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Follow the Smoke, North Texas BBQ

Working barbecue magic in the pits at Huntsville's New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo by John DeMers)

Sonny Bryan's (Dallas)

Address: 2202 Inwood Road, Dallas
Phone: (214) 357-7120
Established: 1958, with roots in 1910
Owners: Walker Harman and partners
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, fried 
onion rings, french fries, potato salad, 
two-meat po’boy
Payment: credit cards

The menu at Sonny Bryan’s is presented on a series of signs posted above the line. Beef brisket and St. Louis-style pork ribs, which make up 80 percent of Sonny’s meat sales, are cooked without any dry rub or mopping sauce on an old brick pit fueled by hickory. In a world that seeks more and more complicated ways to apply smoke to meat, at Bryan’s the meat sits pretty much atop the fire, which therefore must be kept low to cook slow. That about does it for each brisket, which is then sliced or chopped to order. Ribs, on the other hand, get smoked first, then dunked by the rack in barbecue sauce and allowed to marinate in the refrigerator. For service, racks are sliced into ribs, covered with more sauce and finished on a hot grill—thus the delightful, brown-sugary-crisp caramelization around the edges.

Side dishes at Sonny’s are limited and mostly traditional, but nothing outsells the favorite side: fried onion rings with batter engineered by Sonny himself to taste incredible with his barbecue sauce.

Peggy Sue BBQ (Dallas)

Address: 6600 Snider Plaza, Dallas
Phone: (214) 987-9188
Established: 1989
Owner: Marc Hall
Best Bites: baby back ribs, beef brisket, chopped brisket quesadilla, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, coleslaw with boiled 
vinegar dressing, fried apricot pie
Payment: credit cards

Because barbecue is such a tightly focused, obsessive-compulsive cooking style, the number of barbecue guys who’ve enjoyed success with other types of food is actually quite small. Yet Marc Hall is serving up barbecue at Peggy Sue today precisely because his previous Amore and Cisco Grill had already proven to be knockouts in the neighborhood.

“This place was a barbecue joint for 50 years before it closed in the ’80s,” Marc says of the space known long ago as Howard & Peggy’s and later as Peggy’s Beef Bar. “Since we have two other restaurants here, the owners approached us about taking this over. I mean, we kinda looked at it and at each other and said, ‘No thanks.’ Finally, the guy said he’d give it to us rent-free until we figured out what we wanted to do with it. That time we couldn’t help but say yes.”

Marc, who looks like he should play charming, salt-and-pepper college professors in the movies, was smart enough to keep “Peggy” from the place’s original name…especially after he found some of the old porcelain letters lying around.

By adding a wise tribute to his wife, Susan, he not only could reference the hit song “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly of Lubbock but the Francis Ford Coppola nostalgia fest Peggy Sue Got Married, starring Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage. Clearly, something ’50s was going on here, with all those shimmering memories of two-straw milk shakes at diners. So that’s the look Marc went with for his Peggy Sue, made specific to Texas at every opportunity. It’s a bit like The Last Picture Show before the sadness set in.

Still, if the ’50s was very much on Marc’s mind as atmosphere, in terms of food he was thinking both older and younger than those cream-and-butter-besotted days of Eisenhower optimism. “Sometimes people say we’re New Age barbecue,” he laughs, clearly amused by the kinds of things people say. “Come on, all we wanted to do was have some fresh, colorful vegetables with our traditional Texas barbecue. We realized it would be very easy to compete with what we saw out there. Things here are fresh. We don’t buy things in bags.”

In preparation for opening Peggy Sue in 1989, Marc did what any college professor should do: plenty of research. Leaving his Italian and Mexican restaurants in capable hands, he packed Susan and their two young daughters off to discover the best Texas barbecue had to offer. This he found, to his taste anyway, in the Hill Country. Though he was more familiar with the hickory beloved in North Texas, he was seduced entirely by the oak he saw being used in the state’s center—he liked that it wasn’t so sweet. Of course, he talked tirelessly with the pit bosses about those twin barbecue fetishes, time and temperature. “Low and slow” he was told repeatedly, and like a young apprentice (despite his years of restaurant success), he took it all in.

