My first brisket taco was a major disappointment. Not because it wasn't good -- the first taco in my two-taco order disappeared in just over a minute -- but because it was so far from what I'd pictured when I first heard of brisket tacos.
Brisket is a Texas thing, right? A half-crazy pit master with missing teeth sits beside a smoldering heap of metal for 18 hours straight, waiting for absolutely perfect results that are then sliced, wrapped in paper, and devoured in an instant. That's brisket. So, in my mind, a brisket taco should take those same slices, plop them in a tortilla and call it a day.
The brisket taco I had on that hot July day, though, was dripping with braised and stringy meat. This looks more like barbacoa, I thought for a second. I didn't really care, though. The second taco was gone before I finished the thought.
My enthusiasm for brisket tacos vanished just as quickly, though. They just weren't interesting enough, and Dallas had a lot of other tacos to try. But a Twitter request for a brisket taco comparison renewed my enthusiasm, and it even kicked off a taco crawl (read about in this week's paper, or here) that led us to five different taco joints across Dallas. But for all the tacos I tried, I still wanted the taco I envisioned back before I even knew what a brisket taco really was.
That dream taco featured a perfect slice of smoked brisket, so I picked up the phone and called Justin Fourton, the man behind Pecan Lodge, which often turns out some of Dallas' very best. Fourton said he'd be happy to make me my dream taco, so on a rainy Saturday afternoon I headed over to the Dallas Farmers Market, Shed #2.
It was just before 2 p.m. A line was still running more than 10 deep, and plates of blackened meat and fried chicken covered every table in front of the Lodge. Fourton took me back in the kitchen and we got to work, while the kitchen crew plated up meats on the other side of a stainless steel steam table.
"NO MORE SLICED BRISKET, ONLY SANDWICHES!" a black t-shirt clad worker belted out to the cashier out front. Pecan Lodge stays open till 3 p.m. or till the meat runs out, and the hot box that keeps brisket, sausages and ribs warm was running thin. The place was noisy but controlled as the line plated meats. Fourton told me they used to carry tacos but gave up.
"We took them of the menu because the amount of prep that went into them," he said, describing the multiple sauces and toppings they developed for the tacos. When Pecan Lodge first opened, barbecue accounted 15-20 percent of sales, but as the meat gathered a reputation that number swelled, completely eclipsing other food sales. Now Fourton says 85-90 percent of his sales are in smoked meat.
"NO MORE HOT MESSES!" the line manager yelled, as he plated up a massive roasted sweet potato covered in shredded cheese, scallions, and a mountain of braised meat. Meanwhile, Fourton got to work building my dream taco.
He heated up a couple of white corn tortillas in a non-stick skillet coated with a mist of oil from a spray bottle. When the tortillas were warm, he used a massive chef knife to shave thin, well formed slices from a hunk of lean brisket he salvaged before they ran out.
"NO MORE SAUSAGE!"
The kitchen was eighty-sixing meats by the minute. Only ribs and a few shreds of brisket now basked under the glow of a heating lamp.
Fourton carefully placed the slices into the preheated tortillas, and topped them with a cabbage and jicama slaw he'd dressed in a cilantro vinaigrette. A smoked guajillo crema added body, and pickled red onions balanced the fatty flavors and added color, too.
This taco is going to beat the shit out of Torchy's, I thought, as I watched Fourton bend over the prep table. His ball cap obscured his face as he carefully placed paper thin slices of jalapeno chili on each of the rounds. It's not really fair to compare the brisket at Pecan lodge to the brisket in a taco at a taco shop, but I didn't care. My first bite was so big I couldn't tell Fourton what I thought of his creation.
He probably knew, though. I was grinning ear to ear as I sucked guajillo crema off my fingertips. As Fourton brainstormed other taco ideas involving burnt ends and fatty brisket, his words receded and blended in with the din of a bustling kitchen. I couldn't hear him. I was bathing in taco euphoria.
"This gonna be on the menu?" I interrupted.
"It might be," Fourton replied.
You could see him mulling it over, but he really had no idea. For now, this brisket taco is still just a dream.