Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Barbecue Chronicles: Back to East Texas where we find proof that wood rules


It had been a few months since the Posse’s last barbecue tour. So, we reminded ourselves to be conservative and not overeat at the first stop.

“I’m just going to have one rib,” said tour veteran Marshall Cooper as he drove east from Dallas on I-20.

His passengers laughed.

“Well, if they’re good I might have four or five,” he conceded.

In the end, somehow, Texas barbecue always manages to bring out the truth.

For this chapter of our barbecue chronicles, we traveled 290 miles over 10 hours on a beautiful spring Saturday that was chilly when we started and warm when we finished.

We ate at five places in East Texas, including four of Texas Monthly’s Top 50 joints in the state: Stanley’s in Tyler, Stacy’s in Jacksonville, Baby J’s in Palestine and Cripple Creek in Athens. We had been to Stanley’s before, but not the other places.

Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins, a photo editor at The Dallas Morning News who planned the itinerary and served as chief navigator, also left some room for serendipity.

“I know we’re going to find something,” he said. “Keep an eye out for smoke.”


Our first stop was Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, located near the medical center. The Posse, a dozen strong, converged in four vehicles, just after 10:30 a.m., a half-hour before the doors opened. Tour veteran Jim Rossman, a tech expert for The News, cut a fine figure riding solo in his wife’s red Miata. A big guy, he looked like a teen-ager who had outgrown a childhood toy. To fit, Rossman rode with the top down.

“It got a little cool on the way over,” he admitted.

Also on the tour were veterans Bruce Tomaso, Ahna Hubnik and Gary Barber, who all work at The News, and Gary’s brother, Michael, making his first trip. For the Cooper family, barbecue is a family affair so Marshall, a commercial real estate broker, was joined by his wife, Sheilagh, and their seven-year-old son, Mark.

Two other first-timers made the trip: Phil Lamb, an attorney, and Chris Post, a banker. They are regular readers of the Posse’s blog www.texasbbqposse.com.

Stanley's in Tyler

The last time we visited Stanley’s,
about a year ago, the ribs were sold out by 11:30 a.m. and we didn’t get any.

“Sold out,” of course, can be a relative term in barbecue. Before our first visit, pitmaster Jonathan Shaw had cooked only a half-dozen racks. Since then, Stanley’s ribs have won a Texas Monthly competition and Shaw is cooking a lot more racks.



“We won’t run out on you today,” Shaw said as he greeted us outside while we waited for the place to open. Owner Nick Pencis was away on a catering job.

Along with the ribs, we were anxious to sample Stanley’s turkey breast, the favorite from our first visit, and the Brother In Law sandwich, a Stanley’s specialty made with chopped beef, sausage and cheese.

We ate outside on the big patio. “A great spot to start the day!” Sheilagh Cooper said.

Post said he never would have thought to combine the sandwich items and he liked the turkey so much that he bought a pound to take home.

The ribs, finished with a glaze, were nicely tender and had a slightly sweet taste. Marshall Cooper admitted eating four, “maybe five.”

Rossman called the ribs the best he had eaten in months. He ate five and most of a brother-in-law sandwich. Then he went back and bought a rack of ribs to take home.

Before moving to Dallas, Rossman said he lived in Tyler for 10 years, less than a mile from Stanley’s. He worked for the Tyler newspaper, but never ate at Stanley’s. “I’m kicking myself if it was always this good,” he said.




As we were leaving, we asked Shaw how he was able to keep the turkey breast so moist. He said he puts them on the pit after most of the other meats have come off. He cooks them for about three hours at 300 degrees, until the internal temperature reaches 165.

“We use a little more mellow fire because we don’t want too much smoke on them,” he said.

Oh, yes, one other important development. Stanley’s now serves Big Red on tap.

Stacy's in Jacksonville

From Stanley’s we drove south, through town, and got caught a mid-day traffic jam in southern Tyler. “The traffic is as bad as Plano,” Wilkins said. “It wasn’t like this when I was growing up here.” Wilkins now lives in Plano.




Stacy’s Barbecue is located in an old house, near a shopping mall on Highway 69 in Jacksonville. As we walked through the front door, we saw a small jar of ashes on a shelf. A note said: “Ashes of unruly customers.”