Along the way to opening day, Marc acquired a J&R rotisserie smoker from the nearby town of Mesquite that cooks up to 700 pounds of meat at a time, a smoker capable of handling the brisket that Peggy Sue’s current pit guys cook overnight for about 15 hours. Still, Marc ventured out on his own on one to-him significant point. Instead of the tradition of all meats being finished before the day’s first customer walks in, Peggy Sue keeps meats cooking all night and all day—barbecue’s closest proximity to the French à la minute. Timing to cook brisket to-the-minute isn’t exactly easy when it takes 15 hours.

“On our smoker, the fire is never out,” says Marc. “We’re serving stuff as fresh as we can.”

With a vision of full dinner service more front and center here than at the typical barbecue joint, Marc started with the meats—buying top-quality beef, baby back ribs, Polish kielbasa sausage and even whole turkey breasts, the latter as opposed to “those glued-together things that taste like Jell-O.” 

With the foundation solidly built, he turned his eyes to everything around it: from appetizers like chopped brisket quesadillas and griddled artisan bread to updated sides like fresh spinach or squash casserole, to dessert. For each meal’s final flourish, Peggy Sue concentrates on the one thing every Texan knows is better than a freshly baked pie—a freshly fried one. This required caloric research as well, but Marc and his girls finally tracked down the perfect combination of thick, flaky, buttery crust with sweet-but-not-too-sweet fruit filling. Apricot seems to be the favorite of all concerned.

“It’s all high quality and it’s all extremely consistent,” Marc says, speaking as someone who knows the restaurant drill. “And it’s all full service. We wanted to be not a cafeteria.”

Clark's Outpost (Tioga)

Address: 101 Highway 377 at Gene Autry Drive, Tioga
Phone: (940) 437-2414
Established: 1974
Owners: James Hilliard, Jeff Wells and Steve Gressett
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, Polish sausage, potato salad, barbecue beans, jalapeño black-eyed peas, deep-fried corn on the cob
Payment: credit cards

The hometown of singing cowboy Gene Autry has a population of 754…except when Clark’s Outpost gets really busy.

“It’s kind of a destination,” explains Jeff Wells, “with an old building and good food.” He smiles. “And the chance to get outta Dallas.” 

The perfect meal at Clark’s Outpost should include as much brisket as possible—cut thicker than usual because it’s so tender—plus some St. Louis-style pork ribs smoked for 8 to 9 hours. Unless you detour for an order of smoked rainbow trout (from Idaho, of all places) or any of the Tex-Mex dishes, simply accompany your meats with potato salad, brown-sugary barbecue beans, jalapeño-kissed black-eyed peas, and one truly bizarre idea: deep-fried corn on the cob.

Country Tavern (Kilgore)

Address: State Highway 31 at FM 2767, Kilgore
Phone: (903) 984-9954
Established: 1939
Owner: Toby Pilgrim
Best Bites: pork ribs, sausage, beef brisket, potato salad, beans, cobbler (pecan, peach or blackberry)
Payment: credit cards

Like so many cooking “secrets,” the secret to Country Tavern’s exquisite ribs is mostly no secret at all. Toby starts with better-quality meat than just about anybody. They’re not spareribs, not the omnipresent St. Louis cut, but something called “pork loin back ribs”—like tender “baby backs” except larger, each rack weighing 21/2 to 3 pounds. These marinate in a dry rub the family makes with upwards of 20 ingredients, many tending toward the sweet. Maxie taught Toby’s dad, and Toby’s dad taught Toby, to re-apply more of the rub once the ribs have been smoking awhile. The seasonings stick better that way, once the sugars on the ribs have begun to caramelize. 
If you’ve come to doubt words like “best-ever,” if you’ve come to question every such exuberance, just take a bite of Country Tavern’s ribs.

