What were long ago considered the unwanted scraps from a finely smoked brisket have rightly become a modern-day barbecue delicacy — a rich, indulgent pile of meat and fat and bark known as burnt ends.
Legend has it, burnt ends used to practically be given away; the unattractive, fatty trimmings considered a mere byproduct. These days, it's an increasingly popular menu item at barbecue joints where, due to its obscenely indulgent flavor profile, it's often sold by the quarter-pound, meant to be a small treat rather than the meal's main event.
In short, burnt ends are made by trimming the point from brisket, chopping it up and returning it to the smoker, usually with additional seasoning. The resulting dish, when done well, is a bit sweet and salty and often has crispy charred bits. Good burnt ends fall apart easily, parts of it melting in a fatty pool in your mouth. Many places will just chop up a whole brisket and cook it in the manner of burnt ends — that is, with additional seasoning and further smoking — but the best burnt ends are naturally occurring and served with love, or perhaps even sauce.
Before no-sauce purists come at me with pitchforks, understand burnt ends' origin — and why this is one barbecue order that's perfectly acceptable to enjoy sauced. They may be made with brisket, a Texas favorite, but Kansas City deserves all the credit for this one. And in Kansas City, sauce is king.
"It's a really flavorful bite. It's kind of a litmus test for a place," said Matt Dallman, owner and pitmaster at 18th and Vine, a Kansas City-style barbecue spot that opened in Oak Lawn late last year. "They're rich. I don't really see people having it as a whole meal."
Some have called burnt ends the "bacon of barbecued meats," but Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, loosely compared burnt ends to rich delicacies like foie gras. "A little foie gras is good, but do you want a whole lobe of it?" he asked.
In Kansas City, where the dish originated, burnt ends are tossed in sweet, molasses-y sauce and often served as a sandwich on white bread. In fact, Dallman said, that's how he can tell when a Kansas City native is dining at 18th and Vine — they always ask for bread with their burnt ends.
Of course, Texas can't help but put its own spin on any dish involving brisket, which is why you'll find burnt ends on the menus or on special at a growing number of DFW barbecue spots. If you're itching to try this indulgent little meat pile, here's where to start:
18th and Vine
4100 Maple Ave.
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday
For a taste of the textbook Kansas City-style burnt end, 18th and Vine is the place to go. The point is chopped into chunks, tossed in sauce and brown sugar and tossed back onto the smoker where the fat continues to render, yielding a delightful caramelization on the bark.
"People love 'em," Dallman said. They love them so much that Dallman had to take burnt ends off the main meat menu and serve a smaller, appetizer-sized portion instead. In the short time he's been running 18th and Vine, he said he's seen more and more burnt ends around DFW.
"When I first moved here, I was telling people what burnt ends are all the time," he said. "Now people just are coming and looking for 'em on the menu."
The burnt ends have proven to be one of the more popular dishes at 18th and Vine, a spot that's more barbecue restaurant than barbecue joint — the white cloth napkins, live jazz and books lining the walls give it a more upscale feel. But it's still all about the meat. Until hiring a new pitmaster recently, Dallman was showing up at 5 a.m. daily to work the pit. For him, it's all worth it to have a taste of his hometown in Dallas — and to spread the gospel of burnt ends.
Currently: 201 E Hattie St., Fort Worth
New location opening soon: 1109 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
To get anything from this Fort Worth food truck, be prepared to make a little effort: Aside from the 40-minute drive west, diners will probably be waiting in line for awhile. On my visit, I arrived 10 minutes before the truck opened only to find that dozens of others had arrived far earlier. After a 90-minute wait, I got what I came for: Heim's infamous bacon burnt ends.
Heim takes a slab of pork belly, cures and smokes it, and cools it down. Then it gets a generous coat of Heim's pork rub, is cubed and smoked hot to create these glorious fatty cubes with a sweet caramelized exterior that packs plenty of peppery bite. It's basically meat candy — which is why 1/4-lb. of these bad boys is plenty, just enough to appreciate the effort that went into making them.
