It's nearly 40 miles from the Dallas Observer offices to Tender Smokehouse in Celina, a fact that spurred some internal debate before our visit. We can almost write the Facebook comments ourselves from readers who will think we've ventured too far north to be relevant.
But North Texas food is about so much more than what goes on within Dallas city limits. As the population continues to seep outside the traditionally accepted boundaries of DFW, it's harder to define where the metro area ends and the rest of Texas begins. Judging by the number of new housing developments you'll spot as you drive through northern Frisco and Prosper and into Celina, there's no doubt residents of these parts consider themselves part of the fabric of DFW.
Dante Ramirez is Tender Smokehouse's owner and pitmaster, and he makes a similarly long drive five days a week from his home in Grapevine to Celina's newest barbecue joint. Thank goodness he does because the barbecue at Tender Smokehouse is swipe-right worthy.
Tender makes its home in a cozy brick building just off the square in downtown Celina, which still drips with small-town charm despite being swept up in exurbs' rapid northern growth. Step inside from the patio to where a large chalkboard menu overlooks the counter where orders are placed. Meats are reasonably priced by the quarter-pound, with the exception of Tender's spare ribs, which come either as a half ($10) or full slab ($20). Customers can also order their meats on sandwiches or loaded into baked potatoes, while a kids' menu will keep the toddlers happy until their barbecue palates mature.
We settled on a quarter-pound each of brisket ($5), pulled pork ($5) and jalapeño-cheddar sausage ($4.50), added a side of potato salad ($2) and banana pudding ($4) to round out the meal, then headed back to the restaurant's modestly sized dining room. We weren't seated long before Ramirez brought out our tray of food, dressed with two triangles of ultra-buttery Texas toast, housemade pickles and sliced onions.
Two bites in — as we were about to declare our love to the brisket, with its perfectly rendered fat encapsulated by a textbook bark — Ramirez reappeared with a small tray holding another slice of brisket cut into three pieces.
"It's wagyu brisket, raised right here in Celina," he said.
As good as the regular brisket was, the A Bar N Ranch wagyu was a step above, like finding out that your penthouse hotel room has an indoor swimming pool. The wagyu is a special item only available on Saturdays, and these melt-in-your mouth morsels are well worth the drive north on a lazy weekend, but the standard brisket didn't disappoint, either.
Lest you think we get free barbecue samples as a perk of the trade, that's simply not the case. As if on cue, Ramirez, unprompted, brought a few spare ribs to the couple sitting next to us.
"The closer you sit to me at the window, the more likely I'll bring you a sample," Ramirez said. Consider your seating choices accordingly when you visit.
As enamored as we were with the brisket, we can't give short shrift to the rest of our order. The jalapeño-cheese sausage (also locally sourced) had an endearing heat from the jalapeños mixed with copious globules of cheese and finely ground pork. If we were forced to pick favorites, the pulled pork would probably land in third place. It's moist and tender, but we wished it had a touch more smokiness. However, a dash of Tender's housemade barbecue sauce rescued the pork nicely and goes well with any of the meats we ordered.
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You can also count us as fans of Tender's potato salad. Large cubes of redskin potatoes and hard-boiled eggs live in the salad, which hit the perfect balance of creamy and chunky. The banana pudding, thoughtfully kept chilled until diners call for it, was somehow thick and creamy while still fluffy and light, with plenty of banana chunks and crunchy vanilla wafers.
Celina is rapidly growing from a sleepy Texas town to the next suburb to be swallowed by the sprawling city, the merits of which are certainly debatable. But just like Frisco, Plano and Dallas to the south, Celina has its own rush hour on Preston Road and now has a barbecue joint in Tender Smokehouse that's worthy of the drive.
Tender Smokehouse, 224 W. Pecan St., Celina. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.