Monday, September 1, 2014

How to plan the perfect Texas BBQ tour

The Posse began its first anniversary tour at the original Franklin Barbecue in Austin in 2010.

The Posse is approaching its fifth anniversary of driving the cities, towns and backroads of Texas in search of great barbecue. Inspired by Texas Monthly magazine's 2008 list of the Best BBQ joints in Texas, our original group of six hit the road in early November 2009.

Five years later, we've made dozens of trips around the state, sharing our stories on this blog and in The Dallas Morning News. Here are a few things we've learned along the way.

1. Do your research: There's no substitute for good planning when it comes to barbecue tours. You have access to plenty of good information on the internet. Find a couple of sites you trust and go from there. When we began in 2009, the go-to source was Daniel Vaughn's Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog, but it's been inactive for almost a year since he became barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. However, Daniel writes for and maintains the magazine's current website for all things Texas BBQ.

I usually avoid using Yelp or Google reviews as a guide, the feedback rarely comes from people who really know barbecue, IE: "Dickey's brisket is great!" (You get the idea.) Another favorite of ours is Don O's Texas BBQ blog. Don and his friend Scott really know their BBQ and blanket the state looking for the next great joint. You can also check out our interactive Google map of the Posse's favorite Texas BBQ joints. A list of some of our favorite barbecue tours also appears on the right side of the Posse blog.

2. Pace yourself: It took us a year or two to really figure this one out, but it's crucial to having a successful tour.  You may be eating some of the greatest brisket in the world for breakfast at Snow's BBQ, but you have three or four more stops during the day. It takes practice, but limit yourself to a snack, not a full meal.

We usually eat a bite or two of brisket, sausage and turkey/chicken, along with a rib at each stop. Of course you will order more than a few bites, but that's where the cooler and ice in your trunk come in for. Take some home. And when you get there, you'll the most popular person in the dining room as your family and friends relive your tour, digging into the best barbecue they've ever eaten.

The Posse digs in at Louie Mueller Barbecue on our first tour in Nov. 2009. (Gary Barber/Texas BBQ Posse)

3. Group size matters:  Our tour groups have varied from four to more than 20 participants. Since the Posse usually travels with more than a few photographers, writers and videographers, we found the large groups pretty much overwhelmed some small BBQ joints.

We've found the perfect size to be around eight, so you can travel in a couple of cars and order pretty quickly. With eight folks, you also get a lot of BBQ opinion and debate going at the table. That's a big part of the fun on a barbecue tour.

4. Don't be bashful: The Texas BBQ community consists of some of the greatest people you'll ever meet. Strike up a conversation with the owner and/or pitmaster and you might just end up in the pit room talking BBQ secrets. Don't be pushy if the line is out the door though, these folks have to make hay while the grass is growing.

4. Find diversions along the way: It may be tempting, but you can't eat barbecue non-stop. (See above: No. 2. Pace yourself.) Texas is full of cool things to see along the way, so keep your eyes open for great diversions as you plan your tour.

Does your tour include a stop at the legendary Leon’s World Finest In & Out Bar-B-Que House in Galveston? Follow your visit with a Gulf of Mexico beach break to burn those barbecue calories. Stopping at Posse favorite Kirby's Barbeque in Mexia? Your next stop could be nearby at historic Fort Parker, where the legend of Comanche chief Quanah Parker began.

We've also been known to pack a set of horseshoes and a few chilled beverages, stopping at a local park for a recreation break between BBQ joints. Anything to get you ready to eat at the next tour stop.

5. Follow the smoke:  Keep your eyes open for unexpected stops along the way. Some of our most memorable stops have been the unforeseen ones, when someone saw a pit bellowing smoke and we pulled over, usually making new friends along the way. Meeting the citizens of the great BBQ nation of Texas will never grow old.

Snow's BBQ pit boss Tootsie Tomanetz tends the pits as the sun rises over Lexington. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Smoked cheese a highlight at Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ in Little Elm

A waitress delivers our first course, a four-meat platter at Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

We called it our Denton County BBQ Tour, but it could have just as easily been named the Lake Country Tour.

As we traveled 120 miles in 6 hours to eat at 4 joints on a recent Saturday, we crossed 3 different bridges over Lake Lewisville and drove atop the Ray Roberts Lake Dam.

Seeing the water, the boats, the parks, and the nice shoreside homes was a pleasant respite from the heat, which approached 100 degrees.

