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Follow the Smoke, West Texas BBQ

 

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

Kathy's Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe (Terlingua)

Address: Junction of Highways 118 and 170, Terlingua
Phone: (432) 371-2164
Established: 2006
Owner: Kathy Wisdom
Best Bites: beef brisket, pulled pork sandwich, potato salad, hamburger, french fries, Kosmic chips, Kosmic burrito, Frito pie
Payment: cash

In Texas, there are many barbecue places that are big and many barbecue places that are small. But, by all logic and anecdotal evidence, there’s only one barbecue place that’s pink.

On the winding, crumbling, rising and falling snatch of highway from Big Bend (the nation’s least visited national park) to the hyper-quirky Terlingua, Kathy Wisdom has staked out her roadside legacy. She’s lived in Terlingua for most of 28 years, after arriving from Kansas City in a van with a 9-month-old son. After several futile attempts to escape—to Houston and Austin, to Utah and Alaska—Kathy customized a trailer to be her kitchen, crafted a covered outside dining area and connected a simple rack smoker in a shed.

As a flourishing final touch, she pulled a sawed-off bus up to her trailer and filled it with tables, especially for locals who want to sip coffee beginning at 6 a.m. and check their e-mails on her Wi-Fi. And just about anything that could hold paint, Kathy painted pink.

“My least favorite color is pink, but it draws a lot of attention,” says Kathy, grinning beneath her pink cowboy hat and above her pink T-shirt. “I did it for marketing strategy. This is a pink oasis in the middle of a green-brown desert. You come around that bend in the road, and here I am!”

Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe is more than a barbecue joint. It’s more like the unofficial Terlingua community center, the unconventional gathering place for some extremely unconventional people. During one recent visit late in a springtime lunch period, most of the locals who stopped by didn’t even order food. They did, on the other hand, discuss buying and selling used kitchen appliances, post flyers on the message board about needing a ride to San Antonio, pick up packages dropped off by FedEx and UPS, and otherwise inquire about relatives, friends and neighbors. In a remote world virtually without cell phone service, getting together seemed the best way to make some kind of human contact.

“I look at this place as the mystery dinner party,” Kathy says. “You never know who’s going to show up.”

The idea for Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl struck its namesake during one of her moves back to Terlingua, when she realized that two things she truly loved were cooking for people and visiting with people. She’d done a bit of catering here and there, and she certainly remembered the taste of barbecue from her native Kansas City. But getting serious about Texas barbecue was a lot like going back to school. Kathy experimented with time and temperature, with different kinds of wood and different recipes for dry rub. Before long she’d chosen local mesquite to power her smoker and had perfected two different rubs, one for beef brisket and one for the pork shoulder that became her wildly popular pulled pork sandwiches.

Kathy wanted her roadside place to be about barbecue. But she knew the tourists, bikers, aging hippies and bona fide cowboys who drove by would want some variety. Sandwiches were born, both traditional and innovative, along with some of the best burgers served anywhere: a half-pound hand-formed patty cooked on Kathy’s flat grill. Chili also has a huge following, as do chili dogs and the closely related Frito pie. Even this Frito pie gets another generation, its components being rolled inside a tortilla to find new life as the Kosmic burrito.

Kathy has traveled a long road to arrive at this bend in the highway, which one day might funnel her a steady stream of cars and another day a rally with 150 motorcycles. There’s usually a fire out front for sharing gossip around and always some meat on the smoker. Most of all, there’s the moonscape beauty of Big Bend every direction you look, along with the quirky anti-establishment charm of one of America’s strangest little towns.

“It’s laid back here in Terlingua,” Kathy says, hitting understatement out of the park. “Nobody’s judging people here. And nobody’s trying to keep up with the Joneses.”

Pack Saddle Bar-BQ (San Angelo)

Address: 6007 Knickerbocker at Red Bluff Road, San Angelo
Phone: (325) 949-0616
Established: 1987
Owners: Marshal and Sherri Gray
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, chopped beef sandwich, hamburger, fried catfish, coleslaw, onion rings, fruit cobblers
Payment: credit cards

“Let’s go sit on the back porch,” says Marshal Gray. And since the route past the kitchen passes remarkably close to a washtub full of bottled beer, he extricates one from the ice and invites a visitor to follow suit. One must be sociable.

Settled at one of seven picnic tables Pack Saddle Bar-BQ uses when the dining room overflows and/or the weather’s nice, Marshal looks back over the past 22 years of serving brisket, sausage and finally hamburgers and catfish to an ever-growing clientele. After earning an accounting degree and working in the oil field and in real estate, he had a pretty good idea what he was getting into.

