To the casual observer, Dallas would seem perfectly positioned to be a great city for quality Texas barbecue. But here is the ugly truth: Dallas does not do barbecue well. This may seem a curious admission given the topic at hand, but there you have it. Too many local proprietors too often go for the ease of gas-fired smokers instead of investing the time and sweat that wood smokers demand. They’ve abandoned the fine art of sausage making that is so important in forming the identity of Barbecue Belt joints in Central Texas. In short, they’ve set their sights on pleasing the masses.
We do, however, have a great history of barbecue in Dallas. It began in 1910 when Elias Bryan opened the first Bryan’s Barbecue. His grandson William Jennings “Sonny” Bryan created Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, turning the family tradition into a legendary business and internationally recognized brand. Sadly, Sonny Bryan’s has joined other regional big-name barbecue chains that are designed to cater to corporate ’cue shindigs. These bastions of predictable mediocrity seem to hog all of the press whenever a “best of” list emerges for the area.
But not here. Fear not, intrepid diner. Great barbecue does exist in Dallas, but you really need to search for it. Chances are, you won’t find it on a convenient corner or in a neighborhood you frequent. But it’s out there, tucked into tiny strip centers and former Dairy Queens. Unlike the boardroom boys, these entrepreneurs are still dedicated to producing a higher level of barbecue by taking the time to cook with hardwood smoke.
I’ve spent the last year eating barbecue all over the state but especially in North Texas. I became so obsessed with finding the best joints, I began chronicling my experiences on a website called Full Custom Gospel Barbecue. Now I have something other than my frightening cholesterol scores to show for eating at more than 130 barbecue joints in North Texas alone.
In the following pages, for the first time ever, I reveal my list of the 16 best barbecue spots in the Dallas area (which, yes, includes Fort Worth). I evaluated each joint mainly on the essence of Texas barbecue: sliced brisket and pork ribs. I considered sausage only if it was made on-site. Barbecue sauce was taken into consideration, but, for this list, I operated on the philosophy that properly cooked meat needs no adornment. Since specific cuts of meat change from day to day, every place on this list received multiple visits to ensure consistency.
Hungry? I hope so. Just be prepared to drive a little—in some cases a lot—to small towns around Dallas and Fort Worth. Because like love and a 20-win starting pitcher, good barbecue is hard to find.
If you can recognize all the signs of a great barbecue joint, then it’s no wonder that Off the Bone BBQ in Forest Hill (on the southeast side of Fort Worth and not connected to the restaurant with the same name in Dallas) has reached the pinnacle of local barbecue establishments. A “Keep Out” sign sits atop a haphazard pile of wood in the corner of the gravel parking lot, the ghost of the previous restaurant’s name is still visible behind the bold letters “B.B.Q.” on the monument sign out front, and all of it surrounds a rehabbed Dairy Queen that now houses North Texas’ finest barbecue joint.
Marilyn and Eddie Brown run this joint, which gets little fanfare from the local press. Eddie has proven to be a consistent and congenial pit master. His chain-link-enclosed, custom cast-iron pit, which he picked up at an auction a few years back, belches pecan and oak smoke out back.
Each meat is given great care. The sausage will soon be house-made, once Eddie gets the recipe right. He had a special recipe produced for the restaurant by a sausage maker in Cleburne, but he recently passed away, taking the recipe with him. In the meantime, Eddie gets hot links from Smokey Denmark Sausage Company in Austin, where they have been producing high-quality peppery beef links for 35 years.
Briskets are slow-smoked for up to 20 hours, which is evidenced by their thick, black crust and deep red smoke ring. The meat isn’t falling-apart tender but requires just enough tooth to bite through. He leaves a bit of perfectly rendered fat on each slice. Ribs have a substantial crust, which imparts a robust smokiness to every bite. These thick, meaty ribs aren’t the grocery store version with barely any meat on the bones. The meat is rosy, with amazing smoky flavor and well-rendered fat. Other than the usual sides, they offer smoked bologna and chicken wings. No matter what you order, if it has seen the inside of Eddie’s pit, you know it’s going to be good.
Well-smoked meat needs no sauce, and I don’t even know if Randy offers any. Meats are sold by the pound and served on a butcher-paper-lined tray, just like they do in the old meat markets of Central Texas. Randy uses an Oyler pit from J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite. Herbert Oyler perfected this rotisserie-style smoker in the late ’60s and started selling them commercially. Today, they’re the most popular wood-fired smoker in the area.
Only Select grade Certified Angus Beef briskets find their way into Randy’s hickory-fired smoker. Each slice of this brisket is tender, with a moisture content only equaled by the best pot roast. Roast beef this is not, with a hefty, smoky crust and fat rendered so well that brisket snot was witnessed on several occasions. “Brisket snot” is formed when well-marbled meat is cooked slowly, allowing the fat to melt into the crust, creating a tacky, sweet stickiness that forms caramel-like ribbons that cling to each finger as they’re pulled away from the surface of the meat. The ribs are slow smoked alongside the briskets, but for about a quarter of the time. These ribs have a rub high in sugar, which mixes with the fat to create a phenomenon I call a “sugar cookie.” The cooked fat commingles with the sweet caramelized rub, creating an undeniably satisfying flavor that is reminiscent of a buttery sugar cookie.