Even over the phone, you can feel Corey Toney's smile when he talks about his South Dallas barbecue joint, C.T.'s Real Deal BBQ. "There's a brick pit back there," he says. "When that hickory gets in the pit, it just seasons the brick—you can really taste it."
He's right, but the bail bondsman-turned-restaurateur only allows you a few seconds to dwell on how all that hickory might enhance the taste of his barbecue before redirecting the conversation to his bouts with City Hall bureaucracy and the peculiarities of South Dallas politics. It's never easy to make changes, especially in this part of town. So when Toney finished a $240,000 remodel and applied for a liquor license, he was met with intense scrutiny—several rounds of code inspections requiring a series of additional fixes to the building—and the denial of his liquor application.
Neighborhood fears that approval of beer sales at his restaurant would encourage drinking and attract drug users initially caused some locals to shy away from the place. Sales plummeted from $1,600 a day after he opened to $300 a day after his fight for liquor license approval went public. It's no wonder Toney sounds discouraged. Recounting the process, he can understand why affordable housing developers Brian Potashnik and Bill Fisher might think it was necessary to spread cash around to get their projects approved by politicos like convicted former City Councilman Don Hill and his appointee to the City Plan Commission, D'Angelo Lee. Sometimes, he says, it feels as though "you got to pay too many people," if you want to get things done.
Abruptly, he shifts from South Dallas politics to South Dallas barbecue and wants to know how I liked his catfish. Some barbecue aficionados discount venues that serve from a broader menu—but this is also a soul food place, with chitlins and greens—and he refers to the catfish with such "that's my recipe" pride, you can almost feel him beaming again. I can't vouch for the man's political savvy, but his catfish is some of the best you'll find in Dallas, at least judging from my order. Firm, porcelain-colored flesh is crusted by a thick and pebbly meal. Speckled with just enough salt and a current of subtle heat, it's the kind that elevated the lowly mud dweller from the tables of poor sharecroppers to a regional staple—although this time the recipe isn't entirely his. "I got it from Demps," he admits. The man behind Demps Catfish had approached Toney and told him someone needed to keep the recipe alive.
Good thing too—C.T.'s sells 120 pounds of catfish a week now, though the fish deserves better sides than a handful of sad fries, some pickle slices and a couple pieces of supermarket white bread. This is the sort of catfish you'd expect at Kent Rathbun's high-toned, down-home restaurant.
As I was blissfully unaware of his backstory dramatics on my visits, my attention was also directed toward some of the smokiest brisket served in South Dallas—or north, east and west, for that matter.
On sandwiches, it appears in all-too-dry scraps. In full slices, however, it is fatty, tender and so thoroughly infused with burning wood you don't realize its full power until the drive home, with the warm, acrid flavor coating your palate. If I made a mistake in ordering, it was to not ask for sauce on the side. The guy in line ahead of me did, and he probably left even happier than me, able to use the sweet-tart wash of vinegar and tomato more sparingly. The ribs provoke an even stronger response, as smoke and seasonings condense into a densely packed leathery veneer. These are all about the pit work, for the meat is thin, lean and fully loaded with hickory.
Toney says he changed little in the pit from the days when the building stood as Hardeman's Bar-BQ—its name for three generations, until ailing Olivia Hardeman asked him if he would take over the place after she passed. He kept four longtime employees, one who'd been working the kitchen for 30 years, and began to fix up the wear-and-tear spots, inside and out.
Frankly, it's hard to see where he sank $240,000. The restaurant has a wood panel interior with long, cafeteria-style tables and a simple buffet line. But Toney assures me, "The place was in bad shape; you should have seen it before." And he did add two flat-panel TV monitors, a new paint job outside and some clean signage promising soul food, catfish and WiFi.
Despite so many things in his favor, Toney isn't satisfied. "We've got new customers, and the old ones are coming back," he says, "but I've lost a lot of money." It's not an easy business, with or without the intrigues of South Dallas politics. And when you add the words "soul food" to a name, expectations become even more difficult to manage.
To be clear, soul food was really the daily fare of rural Southerners, black and white, who had experienced hard times. My dad, who was born into a poor farming family, grew up on greens, chitlins, catfish, cornbread, pork skin and the like—and he has red hair and freckles. So the phrase carries two connotations, one regarding race and the other class. Both weigh on expectations. "There are so many dirty soul food places that have great food," Toney explains. "But when a place looks clean and modern, it tends to have bad food."
Hence his problem: After renovating the space he realized that people who love soul food are suspicious of good-looking restaurants. Maybe that's why his efforts to spiff up the place seem to have stopped short of pristine.
There are other problems—small ones, but perhaps as telling. The black-eyed peas and greens I tried were prepared without the helping of pork that adds fat and flavor. Fried okra probably, when pulled from the vat, had been bold, peppery, greasy and brilliant, but my order sat for some time in a buffet tray, turning it into a chewy disappointment. A "stir-fry" dish on their lunch menu one afternoon was an odd combination of potato chunks, vegetables with a desiccated texture and thick slices of barbecued sausage. Asian chefs would have gagged; short order cooks in a 24-hour diner would serve it as breakfast hash. But I suspect barbecue fans would discard all the non-meat elements and revel in that rich, spicy-smoky flavor oozing from the sausage itself.
C.T.'s Real Deal is best when it stays within the bounds set by Hardeman's and broadened by Toney's stock of recipes. The kitchen fares worse when it comes to side dishes, keeping things basic rather than Southern. And it doesn't really possess the range necessary to pull off odd stir-fry concoctions.
Whether any of this matters is another question entirely. Folks from Uptown and beyond rarely venture into South Dallas. It was a hard sell to get friends to accompany me, and I was buying. Toney wants a mixed crowd, but says, "The majority of our customers are older blacks" and a few die-hard barbecue fans.
Even as it continues to expand its customer base, C.T.'s focus remains on what it does best: frying great catfish and smoking worthy brisket for a crowd that appreciates the rarity of both. Sure, Toney would like that license to sell beer and wine. But you know what? The Kool-Aid he serves instead is pretty damn sweet.C.T.s Real Deal BBQ 2901 S. Lancaster Road, 214-302-3000. Open 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. $