East Texas BBQ Near the Red River
In an area far removed from the kitsch of Austin, the trails of smoke are steadily shifting east.[dropcap letter=”D”]uring early morning hours when most are slumbering in the comfort of their bed, bloodshot eyes monitor amber flames as aromatic smoke swirls from chimneys of steel smokers. Before the light of dawn emerges, hundreds of pounds of meat are smoked for customers willing to line up hours before a restaurant’s window sign flips 180 degrees from closed to open. The scent is omnipresent in each restaurant you file into and, if followed closely the smoky seduction increases with each step closer to the pit room. Here, in this sweltering domain, you will find common facial trademarks such as exaggerated lines, smudges of black soot, and exhaustive bags under the eyes of those working the smokers.
Pit masters start their day in the company of fire. A heralded blessing during winter months transforms to a curse during summer months when pit room temperatures frequently breach 120 degrees. Feeding a firebox fueled by post oak, pecan, hickory, or mesquite woods, they routinely gauge paper wrapped briskets for proper temperature while simultaneously performing the daily tasks necessary to operate a restaurant. Breaks happen few and far between, if at all.
Barbecue, like sports, religion, or politics, will always be a smoldering topic due to individual preference, and the last four years have seen the popularity of Texas barbecue leap from statewide mainstay to nationwide trend. Fans conduct carnivorous pilgrimages every weekend – sometimes daily – to brave lengthy lines during rain or shine with hope that food hasn’t yet sold out. While all attention has been on Austin, a barbecue trail under towering East Texas pine trees has been eating away at notions that barbecue near the Red River doesn’t compare to the tenured Texas traditions of central Texas. In an area far removed from the kitsch of Austin, the trails of smoke are steadily shifting east.
Pit masters Jordan Jackson and Scott Turner are two of a four-man team who make up the outfit at the original Bodacious on Mobberly Avenue in Longview. This location is one of five still owned by the restaurant’s founding patriarch, Roland Lindsey. Lindsey started Roland’s Bar-B-Que south of Dallas before branching east in 1968 and changing the title to its current namesake. Both classically trained chefs who met while attending culinary school in Austin at Le Cordon Bleu, Jackson and Turner migrated to Savannah, Georgia, where they “finished culinary school at a PGA golf course with a hotel and Indy track,” Jackson said, referring to the Westin Hotel on Hutchinson Island that has a car race course on the grounds.
Jackson’s path back to Texas found him marrying Lindsey’s daughter and working in Tyler, Texas, under Nick Pencis, the free spirited owner of Stanley’s Famous Pit and former drummer for the Austin-based blues band Greyhounds. “Nick called me to be his chef, and he wanted me to do a working interview which ended up being a catering event for Texas country musician, Pat Green. I was never supposed to cook barbecue at Stanley’s. I was there to do all that chef-driven stuff, but pit master Jonathan Shaw’s help quit and I said eff it, I’ll cook with him.”
This position in the kitchen allowed room for Jackson to flex culinary creativity ultimately form what Daniel Vaughn labeled the best barbecue sandwich in Texas. “Nick approached me and said he wanted me to make a chicken sandwich called the Mother Clucker and left it up to me. It consisted of smoked chicken thigh between jalapeno cheese sourdough, topped with fried egg, melted cheddar cheese and clucker sauce, and, of course, house made candied bacon,” reminisced Jackson. “We had to hire a morning and night employee to make the sandwich it got so popular. That sandwich created jobs, I kid you not.”
Although after going their separate ways, for a time, Jackson and Turner reunited to reopen Bodacious in 2015 after Lindsey fell ill, forcing him to close the first location the year before. The duo doesn’t allow the bravado of being classically trained to obstruct their ability to remain grounded with the patrons who have kept this chain successful. They don’t get too crafty when it comes to sides, unlike barbecue joints that are located in larger markets such as Austin or Dallas. “This store built all of the other stores. As far as my regular customer base, it’s beans, potato salad, cole slaw. I just want to keep it simple.”
That doesn’t prevent them from artistically tinkering with their menu. One item that stands out is their take on a regional cuisine born from the Acadian culture of southern Louisiana. Respecting the roots of traditional boudin, they implemented ingredients with a nod to Texas. Jackson wanted to do something with beef cheeks, so he penned a recipe for beef cheek boudin. Scott added the finishing touch – burnt ends – and created an immediate hit.
“We’ve also roasted cabrito, (goat) for our boudin. We’ll be working on pastrami burnt-end boudin next with homemade mustard and pickles served on mini-rye. We easily sell 50 lbs. of sausage per day.
Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Que
“I’m proud of Jordan Jackson, not that pride is something I try to dwell upon,” Jonathan Shaw says of the former Stanley’s Famous Pit employee. “Get whatever is in that ashtray,” he suddenly yells to a man behind us, poking around old cigarette butts. “He will steal someone’s half cigarette they were gonna come back and smoke,” he explains.
A chainsaw buzzes to life in the background as sporadic drops of rain slowly become a heavy downpour rattling off the tin of the buildings. Shaw slowly drags on the last of his American Spirit stick, savoring his short break by the wood pile. “He knows food, he knows how flavors work. He can concoct a lot of things. What he didn’t know was pit master stuff, but he embraced it. We were a regular Tango and Cash.”
Shaw has reigned as pit master since joining owner Nick Pencis in May 2009, one year after Pencis had bought out his partners of the restaurant opened in 1958 by J.D. Stanley. They had been using a gas-assisted Hickory pit after the health department forced them to dismantle the restaurant’s original brick pits. When Shaw started a daily task included hooking up cans of propane to it to keep it cooking. “We’d fill it up at the gas station down the road, hook it up, go home, and next day, we’d do it again. Nick would always remind us to check the propane.”