“You have to pay attention to detail, and you have to listen to your customers,” he says, drawing a long sip from his beer. “I mean, that’s how we got into burgers and hand-cut fries. That’s how we got into catfish and hush puppies, because some people just don’t like barbecue. And once we were doing catfish, it wasn’t hard to start doing chicken nuggets for the kids. If you make the little kids happy, mom and dad are coming back.”

Clearly, Marshal didn’t hail from one of those old Texas barbecue dynasties, one of those families that fill each new generation with more don’ts than dos. 
All he understood from opening day in 1987 was that he would go the extra mile to make people happy. He had barbecued for family and friends for years and, like so many Texas backyard pit guys, had received regular encouragement to turn pro. Still, he confesses some shock when it came time to cook barbecue as 
a business.

“It’s day and night,” says Marshal. “Quality is easy when you’re doing small amounts. It’s harder when you’re doing 30 cases of brisket a week. But for all that, we’ve made a lot of friends.”

For more than 15 years, Marshal and his pit guys used the old-fashioned wood smoker that came with the building, a simple and primitive heat source that required constant attention—and even then, was never the paragon of consistent cooking. But then (according to Marshal, you can insert the angel choir of your choice here) he switched over to a rotisserie smoker from Ole Hickory, one that kept a constant temperature and could be timed so no one had to stay all night moving the meat around.
“We did it the old way forever,” he says. “All my cooks thought they’d died and gone to heaven when I bought the new smoker. Without it, there’d be no way to keep up with all the business we’re doing.” He thinks, hearing the criticism to come. “It’s all about consistency. If you got a guy that has to keep running out there to put wood on, you’re going to get highs and lows.”

Pack Saddle’s business includes plenty of beef brisket, which is covered with a dry rub and put in the mesquite smoke for 13 to 14 hours. That means the staff can go home at night and come back rested to perfectly cooked meat. Marshal says his customers prefer lean brisket, so almost all fat is trimmed off for slicing as well as for chopping.

“We only put the pretty slices on the plate,” he says, taking another swig of his beer. This is a sign for everyone else on the back porch to do the same. There are only two people on the back porch.

Pork ribs are popular, as is the slightly spicy smoked sausage. The ribs get the same rub as the brisket, but their time in the mesquite smoke is shorter, about 7 hours. 
Potato salad, coleslaw and pinto beans are the favored side dishes, with peach, blackberry and cherry cobblers ruling the roost at dessert. Strangely, while the cobblers are baked elsewhere, Marshal has his waitresses make ice cream every day—eight gallons at a time, in a churn on the same porch that’s so perfect for drinking beer. 
Marshal predicts he’ll hit at least 30 years in this, his final career. The job isn’t hard as much as it’s time-consuming, he says, explaining it was his wife, Sherri, who started making him close on Tuesdays: “She said I wasn’t turning into a very nice person.” He seems happier now, running Pack Saddle along with a KOA campground he can point to from the porch.

As for what comes after that, Marshal can do no better than shrug. It’s a safe bet his three sons won’t be interested, he says, since two-going-on-all-of-them are already committed to computers and other things that work very fast when barbecue works very slow. Perhaps someone will buy the place and keep it going, someone who’s hungrier for the barbecue business than his sons.

“I don’t encourage it,” he says, sipping his beer and smiling wistfully, “and they don’t encourage it.”

Billy Bob's Backyward Bar-B-Que (Hondo)

Address: 1905 19th Street (at U.S. 90), Hondo
Phone: (830) 426-3050      
Established: 1999
Owner: Bob Henderson
Best Bites: beef brisket, Hogg sandwich, pork spareribs, potato salad, pinto beans
Payment: credit cards

About 17 years ago, Bob Henderson opened a little white restaurant along-side U.S. 90 in Hondo and started selling fried catfish and hamburgers. He called his restaurant Billy Bob’s and touted its handiwork as “Nothing But Excellent.” Still, there are many who claim he deserved neither the faux-redneck moniker nor the high praise until he opened a barbecue shack out back in 1999.

At a glance, you might confuse the two places as you’re turning in off the highway. You might even stroll into the white restaurant by accident—or on purpose, if you’re looking for a restroom. But if you drive around past the first eatery and the menu sign for its drive-thru, you find yourself in front of a tiny unpainted wooden shack with a smoker just to the left of it. Most times you’re likely to pull into Billy Bob’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, smoke curling from that ancient-looking device will convince you you’ve come to the right place.

“The reason people come here?” repeats store manager Albert Maldonado, as though no one had ever asked him in the seven years he’s taken orders through this window. “There’s much advertising and stuff out there, of course, and other barbecue places in town. I guess the people who come here just spread the word.” He smiles, as though a light has snapped on. “Plus, the mesquite smoke brings them in when they drive by.”

