Restaurant Reviews

Supreme Being of barbecue

I thought Newt Gingrich was out of his mind when I read in a December New Yorker article that he favored using space stations to employ disabled people. But hey, I'm--excuse the expression--liberal. I try to keep an open mind. And recently I started toying with an equally wacky solution to some social ills.

It started with this review meal, lunch at a new barbecue joint on Lovers Lane called, of all things, Zeus' Smokehouse.

You can't miss the bright red house on West Lovers, but I haven't driven that strip in some time. My tip came from a friend whose physician happens to be the father of one of Zeus' owners. He's probably anxious for his son to succeed in the barbecue business because he's the one who probably paid his law-school tuition.

That's right: one of Zeus' owners is a former attorney, Bryan Miller, who, as he said, "got fed up" with practicing law and decided to start smoking meat. And, as my precocious nephew--dining companion for the day--suggested, perhaps that would be a good idea for all attorneys.

What do you think? Should we write and suggest this to Newt? Instead of state bars, state barbecues? Why does this strike me as so much more useful? As something that would actually contribute toward relieving the world's ills rather than suing someone for causing them?

Well, I don't know what kind of attorney Mr. Miller was, but his barbecue is damn good. You'd think he'd been smoking all his life.

It turns out that he and his partner, Tolbert Marks (who also owns a telecommunications consulting firm, which I assume means you can call him to ask how to program your VCR or which remote goes to which TV), entered a barbecue contest in Taylor, Texas, several years ago and got hooked on the barbecue business. After catering together for a while, they decided to go after it full time and boy, is it full time--they smoke their beef for about 20 hours.

You place your order at a counter, but a server brought us our food on those rimmed metal trays they use in beer joints. (Zeus is billed as a "smokehouse and pub," too; there's a table shuffleboard in one corner and a selection of beer beyond Bud.) I suppose I expected trickery to replace technique in an attorney's barbecue, but only a few of the menu choices raised our eyebrows because of their ingenuity--barbecued-beef-based Frito pie and the "Zeus' Wrap," chopped beef in a flour tortilla. The rest of it was straightforward: beef, chopped or sliced; sausage, regular or jalapeno; chicken, turkey, ham, ribs. Sides include beans (pinto, spiced with jalapeno, "never canned," says the menu), beans (black, with cheese and sour cream) and beans (cold, green, marinated), as well as cole slaw and potato salad.

But this isn't one of those new-style barbecue places that promotes eating flora as much as fauna. The starch is just here to help you digest the animal protein or something. Soft drinks come in bottles.

Good barbecue is held to be kind of mystique--a hot, smoking ritual best performed in grimy, out-of the way places, using special woods, special concoctions to rub on the meat, special sauce to douse it with, skills that you acquire over a hickory-infused lifetime. Mr. Miller and Mr. Marks are sprouts by those standards, but I would say that they're fast learners of a slow skill.

You can't hurry smoke, and time tells in every bite of the best barbecue, which this is. The beef is tender, smoky, red-striped and lean as the best, the tough-skinned sausage juicy and spicy. The beef in a tortilla is a simple but brilliant idea, the flaky tortilla folded expertly around the ends to prevent leakage and proving to be a much more practical and flavorful package than the usual soft bun. (Though to be fair, even the buns had received proper attention here, being toasted just enough to prevent disintegration--so you didn't wind up with a few strands of beef and a useless bread wad, but ended your meal with a discernible sandwich.) The barbecue Frito pie was a nice, incredibly hefty variation of a junk-food classic, a bowl of chopped beef topped with beans, cheese, and some hunks of sausage. And, of course, Fritos.

The chicken was prize-winning poultry, a textbook smoked chicken, a perfect precedent for all pit-cooked chickens to come. The skin was smoked to a deep mahogany color, the bird had been cooked slowly, coolly, and carefully, so that all the fat had been rendered and the skin was a thin shell of leather over the tender pink meat.

I believe I was the only female there at lunchtime, and the place was full; my nephew and my son were certainly the only ones under 21. Almost without exception, the clientele we saw were conservatively suited, overcoated, pinstriped, rep-striped. None seemed to be engaged in any risky business such as, say, advertising. Many seemed to know each other--maybe members of the same firm or lending institution. I'm speculating. They never would.

Life in Dallas can be a discouraging thing. We think Speed is high culture and measure a good restaurant in pounds and dollars. But there are a few bright spots. I take heart in the number of good barbecue joints Dallas has gained in the last year or so. Yes, some good ones have come and gone. I'll miss Harry Singleton's beef and big mouth (heart and soul). But by and large, we've gained more than we've lost.

So why Zeus? Because, answered Mr. Miller, this will be the king of barbecue. (Adds Mr. Marks, we didn't want this to be just another Joe's barbecue joint.)

And, appropriately, because good barbecue is ambrosial, food for the gods, one of the crowning achievements of this particular culture.

Zeus' Smokehouse and Pub, 4615 West Lovers Lane, 902-2273. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Zeus' Smokehouse & Pub:
Sliced Beef Plate $6.50
Chopped Beef Sandwich $3.50
2 Meat Combo Plate $7.95
Zeus' Wrap $2
Lemon Short Bread $.95

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Mary Brown Malouf