Senior Editor Lori Moffatt recently chatted about briskets, patience, and the importance of fat with Tyler restaurateur Nick Pencis, who revitalized a much-loved Tyler barbecue joint, Stanley’s. Stanley’s dates to 1959, but Nick and his wife, Jen, have modernized the menu and introduced the restaurant to a new generation of barbecue-lovers, all while keeping the longtime clientele happy—no easy feat.
“When Jen and I took over the business, “ says Nick, “We sought counseling from the Small Business Development Center branch of the Small Business Administration, which has a branch in Tyler. They do all kinds of stuff that helps start-ups. I don’t think we’d be there without their help. We still use them to help with business planning. Our counselor, who has seen our progress, submitted us for an award with the SBA, and the result is that I won an award for Small Businessperson of the Year for 2014, in the Dallas-Fort Worth District. That covers 72 counties, so it’s a big honor.
“It has always been my ambition to have a restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life, but I had never done barbecue before. So my first step was to get a history lesson in Texas barbecue. I took a trip to Lockhart and realized that what we should do at Stanley’s was go back to our roots. Families had been going there since 1959, and we needed to get back to the simplicity of what people liked, back to the way that the original Stanley family used to do it.
“Chicken is pretty easy over direct heat, your standard grill. If I grill at home, I use nothing but salt and pepper for a rub, but at Stanley’s we use salt, pepper, paprika for color, and some herbs.
“If you’re trying to cook brisket on a charcoal grill, it’s going to be pretty hard. You have to use indirect heat, and so you have to pull all your coals to one side and then have the meat on the side that’s not directly above the heat. The best thing for home barbecuing is to get an offset smoker. You can get them everywhere. That makes it a lot easier. The true secret of barbecue is indirect heat, at a low temperature, for a long time.
“Meat quality matters, too. The jump between certified Angus Choice and Select is pretty huge. Use the Select to make pot roast, but if you’re going to spend all that time and energy barbecuing a brisket for 16 hours, use Select. Even an Upper Choice is good. The biggest difference is texture.
“We’re purists about a rub. We use just straight salt and pepper. That doesn’t mean it’s the right way; if you want to use 11 spices on your brisket, go for it. That’s the really fun part. You can create your own secret. People hand me their brisket recipes all the time. Some people are superstitious about it. These guys follow their recipes to a T.
“We pre-trim our briskets so that we have a fat layer that’s a consistent quarter-inch all the way around. Some of ‘em need a lot, others don’t need that much. That’s so we get a crispy, smoky bark on the meat, which tastes so good. It’s the marbling and the fat that renders that makes it taste so good.
“At Stanley’s we smoke briskets for 16 hours. It’s possible to do them in 7 or 8, but longer is always better. It’s very labor-intensive. That’s the thing that makes it hard. You don’t want to lift the lid. The more you’re disturbing it, the more you’re impeding the process, because you let all the heat out. You’ve got to fight the urge to lift the lid. Someone once told me, ‘If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.; You’ve got to let it do its thing.”
See related: Cue it up! Stanley's Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler