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Rib Run

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By Randy Mallory


When folks in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas crave smoked pork ribs, they make a beeline for a little place five miles west of Kilgore called the Country Tavern.

 

Over the past 30 years, I’ve made countless rib runs from my Tyler home to this legendary eatery where meat falls easily from the bone. Recently, I’d heard rumors of changes at the barbecue mecca, changes that made it less of a beer joint with food and more of a family restaurant with honky-tonk flair. As I open the front door of the Country Tavern, I aim to find out.

Hanging on the wall inside are the framed photos that have greeted me many times before—autographed pictures of such famous patrons as actors Larry Hagman and Robert Duvall, country musician Toby Keith, and former President George H.W. Bush. As on previous visits, a half-dozen young waitresses in blue jeans and polo shirts are shuttling trays of steaming-hot barbecue to 200 or so diners.

A pert young greeter gives me a warm “Howdy” and shows me to my seat in one of the red-vinyl booths that line two walls of the main room. At one end, there’s the familiar bar, swivel stools, and a pool table; at the other, a jukebox still blares country tunes, though the music is digital, not from vintage vinyl. In the middle of the room, tables are packed together, leaving only a hint of a dance floor. But something about the scene seems fresh and new—sort of like a historic photograph that’s been retouched.

Overhead, large, exposed air-conditioning ducts pipe in cool, fresh air, and gone is the once common honky-tonk haze (smoking is allowed only at the bar). New lighting brightens the space. Off to one corner there’s a new 60-seat banquet room—with a horseshoe-shaped bar—for private parties or overflow seating.

That’s all well and good, but what about the food? What about the legendary ribs and brisket and that sweet-spicy table sauce? My culinary angst subsides as I watch some people in the boisterous crowd lick their fingers and voraciously gnaw ribs to the bone. They seem like succulence-seekers on a pilgrimage to barbecue heaven.

Waitress Linda Stuart, who has worked here for nearly 20 years, appears out of nowhere to take my order. Country Tavern once offered only platters of pork ribs or beef brisket accompanied by mustard-laced potato salad, dill pickles, a round of onion, and slices of white bread. Those platters remain the house favorites by a long shot, but now you can also choose platters of smoked turkey or smokehouse sausage, or a mixed platter, with sides of coleslaw, beans, or chips.

My order soon arrives—my standard hot ribs and a cold beer—and my heart sings. It’s déjà vu all over again. My tried-and-true Tavern technique starts with devouring one or two of the ribs dry, without sauce. These loin-back pork beauties have been basted with a savory sauce (ketchup and vinegar, for the most part), then slow-cooked over hickory at around 230 degrees for more than four hours. The smoky, spicy flavors fire up my taste buds like a light brightens a dark room.

The remaining ribs I slather liberally with the Tavern’s signature table sauce (similar to the basting sauce, but thicker, with more spices), then I get down to business. Once the inevitable pile of picked-over bones reaches its apex, I transform a slice of white bread (the only time I eat the stuff) into a platter-cleaning device to sop up what’s left of the drippings and sauce. Mercifully, my waitress shows up with a moist, warm cloth for cleanup. She asks if I’d like homemade peach or blackberry cobbler topped with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. My answer—despite a creeping sense of satiation—is an emphatic “Oh yeah! Gimme blackberry.”

This is my first visit to the Country Tavern since the untimely death several years ago of its beloved long-time proprietress, Lois Pilgrim Mason, who was known for greeting customers at the door with a smile and a hug. Her grandson Toby Pilgrim is now at the helm, so I talk with him to get the lowdown on the changes.

Pilgrim tells me that in 1939, Roger and Ivy Lee Sloan opened the original Country Tavern Café beside their liquor store (the building that once housed it still stands). Then and now, the property sits near several honky-tonks and liquor stores clustered at the Gregg County line, just across from “dry” Smith County.

The original Country Tavern burned down and was replaced with a similar structure in the early 1960s, shortly before Mason became a waitress here. A friendly, hard-working woman, she saved up her earnings and bought the place in 1972. By then, the Country Tavern had developed a following among barbecue fans.

Some came for more than the food. When Mason took over, there was still a mysterious door in the men’s restroom that led to a hidden parlor (now taken in by the new banquet room) where locals played clandestine hands of poker.

One of the Country Tavern cooks was Maxey Thomas Henry, a black man. During the days of segregation, the place was essentially two cafés with a common kitchen. Whites ate in the main room. Blacks came around back to a separate dining room, bar, and restrooms; many of them hung out by the open-air cooking pit with Henry, where he basted meat with a rag tied to the end of a broomstick. Also hanging out at the pit was Mason’s son, Garry Pilgrim, who was learning everything he could from Henry about cooking barbecue. Garry and his wife, Jeannie, perfected Country Tavern’s secret seasonings and sauce, but in 1992, Garry died. When Mason died in 2003, Jeannie carried on the family tradition. When she died six months later, the job of carrying on the barbecue dynasty fell to Mason’s grandson Toby Pilgrim.

“We went through some tough times, and business declined. I wanted to save the place by offering a more family-friendly atmosphere,” Pilgrim tells me when I mention the remodeling. Longtime customers might notice another change—smoke no longer rises from a hot pit behind the long, red building. Instead, the meat is perfected inside, in high-efficiency, automated cookers; hickory logs are added to the equation at just the right time. “The barbecue is as good today as it was when my dad cooked outside at the pit dressed in his overalls,” says Pilgrim.

Patrons must agree. Business has doubled since Pilgrim took over—now racking up weekly sales of 3,000 pounds of ribs, 1,000 pounds of brisket, and 450 pounds each of sausage and turkey. That kind of success allows Country Tavern regulars to carry on their own family traditions. I saunter over and join a jovial foursome knocking down some ribs and brisket. David Newman sits with his teenage son, John David, and two of his son’s friends, Evan Russell and John Denman, all of Dallas. “I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager,” explains the 51-year-old dad. “My parents had a lake house near Henderson, and when we came from Dallas on the weekends, we’d often stop at the Country Tavern for good barbecue.” Likewise, the group is on its way to that same lake house for a weekend of fishing and now eating that same “good barbecue.”

As I waddle back to the car, I feel comforted that—at least when it comes to food and family at the Country Tavern—the old adage holds true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Country Tavern Bar-B-Que is at the intersection of TX 31 at FM 2767 (1526 FM 2767), 5 miles west of Kilgore. Hours: Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10. For reservations or more information, call 903/984-9954.

Read 23497 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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