case of hot dogs.
We sat down on Sammy's patio, ate first and talked Dallas barbecue second.
As the country's first barbecue editor in title, what's the experience been like for you? The default mind-frame among many has got to be that you're the foremost media authority on the subject, right?
Yeah, Southern Living named Robert Moss their barbecue editor [in November 2014] I think very smartly, just because they wanted me to shut up about being the only barbecue editor in the country. Both he and J.C. Reid, who they call the barbecue columnist, rather than the barbecue editor, at the Houston Chronicle are good guys and friends of mine. Anyway, it certainly brings a level of notoriety to Texas Monthly. That notoriety is more for the title than it is for Daniel Vaughn, right? It's more for the fact that there is a barbecue editor, and I guess because of that I am mildly famous under a certain subset of barbecue people and media members who really only know me because, "Oh my God, Texas Monthly hired a barbecue editor, and it wasn't a joke, and he still has a job two years later?"
What are a couple things that Dallas barbecue proprietors could do a little better?
Make sausage. I know that it is an extra thing; it is an extra headache. But it's one of those things that I think really gives each place its real signature. There's a lot you can do with brisket to make it your own, but there's so much more you can do with sausage to make it your own and make it something special at your restaurant. And there are a few places that do it, but by and large, they sell it for cheap because they buy it for cheap, so the idea of "well, if I start making it, I'm going to have to charge the same for sausage as I do for other things" begins to play out, and it's an easy thing not to bother with on so many levels, that I understand why people don't do it, but when they do make it, like up at Cattleack Barbecue and at Pecan Lodge both, it has really become one of their signature items rather than kind of a forgettable menu add-on.
And the one thing that Dallas is missing a lot is really good options for barbecue for dinner, which I don't think used to be much of a big issue because nobody came to Dallas for barbecue, but I get so many requests now from people asking "Where can I go for barbecue in Dallas?" So my first question is always "When do you want to eat?" And if it's dinner, you've got Pecan Lodge just twice a week, just Friday and Saturday, you've got Smoke, of course, every night of the week, and then you have Lockhart Smokehouse. Now, Peggy Sue is also open for dinner, and all the chain places are, but I certainly think there could be more good options for dinner. On the whole, the amount of good barbecue in Dallas is pretty proportional, pretty similar to the proportion around the state. I think we've seen it increase pretty dramatically along with the rest of the state in the last five or six years.
Conversations folks have about Dallas barbecue often end up centering around Pecan Lodge. Why is that? What is Pecan Lodge doing better than most to have gained that first seat in our mind's eye?
One of the things is that beef rib. It does become something that people love to take photos of, love to order to impress their friend who's never been there, like "Oh, you've got to see this thing." And it's also fantastic. The fact that they also make their own sausage, and the brisket is just fantastic. And especially if you like that really smoky barbecue, there's not a ton of places in Dallas that do that super smoky, that high level of smoke that they do. I think that's something that really sets them apart. Also just the fact that, now that they've gone from the Farmer's Market, it's just a cool spot to go. They've got a nice bar. It can take a while to get through the line, but once you place your order your food is done in a couple of minutes, and there's so many ways around that line, too. Get five buddies, go to the express line, and the other one is just to go sit at the bar. They'll hand you a menu and you can just order from the bar. It almost never works on the weekends because the bar is always full. But if you're hungry for barbecue on a Tuesday, just go sit at the bar and let everybody in the line look at you crossways.
I once wondered in writing whether Heim Craft Barbecue's bacon burnt ends would ever be thought of as the donut hole of the barbecue world. What do you think of Heim's product?
I think it's great. I don't think they're ever going to give away the bacon burnt ends. I think they've done something really smart with that actually, and create a signature item that is unlike anything else being done. It creates a lot of buzz. It gives food writers an angle to write about them. For a lot of food writers, they start to ask themselves "Why should I go to this new barbecue joint, necessarily, and write about it?" Well for Heim, I think one of those things is the bacon burnt ends. They are a beautiful visual in these days of Instagram and Twitter, as shallow as you might think that is, but having something that takes a beautiful photo creates these tiny little billboards all over the internet for your business. Having something like those bacon burnt ends to draw people in is great. Everything else is good on the menu, too. It was very early that I went and tried it. It was maybe their fourth week in business, I think, so it was super early. They knew they still had some things to work on. I don't know when I'm going to go back and actually review it, though. Because part of me wants them to be open for more than two services per week, and see how they can really handle that. I always want to make sure when I'm doing a review that the place has some staying power.
What does the barbecue boom that we're experiencing right now mean for the old stand-bys, the places who have been occupying the space since before it was cool, like Sammy's, like Peggy Sue, and like Angelo's in Fort Worth?
