All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
I've missed the lunch rush at Mac's Bar-B-Que, such as it is, and I'm the only patron in the building. Billy McDonald greets me warmly and asks what I'd like: chopped beef, extra sauce, side of cole slaw, iced tea. While he slices off some brisket and chops it into pieces, I ask if I can take a few photos.
"Sure, but I don't see why," McDonald says. "As you can see, not a whole lot's changed."
He's right. First opened in Dallas in 1955, Mac's Bar-B-Que has been in its current spot on the edge of Deep Ellum since McDonald's dad bought the land in 1982. McDonald helped his mom and dad build the place that looks much the same today as it did back then. The question is, how much longer will McDonald's be around?
The building, the land and the barbecue business that's been the building's sole tenant are for sale, and have been for some time, first noted when The Dallas Morning News' Robert Wilonsky reported it back in 2015.
"I thought I'd put it out there and see what happens," McDonald says. "But when he wrote that article, it kind of hurt us a little bit, cause the way he wrote the article, it was like we were already gone. People still come in and say, 'I thought you were already gone.'"
Another side effect from the Morning News story has been the number of people who show some interest in buying the property, although none have come with the right price. "Every jerk that's in the real estate business has been in here ... they're trying to steal your worth," McDonald says.
As I unwrap my chopped beef sandwich, McDonald talks of what will become of his barbecue joint after he's moved on.
"This won't be a restaurant, and if it is, it's temporary," he says. "I see this area, in five years from now, looking like McKinney Avenue. I think there will be high-end bars, high-end food." What if someone wanted to keep the place open, I ask? Would he consider selling the family name?
"There's always the right price, as you know," he says. "No is not no."
McDonald's longtime employee Deb Schulz doesn't see Mac's living on in perpetuity. "They're not gonna keep it," she says. "Someone will come in and buy the whole block."
Losing Mac's would be a shame, because there aren't many barbecue joints left that combine Mac's simplicity and legacy, which perfectly describes the chopped beef sandwich in front of me. The beef is chopped to order, sauced if you want it (you do) and piled onto a bun. The sauce accentuates with a perfect tang that doesn't hide the beef flavor, and I find myself picking up small morsels of meat left after I finish the sandwich.
"I just use a little bit of salt, a little bit of pepper," McDonald says of his brisket. "I leave the fat on it, otherwise it dries out," he says, but the fat is trimmed before the beef is chopped for the sandwich. "It's not one of those greasy messy things. It works for barbecue," he says. "It's hard to reinvent the wheel."
At Mac's, the sauce is part of what makes the magic. "It's not overbearing," he says. "It's not trying to disguise the meat. That sauce recipe is probably 50 or 60 years old."
Is that sauce recipe for sale, too? McDonald pauses.
"Like I said, everything's got a price," he says.
My chat with Deb and Billy wanders from how quickly other properties around him are selling to a recent visit from a city health inspector who was shocked that McDonald makes his own potato salad. McDonald knows he's not gimmicky or trendy like some of the area's more popular barbecue spots.
"I see people come in for the first time, and I know they won't be back," he says. "They're expecting a gimmick, and that's not us. We're just a little bit different than everyone else."
It's those lack of gimmicks that makes Mac's unique, but for how much longer? It's hard for McDonald to say.
"I'm not planning on going away until that right person comes through that door," he says.
Mac's Bar-B-Que, 3933 Main St.
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