According to Albert, beef brisket is Billy Bob’s No. 1 seller, even though it’s served farther down the highway to San Antonio at McBee’s and JB’s. Billy Bob’s is simply better, he says, or at least people seem to like it better—a function of the secret dry rub and a cooking process that smokes each brisket for 3 hours with plenty of mesquite, then covers it in foil and slow-cooks it for another 6 to 7 hours. Pork spareribs are a big hit as well, first dusted with the same dry rub and then smoked for at least 4 hours.

“The meat falls right off the bone,” enthuses Albert.

One of the quirkier items on Billy Bob’s briefest of menus, displayed on the outside of the shack but unavailable on paper, is billed as a Hogg sandwich. Perhaps a reference to the famed Texas family of that name, or perhaps not, this is essentially a traditional pulled pork sandwich. The difference, says Albert, is that it has a “wild game” taste that everybody seems to love. Questions about whether it is wild hog are met with a shrug, as are other inquiries about what is done to it during smoking to make it taste that way.

“Everything else is smoked here, but the pork comes to us already cooked,” he says. “We really can’t sell wild game, but that’s how it tastes.” He shrugs one more time for good measure. “I don’t know how they do it.”

Side dishes are limited, as befits a kitchen no bigger than what a lot of Texans store their riding mowers in: just some tangy potato salad and some nicely spiced pinto beans. Desserts are even more limited: peach cobbler that shows up at Billy Bob’s frozen. Still, the overall effect can be quite pleasant, especially when you grab your order from Albert at the window and carry it over to a closed-in patio beneath the sign inviting you to “Chow Down Here.” By this point in the process, no less of a plan has any significant appeal.

“The hardest thing,” Albert says, “is making sure the meat and stuff is consistent. You want it to always have the same taste, the same tenderness that the customers pull off the highway for.”

Lum’s Bar-B-Que (Junction)

Address: 2031 N. Main Street, Junction
Phone: (325) 446-3541
Established: 1978
Owners: Louis and Rick Lumbly
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork spareribs, smoked turkey breast, coleslaw, spicy spaghetti, banana pudding, chocolate pie, peach cobbler
Payment: credit cards

In most barbecue joints, if you put the briskets on at 8 a.m. and cook them 12 hours or more, your place will be closed before they’re cooked. At Lum’s, however, there are still 5 or 6 hours before quitting time.

According to manager Umberto Vidal, staying open until 11 on weeknights and as late as 1 a.m. on weekends is all part of earning and keeping the customer 
loyalty that has made Junction a stop on the barbecue trail for three decades. People have come into Lum’s from Las Vegas, others after hearing about the place on a Caribbean cruise. Still others have phoned from the highway hours away, putting in their order and promising to make it in before closing time.
“This is a nice little place to come in and enjoy yourself,” Umberto says simply, sitting at one of the colorful picnic tables. “Some places you come in and they just want to move you on down the line.”

He thinks about all those phone calls, most from people afraid that Lum’s will run out of their favorite foods. “We’ll save whatever they need. And if they run a little late, we’ll stay open for them. I mean, people drive 4 or 5 hours to eat here. We need to make sure it’s good for them.”

Lum’s is just over a mile off Interstate 10, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific but more specifically East Texas at Orange to West Texas at El Paso. Over 30 years, the place has become a popular lunch or dinner stop for Texans traveling across their state. And since Lum’s sells gasoline out front, it’s easy enough to make it a cross-country pit stop.

Umberto is happy to show anyone who asks the trio of black iron pits under a shed where all the magic is made. Mesquite is the wood of choice—100 percent when they can get their hands on enough of it—with brisket getting the merest sprinkling of salt and black pepper before going into the smoke for 12 to 15 hours. While beef is popular sliced or chopped, so are the pork spareribs and, in recent years, the smoked turkey breast. Turkey, in fact, is usually the first meat to sell out, lasting little more than an hour after Lum’s opens its doors at 7.

It’s important, says Umberto, that nearly all meats are sold on the day they’re smoked. Any leftover pork ribs or sausage links are definitely thrown out because they’ll dry out in the refrigerator. Occasionally, a bit of brisket is wrapped carefully and held over, becoming the first beef sold the next day. And at Lum’s, the “next day” is never more than a few hours away.

Over the years, owner Louis Lumbly and his son Rick, who now runs the place, have mastered traditional sides like potato salad and coleslaw, but they’ve also branched out in some unexpected directions. Pinto beans, for instance, blend the cowboy style of chili powder with the baked-bean style of brown sugar. And how many barbecue places offer “spicy spaghetti” as a side—thin vermicelli to be precise, given zip by tomatoes, green onions, garlic, cayenne pepper and jalapeños? Possibly none, other than Lum’s.