Nearby, a sign read: “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way or don’t get the damn thing.”

We liked that attitude, but the meat under whelmed us.

“I just don’t know how brisket can look that good and taste that bland,” Tomaso said. Lamb echoed the sentiment.

After we ate, owner Ron Davis showed us his two, nearly 30-year-old gas-fired pits, which, he said, can cook a total of up to 100 briskets at a time. He said he doesn’t use rubs or seasonings. “We throw some hickory on for flavor,” he said.




Davis said Stacy’s, named after his father, once used only wood, but that meant staying up most of the night tending the fire. If the pit crew lost control of the heat, there were problems.

“One day the briskets would be like charcoal and the next as raw as can be,” Davis said.

It’s much easier cooking with gas, he said. Set the temperature, go home and sleep. And, he said, his customers like the food.

We found Highway 79 and headed southwest to Palestine.

Baby J's in Palestine

There, just outside of town, we ran into the most unusual pit any of us have seen. A giant black metal box on short stilts with a smokestack reaching 20-feet high, located just out the side door from Baby J's Bar B Que and Fish.

With a flick of his wrist, Jeremiah "Baby J" McKenzie toggled one of the huge counterweights and a door magically lifted, exposing eight rotating cook racks filled with chicken and ribs.

An identical cooking chamber was on the opposite side. "That's just heaven," said Marshall Cooper, clearly smitten with pit envy. In Cooper's case, that takes some doing. He owns a Jambo J-3.




McKenzie calls this unique smoker Big Baby. He can load 10 logs at a time in the converted firebox underneath.

"This had gas when I got it," he said. "We don't want gas."

Nearby was another pit, unused this day, housed in a trailer. “Danger men cooking,” said a sign on the side.

You gotta love barbecue humor.

McKenzie then led most of the Posse on a slow procession to the parking area in front of his building where a more conventional, tank-style pit was smoking away.

"The big one don't pass my test on brisket," Baby J said. "For chicken, ribs, it's perfect. But for brisket, this one here made my reputation."

He removed a padlock from one of the cooking chambers and started unwrapping a couple of the foiled briskets.

"This still has about an hour or so to go but you can get an idea," he said as he cut samples and passed them to reaching hands.




The pieces were hot, dripping in juices, and a little more than one bite in size, which made for some interesting contortions as we tried to eat without burning our mouths or getting grease on our chins and clothes.

"Outstanding," said Lamb. "Can I buy half of that brisket?"

Baby J nodded yes. He explained that he cooks his briskets for 18 hours or so, never allowing the temperature to go above "boiling."

"I never get in no hurry," he said.

McKenzie, the youngest of eight children, therefore Baby J, said he learned his craft from relatives at family gatherings and has been cooking since he was a kid. (He said he turns 39 this month.)

He started his joint in 2007 and made Texas Monthly's Top 50 list in 2008. He closed for a while but opened again last year.

Enticed by his brisket samples, we anxiously went inside and ordered from his menu.



Post called the pulled pork “exceptional, very smoky and surprisingly moist.” Lamb called the catfish the best he had ever tasted, unexpected on a barbecue tour. “But you learn to take what the tour gives you,” he said.

The brisket was tender but not as tasty as what we had right off the pit. McKenzie said he uses a machine to slice an entire brisket at once and then lets the slices sit in a secret broth -- “Baby Juice,” he called it – before they are served.

The ribs were tender and tasty. The pies were wonderful.

“Who made the pies?” asked Hubnik after eating a slice of coconut cream.

“They’re homemade,” Baby J said.

“But who makes them because I want to hug her,” Hubnik said.

“She’s not here,” Baby J said.

Later, his wife, Linda, the pie maker, arrived and Hubnik delivered her hug.

Baby J also offered samples of his sausage, chicken, ribs right off the smoker and beef jerky, all very good. The ribs were better than those we had ordered earlier.




“You’re like a crack dealer,” Rossman told McKenzie as he took a sample of the jerky. Wilkins and Lamb each bought some to take home.

For a decade, McKenzie has also been pastor at One Way Apostolic Church in Palestine.

"Do you ever use barbecue in your sermons?" we asked him.

"Yes," he replied. "I say in the Christian religion, you can't be fast. You gotta go slow. When you go fast, you mess up."

We could have stayed longer, but we finally said good-bye to Baby J and headed north on Highway 19, toward Athens.

Butt Nekkid in Montalba

In a few minutes, as we passed Montalba, Wilkins spotted smoke on the side of the road. He had been crying wolf all day long with false sightings of cool joints, but this was the real deal.

"We probably should turn around,” Wilkins said. Wheelman Marshall Cooper, leading the Posse procession, obliged.




And so we pulled into Smokin' Jay Galloway's Butt Nekkid BBQ.

"We don't put anything on our brisket except smoke," Galloway said, explaining the name.

Open about a year, Galloway said he cooks every night and sells out every day. He offers a chopped beef sandwich special with chips and a drink for $5, sales tax included.

He was out of ribs when we arrived about 4:30 p.m. We ordered some of his brisket and sausage and decided it would be nice to visit again when he still had ribs.

The joint itself, with its loose brick entryway and hand-strung, lighted "BBQ" sign, is unique. Some would call it cute or quaint. Sheilagh Cooper called it "eclectic." Tomaso said "faux rustic."

However you describe it, it's one of a kind.

Cripple Creek in Athens

Our final stop was Cripple Creek BBQ in Athens, where the specialty is hog wings, a unique cut of pork that Rossman described as a “meat lollipop.”



We each had one. The meat itself was bland. No smoke. But the sauce – Mae Ploy – was great.

“I drank that sauce,” Marshall Cooper said. Several in the Posse bought bottles to take home.

Calling out Texas Monthly

Driving back to Dallas on Highway 175, we were stuffed, but also reflective about what we had learned on our tour.

"Someone needs to call out Texas Monthly on its Top 50 BBQ joints," one Posse member said.

We were discussing the huge difference in taste between the gas-fired joints (Stacy’s and Cripple Creek) and the wood-fired (Stanley’s and Baby J’s). To us, the gassers didn’t come close. Yet they all were Top 50, according to Texas Monthly. How could that be?

"They should have separate lists," someone said.

"They shouldn't include the gas guys," another said.

"They should at least tell you when the place uses gas," another said.




None of the criticisms came lightly. We consider Texas Monthly's once-every-five-years ranking the bible of Texas barbecue. But we also think that real Texas barbecue means wood-fired.

The day after our tour, the Coopers asked their son, Mark, if he had a favorite place.

"I liked Baby J's but the ribs were salty and didn't have much flavor,” Mark answered. “I liked Stanley's ribs best, but they were a little sweet.”

No mention of the gas-fired joints. Even for a 7-year-old, wood rules.


East Texas II BBQ Tour itinerary April 16. 2011

9 a.m.: Leave Dallas
11 a.m.: Meet at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, 525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler, 903-593-0311. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-til the meat runs out.
1 p.m.: Stacy's Barbecue, 1217 South Jackson Street (Hwy 69), Jacksonville, 903-56-1951. Open Tues-Sat 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
2:30 p.m.: Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, FM 2419 at U.S. 287, Palestine, 903-729-8402. Open Tues-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m.   (Note: this joint is now closed. 7/14)
4:30 p.m.: Smok'n J's Butt Nekkid BBQ, Hwy. 19 at FM 321, Montalba, 903-373-2956. Open Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-7 p.m. or when the meat runs out.   (Note: this joint is now closed. 7/14)
5:15 p.m.: Cripple Creek BBQ, 500 S. Palestine Street, Athens, 903-677-4226. Open M-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9.
7 p.m.: Back in Dallas

Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by Chris Wilkins

2 comments:

  1. I am glad I found you guys through Twitter as you were mentioned today by Lockhart Smokehouse, which I follow. My buddies and I are planning a BBQ trip to about 10 joints here in the Dallas area on June 4th. I do have a question. Can anyone join the tours you guys go on? If so, I would love to attend one as I am a HUGE BBQ fan. I have a UDS I built and a Bandera vertical offset as well and I turn out some damn good Q. Thanks again, and I hope to hear from one of you soon.
    Phillip
    psharp@friscochamber.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. You need to hit Purple Pig south of Tyler on 155 and the Hickory House in Frankston, also on 155 closer to 175.

    ReplyDelete