Bodacious Bar-B-Q (Mount Pleasant)

Address: 100 W. Ferguson Road, Mount Pleasant
Phone: (903) 572-7860
Established: 1973, this location in 1979      
Owner: Bob Adams
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, sausage, broccoli-cauliflower salad, homemade soups, stuffed baked potatoes, cornbread
Payment: credit cards

Before Bodacious had exploded into a chain with something like 25 locations in different parts of Texas, it was just one little joint in Longview. So when a bank that held the note on a struggling barbecue place in Mount Pleasant decided to foreclose, it called in the couple who gave every indication of knowing how to make the thing work.
The couple took over the Mount Pleasant location and worked in it for about a week before selling it to the woman’s brother. And when that brother was ready to sell after five years, he called his brother in Dallas. Bob Adams had spent several years selling fountain drinks to restaurants for Dr. Pepper. He figured that if some of the people he sold to could operate a restaurant, then he could, too. He packed up his family and headed east out of Dallas on Interstate 30.

“That was November of 1979,” says Bob. “I still buy my meat from the same guy, and I still get my wood from the same guy, who has a bunch of land with trees all over it. These days, that’s mighty unusual. Most places shop around. But I don’t.”

Considering the familiarity of the Bodacious Bar-B-Q brand, it’s fascinating how little Bob’s place looks, feels, acts or smells like a chain restaurant. It all goes back to the beginning, of course. When Bob bought in, there was no chain. It was his responsibility to figure things out, either from what his brother told him or simply using his head. To this day, while he uses barbecue sauce and seasonings made at the Bodacious plant in White Oak, he puts on his menu whatever he wants—and cooks it by whatever recipe he wants. For Bob Adams, there are no Bodacious Police.

“I’m not really a part of all that,” he says. “I don’t go to their meetings or go by their handbook. I’m sure they got rules, but I don’t know anything about that.”
What Bob does know about is making barbecue, and making a pretty good living doing it. For his meats, he goes exclusively with oak wood, dividing it between a rotisserie smoker that cooks nothing but 30 briskets at a time and an old-fashioned flat smoker with racks for pork ribs, sausage, turkey and chicken. Bob smokes his briskets 13 to 17 hours, with the outside temperature having a lot to say about how long, and his ribs about 6 hours. The briskets are plain—not so much as salt and pepper, and definitely no sauce. The ribs get a dusting of that official Bodacious seasoning before they go into the smoker.

For being in Texas, Bob does a brisker-than-usual business in pulled pork. At some point, the Pilgrim’s Pride company moved lots of employees from elsewhere to Mount Pleasant—elsewhere in this case meaning places where pork barbecue was popular. Bob got a little tired of these Texas immigrants asking why he had no pork, so he watched a show on the Food Network about cooking the stuff and added it to the menu. As for the Memphis tradition of dressing a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw, however, Bob figures it’s important to draw that line in the sand somewhere. “This is Texas,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s not the Texas deal."

As the menu at Bob’s Bodacious makes clear, a lot of his customers like vegetables. Beyond the standard-issue potato salad, pinto beans and coleslaw (which people from Memphis can use any way they see fit), there are green beans and whole-kernel corn and black-eyed peas, the latter exceptional with the homemade cornbread that seldom lasts beyond lunchtime. Perhaps the most popular vegetable strays a bit from the “healthy” concept, though: chopped broccoli and cauliflower studded with cubes of cheddar cheese and drenched in ranch dressing. It’s vegetables for people who really hate vegetables.

Stuffed baked potatoes are exceedingly popular, particularly topped with plenty of chopped beef. Presumably, Bob makes sure he always has leftover baked potatoes, for these get turned into a huge and happy surprise: a potato soup many a chef would be proud of. This is one of two homemade soups set out for ladling each day, the other being a knockout tomato and vegetable.

Bob glances around his dining room that seats 88 and anticipates the next question: What schizophrenic genius was in charge of décor? All the usual hunting trophies are mixed up with old signs for products and photos of country music stars. Most eye-catching is an impromptu series of framed newspapers and other documents, detailing everything from 1930s politics to the JFK assassination, with stops for the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde and of Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame.