For those consumers who are just getting into barbecue or who are keen on being part of that boom, you're going to find time to visit places like that maybe less often. Unless that's your stand-by place. Now those regulars are going to go there whether there's a boom elsewhere or not. With the old stand-bys, I think one thing that we need to remember about barbecue joints is that they're still restaurants, and like any restaurant industry, new blood comes in, changes things up in certain ways and makes certain things better. Other restaurants generally change what they're doing in some way to improve what they're putting out there to compete with the new guys, and I think that barbecue joints that don't do that are kind of kidding themselves. Look at Sammy's. [Owner Marshall Prichard] all of a sudden starts buying Creekstone Prime brisket [instead of certified angus], asking his guys to cut it a little bit differently, keeps more smoke on it, keeps more fat on there. If people have come to love newer places that are doing those things, then they're going to come back to a Sammy's if that's what they're doing as well. They're not going to come back to a Sammy's if they're putting out dry, completely shaved, trim brisket they way they were doing five years ago. I think Sammy's is a pretty good example of making a pretty simple change and keeping up with the times. I think because barbecue is such a long held tradition in Texas and elsewhere, people get this idea that barbecue joints need to be preserved in amber, and that if they change the way they're doing something, it's sacrilegious in some way. Look at the way that Dallas barbecue was run in the 50's and 60's. I recently wrote an article on beef plate. You know, if we all thought that barbecue shouldn't change in Dallas, that these old places should never change the way they do anything, then we'd all be eating chopped up beef plate on white bread. We wouldn't even have sliced brisket. We wouldn't have pork ribs. So the idea that a barbecue joint is somehow this museum preserving all the old methods is just a fallacy.
Where did the idea for developing that story of beef plate come from?
The more I've been doing these longer interviews with barbecue people, the more I get out of them. I interviewed Billy McDonald about probably 18 months ago and interviewed Roland Lindsey of Bodacious Barbecue here recently, and they both talked about beef plate. And then I went up and interviewed a guy from Amarillo, and he talked about cooking beef plate and that the guy he worked for learned it in Dallas. I just thought that was a crazy connection. They way they served it in Dallas years ago, barbecue is still being served that way in the Lubbock-Amarillo area; just, they're using brisket now. So, I love seeing those sort of odd idiosyncrasies of Texas barbecue. People from outside of Texas and even people from inside Texas want there to be this one true Texas barbecue, and that's just bullshit. There is no one Texas barbecue; it's just too damn big of a place. So whenever I can find little nooks like that within our barbecue history, it's fun. Then, what really spurred it on is the fact that, completely oblivious to the history of beef navel in Dallas, Cattleack Barbecue and Lockhart Smokehouse Plano both started cooking beef belly. For Will Fleishman [of Lockhart Plano], his distributor Local Yocal in McKinney had beef belly and they didn't really know what to do with it, so he bought it, started smoking it and doing it as a special. It was just something fun to try. He thought it was cool when I told him what I was working on. He's the kind of guy that finds interest in that sort of history and those little bits of trivia.
In the current barbecue boom, especially in a city like Dallas, where is the tipping point or the saturation point or the point when the barbecue bubble goes bust?
There will be a tipping point, but I'm done predicting when it will come. I've answered similar questions to this one and had discussions with barbecue people about the sustainability of it all for about five years now. And here we are in 2015, and Aaron Franklin is winning a James Beard award. What we've got to remember is that the tipping point in Texas, and in Kansas City, and places like that that have that rich barbecue history, is a lot different from the tipping point in other places that barbecue has more recently spread to. Barbecue will always be popular in Texas. The tipping point here will be that yes, some barbecue restaurants will have to close doors, but barbecue will never go away in Texas.
If there are any left, what are a couple of your favorite off-the-beaten-path barbecue experiences, maybe extending beyond Dallas proper and into the Metroplex?
A: I think one that's really good that not a ton of people are talking about yet is Meat U Anywhere BBQ up in Grapevine. I think they do a really good job, really good place. I think that their strong suit is their Friday-Saturday specials, where they do prime rib, smoked tenderloin and beef ribs, and they're really fantastic. And I think Mac's, which is one of the places I love going to, and it's over on the other side of Deep Ellum. Billy McDonald runs it. It's just a throwback place. I'm kind of surprised they're not still doing beef plate. It just kind of has that feel to it. You know, wood paneling on the walls, photos of his dad when they were over at their old place over on Young Street. They've moved around a bit and have been in their building since the 80s, and that area has changed so much around them, kind of completely in the opposite way that the buildings have changed around this place [Uptown]. And I just think it's a cool little throwback place. I usually just go in and get a chopped beef sandwich. They have some of my favorite fries in Dallas. Just a cool spot that I don't think gets enough love. If somebody comes in from out of town and they want to go eat at Pecan Lodge, of course I always take them there; I love Pecan Lodge. But if they have the time, I love to take them right down the street to Mac's to see the complete other side of barbecue in Dallas.
With all the experience that the knowledge gained over the last eight-plus years doing your thing, is there ever a thought of jumping in?
NO. The more I do it, the less thought there is. No way. I'm sure a lot of barbecue joint owners, especially ones that I might criticize heavily, feel like I'm in a privileged position that I don't have to toil and do it, and I understand that, too. If I'm going to get paid to drive around the state and eat barbecue and learn about it, study it and write about it, then I'm going to keep doing that. Can you imagine if I were to ever open a barbecue joint, how much people would love to say that it sucked? But the bottom line is that it's so much work, and the more I do this job, the more I talk to barbecue people, the more I appreciate how hard they do have to work to do it, and the more I understand how I never want to do it. I've been put into a privileged position that I am not taking for granted, because I know the other side of the business is a hell of a lot harder.