An upswing for these two occurred after winning best ribs at the Texas Monthly barbecue competition in 2010 and repeating in 2011. “We were heading to Austin for the competition before it became a festival, having never done anything like this before. We decided upon a number of racks of ribs, had to cook them here and travel. The original trailer that held the Ole Hickory was a piece of shit. It had a screen around it, hole in the floor, but it was our workhorse. That was the first time we had to achieve cooking 90 racks of ribs,” Shaw said. “When we repeated as winner of ribs, we looked at each and couldn’t speak. We were all, ‘I love you man,’ holding hands with rainbows coming from the sky.”
“Nick had the rub recipe when I got here. I think it was just a matter of getting it into people’s mouths. We were cooking six racks of ribs on the weekends back then. We’re cooking 90 today. Nick’s a mad scientist who spent a lot of time traveling with his dad, a professional chef who cooked for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion. That’s where his palate lies. But we don’t have room to get too crafty. We’re just trying to cover what’s on the board; if we don’t have the staples, people get pissed off.”
A well-smoked brisket should stand on its own without sauce in all its seasoned alchemy. Visit most small towns in Texas, and the chopped beef sandwich will probably be your top seller. The price and ease-of-access becomes an attractive lunch option for the blue-collar crowd. According to Joseph, the chopped beef sandwiches keep his door opened in Jefferson. If he did anything creative, he would lose business, and that’s why he offers an item like swamp fries, a hodgepodge of fries topped with chopped brisket, cheddar cheese, diced jalapenos, onions, and bacon, drenched in sauce.
“The biggest thing is how we improved our brisket over the years,” explained Shaw. After spending time with Wayne Mueller, owner and pit master of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, Pencis gained inspiration to reevaluate his own methods.
“Nick was intrigued with how Wayne did things, the old-school art of barbecue. We never had put a dash of seasoning on a brisket. We opened them out of the package and put ‘em in the pit. We still knew what done was, but we didn’t trim ‘em, we didn’t season ‘em, we didn’t do anything. We cooked them for 14-16 hours depending on how the pit fluctuates,” explained Shaw. “We really improved our game after Nick learned from Wayne, and we were still trying to figure it out. We started trimming our briskets, making a very simple rub, and honed it in.”
To entertain his hobby of percussion and appreciation of dark liquors, Pencis then added a stage to the restaurant featuring live music every night and an extensive list of bourbon and whiskey based on his travels through Kentucky and Tennessee. Forward- thinkers like Pencis have challenged the restaurant industry in Tyler to create more hip places where locals can listen to music, eat good food, and drink quality beverages. “He wanted to offer options other than a Coors Light, other than an Applebee’s, other than just a regular damn place. He introduced craft beer before several other places that currently do,” says Shaw. Before they could gain community trust and create a newfound movement they first had to focus on perfecting their bread and butter, the barbecue. There is no doubt they have been successful with both.
Joseph’s Riverport Bar-B-Que
The delicate act of balancing food costs while pricing to your customer base is not lost on owner and pit master Stephen Joseph of Riverport Bar-B-Que.
Adding post oak and pecan woods to the firebox, Joseph comments over the inevitable. “Brisket prices go up near the summer. I don’t think it’s fair to the little guys when corporations can move the needle due to their buying power. Problem is, surplus briskets will hit the freezer, and then they’re thawed out before being displayed at discount prices. That’s when we start hearing people ask why prices are so high when they can buy a brisket at Wal-Mart for $1.75 per pound.”
The seat of Marion County is platted along the Big Cypress Bayou on the outskirts of Caddo Lake, Texas’ only natural lake, the former inland port town of Jefferson once claimed a population of over 30,000 during the steamboat era of the mid-19th century, though now retains less than 2,000 on a good day. On the corner of Austin and Main, Joseph’s Riverport has been smoking barbecue for more than two decades. Unfortunately their history hasn’t always been one of small town charm and comfort. During 2012 they witnessed the century-old building that housed the restaurant dwindle to ash from a devastating fire that began in the pit room. Joseph proved resilient in a return that saw the doors reopen in 2013 with as much of the old brick salvaged and incorporated into the new structure as possible.
He knew the town needed him as much as he needed them. Joseph relies on the farmhands, business owners, church-goers and neighbors who frequent his restaurant numerous times per week. That is until the weekend when the town becomes a bustling tourist destination. Even then, he knows his livelihood relies on the Monday through Friday crowd.
Joseph says one thing is for certain when it comes to the rural customer, “People in a small town are so vehemently against change. You change the okra and they know. Some will like it, some will hate it. If you change prices, they lock in on it and think you’re gonna just gonna get rich. People think you’re raking in the money and it’s just not so,” Joseph says as he reclines at an antique dining table in the dining hall.
Jospeh started at Riverport in 1992 at the original location in a Greek Revival-styled brick building that once held goods from New Orleans that included, cotton, and various supplies in the port’s warehouse district. “The owners wanted out of the restaurant and were looking for someone capable of taking the reins. My dad, brother, and I struck a deal to purchase it in the winter of 1993. My dad had no role and my brother just worked as an employee and left about six years ago,” Joseph says.
Joesph has adjusted his recipes by studying pictures of barbecue online then working for that appearance with his own barbecue. It paid off when he arrived on the Texas Monthly list in 2013 for the first time. Though he doesn’t attend their annual festival in Austin, Joseph participates in events as close as Tyler, approximately 75 miles down the road where attendees have never heard of Riverport, and as far as Dallas where most have never heard of Jefferson.
Written and Photographed by Cody Neathery