"In all it's a three- to four-day process for one day's bacon burnt ends," said owner Travis Heim. The dish came into existence after a bacon-themed pop-up dinner where these gluttonous morsels stole the show.
"I smoked a bunch of our homemade bacon and our first course was the bacon burnt ends — everyone couldn't stop eating them, though, and we ended up having a ton of everything else left over," Heim said. "So back then we thought if we were ever able to open a restaurant, we would have to put those on the menu."
Brisket is a top-seller for Heim, of course, but the burnt ends usually sell out first.
"We're cooking between 40 to 50 pounds of bacon burnt ends a day, but we'll still have people that will take 2 pounds or more to go," Heim said. "It's crazy."
Crazy, yes — crazy delicious. Get in line early. Heim is currently parked at Republic Street Bar, which is happy to supply beer and bloody marys to help those in line pass the time until Heim moves into its new brick-and-mortar location on Magnolia.
"We're hoping the restaurant will be open first or second week of April, but until then we'll be in the food truck," Heim said.
13628 Gamma Road
Get your burn on: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday & Friday
Much like Heim's barbecue truck, Cattleack makes you work for it. This beloved barbecue spot, curiously nestled in a street filled with nondescript office buildings, opens for lunch only two days a week, and there's a line. Don't despair, for the line moves quickly and free beer is in a cooler by the cash register. Plus, as Cattleack's been posting on social media, the line tends to run down by 1 p.m., while there's still plenty of meat to be had.
Burnt ends aren't on the standard menu here, so keep an eye on the specials — on my last visit, pastrami burnt ends stole the show. Appropriately salty but still gloriously rich, these burnt ends were the perfect intersection of classic pastrami and fatty burnt ends. Also on the menu that day: burnt end beans, a classic barbecue side which made for a rich, smoky side dish that was anything but an afterthought.
2702 Main St.
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Deep Ellum's hallowed temple of smoked meats does burnt ends too, and they are absolutely massive. Towering on the tray, these bad boys had all the hallmarks of good burnt ends: a little sweetness, a little salt, tons of fat and serious bark. Pecan Lodge serves these on special Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes on Sunday.
Hungry people line up for these burnt ends (especially since they're served only on weekends), but they're worth the wait. And here's a tip: Those willing to take a seat at the bar can order from a bartender and bypass the line. Burnt ends and beer are a match made in heaven.
400 W. Davis St. and 1026 E. 15th St., Plano
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Bishop Arts) and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Plano) Thursday
Barbecue spots take one of two routes when it comes to burnt ends: They either chop up standard brisket cuts and give 'em the burnt ends treatment to meet customer demand, or they chop up the brisket's point, and when the points run out, they're out. Lockhart Smokehouse takes the latter approach, only serving their burnt ends as a special on Thursdays.
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Lockhart's burnt ends were worth the wait, despite the fact that my batch was a bit too salty for my taste. They were beautifully tender with great bark, and indulgent enough that I had to set them aside to focus on the brisket deviled eggs just to come back to earth.
1901 Abrams Road
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Lakewood Smokehouse serves two kinds of burnt ends on its permanent menu — unsauced and "KC Style." Available by the pound or under the "house specialties" menu as a dish with two sides, I opted for the sauced burnt ends because in this arena, Kansas City may very well know best.
These big, peppery morsels — tossed in a thick, tangy "Texas original style" sauce and double-smoked — felt a little less indulgent than other burnt ends. Of all the burnt ends I tried, these weren't the strongest, but seeing two styles of the dish on this new barbecue joint's menu could be a sign that more burnt ends may be cropping up on local menus, not just on the day's list of specials.
3 Stacks Smoke & Tap House
4226 Preston Road, Frisco
Get your burn on: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Here's a pro tip: Sister smokehouses Lakewood and 3 Stacks have the exact same menu, so Frisco folk might as well save themselves the trouble of driving south — they'll find the same two burnt ends options at 3 Stacks.