“Everybody wanted to hang their deer horns and their hogs and their fish,” Bob shrugs, a man who knows when to stop fighting back. “I just cleared the walls and let them at it.”

Big Jake's Smokehouse (Texarkana)

Address: 2610 New Boston Road, Texarkana
Phone: (903) 793-1169
Established: 1998
Owners: Matt and Jessica Palmer
Best Bites: beef brisket, chopped beef 
sandwich, pulled pork sandwich, pork ribs, smoked chicken, smoked turkey, spicy pinto beans, fruit cobblers
Payment: credit cards

At the risk of sounding biblical, a man had two barbecue joints. And even though the two barbecue joints offered identical menus, in one place the biggest seller was beef brisket and in the other it was pulled pork. The distance between the two barbecue joints?

“Oh, maybe four or five miles,” says Matt Palmer, owner of Big Jake’s. “Of course, this is Texas, and that over there is Arkansas. In this place, we can barely give away pork shoulder most of the time, cuz here it’s all brisket and sausage. You go a few miles into Arkansas and all they eat is pork shoulder. They love our pulled pork sandwiches, with the coleslaw on top like they do in Memphis…well, that’s optional.”

Big Jake’s isn’t the only thing that goes a few miles into Arkansas—so does Texarkana. Originally thought to sit as a settlement in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana (thus the name), the city finally realized that maybe two of the three ain’t bad. Besides, the entire area is part of a four-state crossroads, weaving Oklahoma and its different tastes into the tapestry. Matt opened the first Big Jake’s on the “Texas side” in 1998 and ran that for three years before adding the other store on the “Arkansas side.” In 2007, a third location came around, in Hope, Arkansas, made famous as the home of former President Bill Clinton.

For Matt, owning three restaurants with his wife, Jessica, before he turned 30 is a bit of a dream come true. Of course, he’s been working in the barbecue business since he was 15, washing dishes and cleaning the dining room while also struggling to master the mysteries of the pit. He worked at several locations of Bodacious spread around East Texas before moving to Texarkana to help open Big Jake’s. Before long, like that guy on TV with the razors, he found himself owning the company.

“I’ve been doing this so long, I could do it with my eyes closed,” says Matt, his eyes checking on customers in every part of this renovated Dairy Queen. “And I’ve got staff that’s been with me since the day we opened the doors.”

The DQ memory remains at Big Jake’s, if you’re able to picture where the entrance used to be and realize you’re eating barbecue inside where the outside used to be. Matt’s smoker is where the kids’ playground used to be, a fine investment in the future of America all the same. Back in his teenage years, Matt trained on the old-fashioned flat pits powered only by wood—trained just enough, that is, to convince him his business needed two rotisseries that used gas for heat and wood for smoke. 
Matt smokes his ribs 12 to 15 hours with no dry rub or sauce, while his ribs get a hit of seasoning before going into the smoke for 3 hours. Arguably better than either, though, are Matt’s smoked chicken and turkey breast. Go for the thinner pieces around the edges, which seem to absorb more smoke and take on a crusty, caramelized sweetness.

“As far as consistency and training employees, these pits are obviously the way to go,” he says of his modernization. “On my catering trailer, I still use an all-wood pit, but that’s a lot of work.” Matt smiles. “I guess I’ve gotten a little bit spoiled.”

For all the firepower in the back, Big Jake’s isn’t one of those modern barbecue places that want to be more than a barbecue place. As in the best of such settings, the menu is impressively lengthy, but nearly everything on it is a different combination of the same basic things. The standard side items are here, and not a whole lot more. Matt is especially proud of his pinto beans, however—cooked with chopped onion and whole jalapeño peppers. The fruit cobblers with ice cream are the main desserts, though Matt does bring in some pecan pie and double-fudge chocolate cake.

With barbecue, he’s learned—whether he’s making it beef for Texas or pork for Arkansas—it isn’t so much about venturing forth as it is about staying home. 
“To me, barbecue is a rustic brick building with concrete floors,” says Matt. “That’s what we work at here. I try not to have any flat-screen TVs.”

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From the March 2009 issue.

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