And then we met Blake Merrell, owner and pitmaster of Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ in Little Elm, open just a week when we arrived.

Merrell said he once had a boat storage business and transported big motor yachts. Getting a 90-footer from the Gulf to North Texas would cost about $75,000, he said.

He retired a couple years ago, he said, but recently decided to get busy again with a barbecue joint.

Early indications are that he made a good decision. The food -- one week in -- is pretty good and crowds are showing up.

"Last weekend, we did $18,000 in business," he said. It was the first weekend Big Daddy's was open.

The joint is located in a building that was previously a convenience store and gas station.

The Posse sampled brisket, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, and, later, burnt ends and three kinds of smoked cheese. The smoked cheese was so good that two Posse members ordered extra to take home.

We tried three different smoked cheeses, which were amazing
(Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)
"I don't know of anyone else doing that except the guy who taught me," Merrell said of the cheese.

He might be right. Posse member Bryan Gooding, the chicken and sausage king of Oak Cliff, smokes a delicious cheese. But we can't think of anyone else we've run into on our barbecue tours.

Generally, Posse members weren't impressed by Big Daddy's regular brisket, but the burnt ends made some of us reconsider.

"If you ate these every day, you'd be dead in 6 months," Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins said. "They're that good."

Bruce Tomaso said the burnt ends raised the joint's overall brisket score to a "C."

"That rib was pretty tough but it had a really good rub on it," said Guy Reynolds.

We asked Merrell about the ingredients in the rub.

"Pepper," he said, with a smile, unwilling to divulge much else. He did say he cooks ribs with pecan wood and brisket with oak and hickory.

All in all, one week in, we liked Merrell's operation. It's definitely worth a visit if you're near Little Elm.

Our our way out of Lake Country back to Dallas, we made one more stop, Chasin' Tail BBQ in Hickory Creek. The turkey was excellent. Everything else was unremarkable.

Denton County BBQ Tour

Bet The House BBQ, 508 S Elm St., Denton, 940-808-0332. Open Wed-Sat 11am-8pm (or when the meat runs out), Sun 11am-3pm. Website: www.BTHBBQ.com

Texas Smoke BBQ Co., 205 Bolivar St, Sanger, 940-231-6674. Open Mon-Fri 11am-6pm (or when the meat runs out), Sat 11am-3pm.

Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ, 102 Lobo Lane, Little Elm, 972-987-4885. Open Tues-Sun 11am-9pm.

Chasin' Tail BBQ, 8656 S Stemmons Fwy, Hickory Creek, 940-321-0524. Open Tues-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 11am-7pm. Website: www.chasintailbbq.com

Big Daddy's is located in a former gas station on El Dorado Pkwy. in Little Elm. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ owner Blake Merrell holds court with the Posse. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)


Friday, August 29, 2014

Smoked meatloaf is a hit at Texas Smoke BBQ Co. in Sanger

The Posse samples various smoked meats at Texas Smoke BBQ Co. in Sanger. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

In the 5 years the Posse has been on the hunt for the best smoked meats in Texas, we've met lots of people chasing their barbecue restaurant dreams, including a preacher, a city councilman, and former corporate consultants.

Jay Coin, the owner and pit master at Texas Smoke BBQ Co. in Sanger, is our first former undertaker.

Texas Smoke was the second stop of our recent Denton County tour. We traveled 120 miles in 6 hours and ate at 4 places.

Coin's place, located in a rustic building downtown, is decorated with old photos and signs, along with sports jerseys and a football helmet from Sanger High School. "Purple Pride," a sign said. There's also the requisite mounted deer head.

It reminded us of Buck Snort BBQ in Van Alstyne, also located in an old downtown building. Buck Snort, where you can eat a free buffet on your birthday, is run by Jim Smith, a former Van Alstyne city councilman.

The smoked meatloaf, bottom right, was a huge hit for the Posse at Texas Smoke BBQ Co. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins)

Coin, 38, said he was in the funeral business for about a decade. He started Texas Smoke in a trailer about a year ago, moved to a building at the first of this year and more recently moved again to his current location.

"What do I need to do to get better?" he asked us at the end of our interview.

Posse member Ahna Hubnik told him his smoked meatloaf, an unusual offering, was great. "You can't beat that," she said. Coin said he cooks it about two hours.

Posse members Jim Rossman and Bruce Tomaso told Coin he needed to bolster the spice he used in the rubs for his brisket and pork ribs.

The brisket was cooked perfectly, but needed much more flavor, they said.