Still, as best Umberto can tell after working here during high school and coming back later for real, Lum’s is more than the sum of its parts—and definitely more than the sum of its foods. As much as guests love the barbecue on the buffet line, and as much as they love carrying it outside to eat in all but the worst weather, he’s convinced it’s the human touch that turns them into regulars. And he goes the extra mile as manager to teach his employees to, well, go the extra mile. It’s the least they can do, Umberto emphasizes, considering how many miles people drive to get here.

“We always say: ‘How you’re doing, where you going and how long you here for?’ ” he says. “If you talk to people for two or three minutes, they can tell you a lot. If you have a place with good friends and good food, then that’s a place you’ll come back to.”

The State Line (El Paso)

Address: 1222 Sunland Park Drive, El Paso
Phone: (915) 581-3371
Established: 1977
Owners: Skeeter Miller, Ed Norton, Randy Goss
Best Bites: beef brisket, baby back pork ribs, garlic mashed red-skin potatoes, bread 
pudding, brownie
Payment: credit cards

Almost suddenly, the sun drops into the desert, with no clouds to paint a Jackson Pollock in the sky. The fiery paintball draws a winter-blue shade behind it, a chill grabbing hold of the evening air, as it so often does here in the desert.

Yet close by the blazing fire in the stone courtyard, the air is as warm as the margaritas are icy. It’s just another sunset to be toasted while waiting for a table at The State Line.

There’s something valedictory about this courtyard straddling the Texas-New Mexico line, about these margaritas and the barbecue that’s to come…not least because our journey began months earlier at its sibling, The County Line, on a lovely hillside in Austin. Nearly 15,000 miles have been logged between that festive meal and this one, each mile now registered by our car, our life and our waistline. There may be something touted as “barbecue” beyond this state line. But it won’t be Texas barbecue.
“This is a little bit of an oasis for us desert rats here,” general manager Mike Shahan is explaining, drawing us back from our reverie. “We look at this courtyard as a relaxing place, a place for people to unwind and get ready for dinner. We, fortunately, are a very busy place, so people often need to wait. They relax and wait for their table.” Mike shares a knowing laugh, nodding toward the frosty drinks on the table. “There have definitely been a few margaritas put away out here.”

If you think of The State Line as a corporate afterthought, a place to grow the brand after all the more logical places had been taken, you’d be badly mistaken. Back in 1977, there was only The County Line on that hillside in Austin, with locations like the River Walk in San Antonio barely even a capitalist fantasy. One of the founders of the company, however, had studied at the University of Texas at El Paso (never expressed here except as UTEP) and thought it would be cool to have an excuse to hang out there a few more years. Among the guys who started The County Line, as we learned at the beginning of this barbecue journey, something being cool is all the motivation that’s ever required.

From the start, perhaps the single coolest thing about The State Line is that it is exactly what it says it is. It sits on the state line, with that fabled designation running right through the margarita-splashed courtyard. Legally, part of the courtyard and all the vast parking lot are in Texas, with the dining room in New Mexico. Sales taxes collected for barbecue here, Mike explains, go to New Mexico…so the world is lucky there’s no such thing as a parking tax. For Texas barbecue, this is literally the end of the line.

Over the years, The State Line has adhered with considerable force to the party line—the menu and techniques at the Austin locale and other locations. Still, says Mike, there have been local evolutions that owe their existence to the unique melting pot of cultures that is El Paso. There are, for instance, brisket tacos served at lunch. And while the menus in Austin and elsewhere years ago responded to health concerns by adding salads and other light items, the issue never came up in El Paso.
“We want to cater to the local taste buds,” Mike says, “but it’s the barbecue they want. It’s amazing how many people from Mexico and New Mexico we get, and they just love the food. It’s been great from Day 1.”

Mike, who has worked at The State Line since almost that day, explains that the only secret to all this success is doing things right. That means, in many cases, buying better (more expensive) ingredients, starting with the meat, and treating all with care throughout the traditional, drawn-out cooking process. It also means passing up the local mesquite to bring in oak from East Texas 800-plus miles away, a decision that adds to the cost of everything smoked here as well.

Still, since 1977, the taste profiles set by The State Line in El Paso have been formative to a whole new generation of Texas (and yes, New Mexico) barbecue lovers: people who love few things better in this world than knocking back a margarita or three while enjoying ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken, with side orders of potato salad, coleslaw and beans.

As we’ve learned through so many meals and so many miles, there are so many worse things in this world to love.

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From the March 2009 issue.

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