Follow the Smoke: 14,785 Miles of Great Texas Barbecue Review
By John DeMers
Texas sits as a regional hub on the national highway of barbecue. So it only makes sense that John DeMers employs his personal visits to the state's 119 barbecue joints as a paintbrush to draw the greater story of Texas barbecue. In his food odyssey, he visits a smorgasbord of restaurants, ranging from old classics to brand new establishments, blazing a trail of 14,783 miles to all corners of the Lone Star state.
We have reviewed other books by self-appointed travelers who take it upon themselves to carve their way through the dusty roads of Texas, eating at all the barbeque joints. DeMers' book, published by Texas-based Bright Sky Press, is the best one we've seen.
The book immediately warns of controversial topics discussed within its smoky brown covers. What are the many Texas joys and traditions of making and eating barbecue? Where have these traditions ended up today? The book contains part food philosophy, part travel guide and part cookbook. It is an impressive presentation, and one to be appreciated by anyone attracted or interested in barbecue.
The Houston-based DeMers first tells the often told legend about the history of barbecue, establishing why beef became the meat of choice in Texas versus pork which dominates the barbecue in the states east.
Why is Texas so "beef-centric?" How did the barbecue traditions start? Who established them? DeMers' opening essay adroitly covers all of these points.
Most of the book chronicles the author's odyssey through all of the state's eateries. Here he marries detailed explanations of the food with much background on the history and business of each restaurant. A lot of this can be interesting, while other establishments patiently wait for their legacy to start.
Take, for example, the book's entry on Sonny Bryan's, the classic barbecue eatery in Dallas which has been feeding the best in barbecue to the masses since 1910. Buried in the book's discussion of Sonny Bryan's long and interesting history, DeMers asserts "No way around it. Sonny Bryan's is - in the hearts and minds of some locals - a victim of its own success."
What he means here is that the plain and simple barbecue that ignited the business may have become forgotten as the business expanded. Today Sonny Bryan's has grown to nine locations dotting the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, all from its original Inwood Road pit stop, where still today you can eat your beef brisket and pork ribs while sitting in rickety wooden school desks.
This brings up a recurring theme throughout any philosophical discussion of barbecue, which is a common refrain in Follow the Smoke. What is barbecue? Is it a faith statement or a doctrine? Restaurateur Tom Perini asks the questions in his foreward to the book. And it's worth pondering: Is the best barbecue eaten off of unceremonious brown butcher paper in a setting out of American Graffiti?
Peppered throughout are many of the book's great stories. Take, for example, the comments made seemingly randomly by Edgar Black, the current owner of Black's Barbecue, a must-stop visit when driving anywhere within a fifty mile radius of Lockhart, Texas:
When my dad started, the only barbecue we sold was beef and sausage. Before we had all these sides, we furnished crackers, which was kinda unique. A lot of people from up north would say they never heard of serving crackers with barbecue, but that's just what we did. When you ordered your meat, our cooks would reach into these big 12-pound boxes and grab you some crackers with their hands, which would be a no-no today. And we used to always have sawdust on the floor, which gave the place a fresh and clean smell.
Over in Houston, before there was Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue, it was for decades the Shepard Bar-B-Q stand. "The original location is no more, a function of sitting squarely in the path of Interstate 10." Owner Jerry Pizzitola remembers, "Back here in Houston, barbecue pretty much was African-American barbecue. It's all we had really, the East Texas style, and it's the style I really came to love."
A typical review of a more modern restaurant is Charlie Geren's Railhead Smokehouse located in west Fort Worth. Along with many favorable comments about the food, DeMers quips "Fact is, for all the casual tables spread around and filled with families devouring barbecue, it's impossible to tell where the restaurant ends and the bar begins." A backhanded criticism perhaps?
Be careful what you say about the Railhead Smokehouse, some of those TCU students can get pretty rowdy.
At times, DeMers gets carried away by the hospitality of the business owners. Everyone agrees that the County Line restaurants in Austin and San Antonio are nice places with wait service, a point emphasized in the book. But DeMers never points out that if you take the family there be prepared for an appropriately more upscale tab. DeMers devotes full reviews to Austin's popular mainstays Stubbs and the Iron Works, both located downtown just a hop away from the convention center, while more remote, smaller hole-in-the-wall joints are omitted.
For a book like this, the editors have drawn a pretty clear line in the sand. The eateries reviewed are generally busy and well known in their respective areas. However, considering the number of barbecue joints in Texas, a full compendium would resemble an unabridged dictionary.
To that end, Follow the Smoke makes a great book for anyone arming themselves to go on travels and day trips during the year. Most people just speed through the Llano, racing down the highway without ever realizing that they can stop at classic kitchens like Cooper's Old Time Bar-B-Que Pit or Inman's Kitchen, both of which serve some of the best food in the land. Forget McDonald's; these places serve much tastier heart attack food. The taste of Texas still proudly awaits.
Although the restaurant reviews make up a significant part of the book, DeMers has also gone to the trouble of including a great section of recipes in the book, all impressive and informatively written, taken from the wide range of cultural influences that exist around the state.
The recipes at the back of the book are an impressive array, starting with a full page on Classic Texas Smoked Brisket, followed by Brisket-Stuffed 1015 Onions. There's Juneteenth Pork Spareribs, Candied Sweet Potatoes and Smothered Greens. Texas Hill County's old German influences inspire recipes for Warm German Potato Salad and Shiner Bock Barbecued Cabrito. Desserts will inspire even more eating: From traditional Banana Pudding to Hill Country Peach Bread Pudding, or Pecan Pie to Texas Dewberry Cobbler.
Taken as a whole, Follow the Smoke is an impressive project. Texas Barbecue is something that cannot be quickly explained to folks. DeMers shows how by walking through many interesting stories in 119 barbecue joints. There's some philosophy, and Texas inspired recipes to boot. Perhaps this is why barbecue endures as one of those democratic experiences that everyone, no matter the race, background or social status, can enjoy.
How does the institution endure? Black's Barbecue owner Edgar Black simply leaves us with his own personal secret to success: "You know these 75 years haven't always been easy. The secret is just hanging in there."
If you think brisket is only for slicing and eating, or perhaps for chopping and mixing with sauce to make a sandwich, think again. This variation uses the Texas sweet onions that are named after their recommended planting date of October 15 (10-15). These large super-sweet onions are commonly available from mid-April through May. During other times of the year, you can use another mild, sweet onion.
- 10 large Texas 1015 onions or other sweet onions
- 1 pound smoked beef brisket, shredded
- 1 t rubbed sage
- 1/2 t minced garlic
- 1/2 t ground red pepper
- 1/2 t ground cumin
- 1/2 t salt
- 1/2 t black pepper
- 1 C unseasoned bread crumbs
Peel the onions and boil in salted water for 10 minutes; drain, reserving water. Cut out the centers from the onions to create shells; set aside. In a sauté pan, combine the shredded brisket, sage, garlic, red pepper, cumin, salt and black pepper. Cook and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; stir in bread crumbs.
Preheat oven to 350 °. Spoon stuffing into onion shells. Place in a shallow baking dish. Add enough of the reserved onion water to cover the bottom of the dish. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until onions are tender. Serves 10.
John DeMers lives in Houston and concentrates on his weekly food and wine radio show, Delicious Mischief. A longtime reporter and editor for United Press International, John has written from 136 foreign countries. This is his 37th published book.* * *