Earlier, Posse members Michael Meadows and Gary Barber commented that Coin's barbecue sauce went very well with his brisket. Tomaso also liked the meatloaf and the regular sausage.

Coin said he buys his sausage -- regular and jalapeño -- commercially, but someday wants to make his own. He said he's having more fun now than in his previous vocation and business is going well.  He said he sells 10-12 briskets a day.

"It keeps me out of the funeral business," he said.

Denton County BBQ Tour

Bet The House BBQ, 508 S Elm St., Denton, 940-808-0332. Open Wed-Sat 11am-8pm (or when the meat runs out), Sun 11am-3pm. Website: www.BTHBBQ.com

Texas Smoke BBQ Co., 205 Bolivar St, Sanger, 940-231-6674. Open Mon-Fri 11am-6pm (or when the meat runs out), Sat 11am-3pm.

Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ, 102 Lobo Lane, Little Elm, 972-987-4885. Open Tues-Sun 11am-9pm.

Chasin' Tail BBQ, 8656 S Stemmons Fwy, Hickory Creek, 940-321-0524. Open Tues-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 11am-7pm. Website: www.chasintailbbq.com

Texas Smoke BBQ Co. pitmaster and owner Jay Coin visits with the Posse. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Ribs and brisket at Texas Smoke BBQ Co. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Texas Smoke BBQ Co. is located on Boliver St. in old downtown Sanger. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Behold the Fried Rib from Pecan Lodge -- You need to try one

The fried rib from Pecan Lodge in Dallas. (Photo by Jim Rossman/Texas BBQ Posse)

It’s not often that I’m surprised by the menu at a BBQ joint.

I’ve been to more than a few dozen places and didn’t think there was much else you could do to a pork rib, but I was wrong.

One day last month I was eating at Pecan Lodge in Dallas when I spied a new entry on their menu board. It was a fried pork rib and I had to have one.

The rib was a very large and meaty. It was lightly battered and then deep fried. The crust was crunchy, but not very thick. The fried rib was then dipped in BBQ sauce, plated and then topped with bleu cheese and some green onion.

It was a glorious mess.

I wanted to run back and order a second one, but the thought of my upcoming annual physical kept me in my seat. I’d really forgotten about the rib until the Posse’s recent Denton County tour, when I remembered and told the others.

I’ll have to get back and try the rib again. I asked Pecan Lodge if the rib was a regular on the menu and was told, “we have them on a pretty regular basis.”


Certainly worth a try if you see it on the menu.

Pecan Lodge, 2702 Main St. Dallas, 214-748-8900. Open: Tues-Thur 11am-3pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-3pm. Website: www.pecanlodge.com

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Barbecue photography the old-fashioned way

Posse member Bruce Tomaso lends a hand with a reflector as photojournalist Guy Reynolds focuses in on Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ owner Blake Merrell in Little Elm. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

If you follow this blog, you know it regularly features great barbecue photography. Several Posse members are photographers and they bring their equipment -- all kinds of equipment -- when we go on tours.

Our recent Denton County tour, though, saw the most unusual piece of equipment yet. Guy Reynolds used a tripod mounted Graflex to shoot portraits of some of the pitmasters we visited.

On other tours, Guy has used his digital cameras, but he says he wanted to try something different this time. Here, Guy explains his mission:
I brought along my vintage '50s Graflex Crown Graphic 4x5 camera to shoot portraits with film just for the challenge of it.

Using a view camera requires a tripod and a dark cloth over the shooter's head in order to compose and focus the image on the ground glass at the back of the camera. The subject has to remain still during the interval between the settings being made and the film holder being inserted. This can easily be 30 seconds and many pieces of film are wasted.

The old camera was given to me several years ago by Bill Weisner, of Bill's Records and Tapes, because he had no use for it. It's a very difficult beast to use so I don't very often but the results and hard to beat.

The bigger the negative, the better the image - as far as sharpness goes when making enlargements. That's the same with digital file size: the more megapixels the better end results. 4x5 negatives can easily make prints 30x40 without the quality falling off to much. That's not possible with a 35mm negative, which is about 1/12 the size.

I only had 8 pieces of film loaded to do shots at our stops so there's not much margin for error. And there may not be any worthwhile. It's a risk limiting the number of takes that much. Unlike the instant gratification of digital, I won't know what I got until the film is processed and I have to take it to a lab for that. The film costs about $4 per sheet and processing is another $6 so it can get expensive real fast.

Just call me crazy but I still enjoy the craft of photography.
Blake Merrell, Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ in Little Elm. (Photo ©Guy Reynolds)

Cody Smithers, left, and Shawn Eagle of Bet  the House BBQ in Denton. (Photo ©Guy Reynolds)

Jay Coin, Texas Smoke BBQ Co. in Sanger. (Photo ©Guy Reynolds)

Guy Reynolds puts a 4x5 film holder into his Crown Graphic camera before photographing Texas Smoke BBQ Co. pitmaster & owner Jay Coin in Sanger. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bet the House BBQ in Denton gets high marks from the Posse and football guru Rick Gosselin

The Posse digs into a platter of smoked meats at Bet the House BBQ in Denton. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Rick Gosselin is one of the foremost football experts in the country. When he says the Dallas Cowboys offense is not yet ready for the regular season, as he did this past weekend, fans -- and the Cowboys -- should take serious notice.

The Dallas Morning News columnist also knows barbecue.

A couple weeks ago, he emailed us about a new place in Denton, Bet The House BBQ, where he had just eaten.

"Brisket was awesome," he wrote, encouraging us to visit the place.

Bet the House's fatty brisket. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)
"You won't be disappointed."

As it happens, Bet The House was already on our barbecue radar. We had it slated as the first stop of a Denton County tour, which we made Saturday. We covered about 120 miles in 6 hours and ate at 4 places.

Gosselin was right. We weren't disappointed by Bet The House.

"That brisket is awesome," Posse member Jim Rossman said, sampling a fatty piece with nice crust.

Later, after the fatty morsels were gone, Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins tasted one of the lean pieces.

"That's a test of a good brisket, man," he said. "That lean's been sliced for 15 minutes and it's still good."

Nine of us made this stop of the tour. We also sampled pork ribs, pulled pork, turkey, a beef rib and two kinds of sausage.

James Osborne, making his first trip with the Posse, especially liked the turkey and both sausages, regular and jalapeño cheddar. Posse veteran Ahna Hubnik singled out the beef rib. Several of us commented about the nice tangy taste of the pulled pork.

The one shortcoming: pork ribs. We thought they could have been cooked longer, have more smoke flavor and a more robust rub.

"Not a lot of flavor profile going on there," Rossman said of the ribs.

Bet  the House co-owners Cody Smithers, left, and Shawn Eagle. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

When we talked to co-owners Shawn Eagle and Cody Smithers, we discovered that we might have been lucky to be eating any barbecue at all from their joint, a store front in a small strip center a few blocks from the main square in Denton.

They had a fire the previous day in the detached smokehouse at the rear. So, instead of their normal pit, they had to cook at home on portable pits.

"Now, it's got a little character on it," Smithers said, pointing to exterior smoke and heat stains on the smokehouse. They hoped to have the regular pit back in action soon.

Eagle teaches at Ryan High School in Denton and Smithers works in marketing at The Morning News. (Full disclosure: Some Posse members had previously tasted their barbecue when they catered  at the newspaper.)

Bet the House is located south of the Denton town square on Elm St..
(Photo ©Chris Wilkins)
The Denton Record-Chronicle did a story about Bet The House in June, shortly after the place opened. After cooking together as friends, then doing some catering, Eagle and Smithers are pursuing their barbecue dream, with the help of a small KickStarter campaign to raise money for some basic supplies.

"We've sold out all but three days of the first two months we've been open," Eagle said.

In future posts, we'll write about the other stops of our tour.


Denton County BBQ Tour

Bet The House BBQ, 508 S Elm St., Denton, 940-808-0332. Open Wed-Sat 11am-8pm (or when the meat runs out), Sun 11am-3pm. Website: www.BTHBBQ.com

Texas Smoke BBQ Co., 205 Bolivar St, Sanger, 940-231-6674. Open Mon-Fri 11am-6pm (or when the meat runs out), Sat 11am-3pm.

Big Daddy's Ribs & BBQ, 102 Lobo Lane, Little Elm, 972-987-4885. Open Tues-Sun 11am-9pm.

Chasin' Tail BBQ, 8656 S Stemmons Fwy, Hickory Creek, 940-321-0524. Open Tues-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 11am-7pm. Website: www.chasintailbbq.com

Bet the House has a small indoor dining room along with outdoor tables. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Posse member Michael Meadows shows off a newly-acquired beef rib. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

BBQ lovers wait to order Saturday lunch at Bet the House BBQ. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)