Young Chefs Disrupt The Barbecue Game In Texas
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
Barbecue is always a hot topic in Texas and a new book has made it even hotter. It's called "The Prophets of Smoked Meat" by Daniel Vaughn. He's the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly magazine. The book has upset some by leaving out a handful of longtime favorite spots.
But it's also put several small up-and-comers on the barbecue map, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: If you're trying to find the Pecan Lodge Barbecue Restaurant in Dallas for the first time, good luck. You'll drive up and down South Pearl Street, your GPS laughing at you. It's right here, you moron. But where? You roll down your window to ask a guy on the corner, and wham, the sweet smell of barbecue brisket fills your nostrils like smoke signals from heaven. The GPS was right - it's here, somewhere.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: KP?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm going to get a three-meat brisket, pork ribs and original sausage.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Order for KP.
GOODWYN: Tucked inside Dallas Farmer's Market Shed Number 2 is a sight that stops you in your tracks. A line of people winds around the front of the Pecan Lodge, down the side, around the back and then out of sight. I mean, it's air-conditioned in here, but are you kidding me?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What can I do for you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I get the two-meat and a side with the brisket, pulled pork and mac and cheese?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes.
GOODWYN: It's not even noon yet but every table out front is filled with Pecan Lodge veterans, barbecue heaped on their plates, smirking at the gobsmacked newbies. First-timers are easily discernable by the stunned looks on their faces when they walk in and see the line. And get this, half the people standing in line are not even going to get barbecue - it's going to run out before they can order.
A little after noon, owner and pit master Justin Fourton comes out, gauges the line and then tapes a sign on the back of Sony Kalluvilayil, who can't see the cash register from where he's standing.
JUSTIN FOURTON: It says: Hello My Name is Slim Pickings. If you are standing in line behind me, consider the Southern Fried Chicken, barbecue provisions are low. Kindly pass the word.
GOODWYN: When Justin Fourton and his wife, Diane, first opened Pecan Lodge three years ago, it was nothing like this.
DIANE FOURTON: In the beginning, you know, it was just the two of us and a couple of employees. And on Sundays, we'd roll the TV out and watched the Cowboy game back here in the kitchen. And we had a sign that we'd set up on the counter that said: Ring the Bell for Service. So in case a customer came up, we wouldn't miss them.
GOODWYN: But that was before the sage of Texas barbecue, Daniel Vaughn, rated the Fourtons' restaurant as the fourth-best barbecue joint in Texas, in his book. Vaughn's ratings also appeared in the popular magazine Texas Monthly. Diane Fourton remembers the exact moment they heard they were number 4 on the list.
FOURTON: It was like winning the lottery. We just leapt in the air. We were screaming. There was champagne popping. We were throwing money at our staff and giving them champagne...
FOURTON: ...it was like, it was crazy, crazy, awesome joy.
GOODWYN: Author Daniel Vaughn is not even from Texas. He's a transplant from Ohio. But after traveling more than 10,000 miles and eating at over 600 barbecue joints, few on the planet put such a wide variety of Texas barbecue to the test. Vaughn often traveled with a photographer, which would invariably attract the attention of the owner who, upon finding out Vaughn's mission, would ask, so what do you think?
DANIEL VAUGHN: Well, if the barbecue is not any good and they ask what I think, I'll just find something that I like about it and I'll say, you know, the potato salad was really good and leave it at that.
GOODWYN: But, of course, some owners really did want to know. He recalls one joint in East Texas where the owner pressed him about the quality of the brisket.
VAUGHN: No really, really what do you think? I was like, well, it was incredibly tough actually. I had to...
VAUGHN: I could barely pull it apart. It just really wasn't that good at all. Oh, oh I'll be right back. And, of course, he comes back out. He's got these little nuggets of brisket, they're nice and tender, really good. It's just like, well, why aren't you serving this to everybody? Why does it take like a special request to get your best stuff?
GOODWYN: Vaughn's motto is, I eat the lousy barbecue so you won't have to. It's brisket that is the pinot noir of Texas barbecue. Yes, chicken and ribs and sausage and pork all have their important places. But if you want to be considered one of the great pit masters, your brisket is what gets you admitted or not into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. It's because it's so labor-intensive and so difficult to make tender, juicy brisket with just the right, sublime smoky flavor.
DIXON WILES: The bottom line is, in barbecue, it's all about the brisket.
GOODWYN: This little nugget of wisdom is Texas gospel. Pecan Lodge attracts some of the most knowledgeable customers in North Texas, like Dixon Wiles.
WILES: Look, anybody can do good pulled pork. And good ribs, anybody can learn to do. But the real trick - and I've been working on this for 20 years myself - is cooking brisket and doing it right, so that it doesn't dry out and that it turns out tender and that it's great.
GOODWYN: This is why the restaurant owners are almost always the pit masters, too. It takes Justin Fourton 15 hours on average to cook a brisket. This means he's up at two in the morning to make sure the pit fire is just right.
FOURTON: We're in the smokehouse right now, out behind the restaurant. And this is the second pit that we've had. This is Virgil.
GOODWYN: A huge barrel-like barbecue pit holds dozens of briskets. It's stunning to think that all this meat will be gone in just a couple of hours. There's only lunch at Pecan Lodge.
FOURTON: There's nothing mechanical about it, no electricity. It's all manual. It's just, you know, basically the wood and the meat and the seasoning that we put on it. And that's pretty much it.
GOODWYN: Before he became a pit master, Justin Fourton was a consultant at Accenture who regularly worked 60 hours a week. He says this is much harder. It's 130 degrees in the smokehouse in the summer and he says he never gets enough sleep. And while he's ready for a bigger restaurant, he says there never will be more than one.
Why not have another one or three or five or 10?
FOURTON: I don't think I can keep the quality the same.
GOODWYN: But don't you want to be rich?
FOURTON: Nah, no. We decided long ago. We didn't get in - this is the hardest work I've done for the least amount of money that I've ever made.
GOODWYN: From Lockhart to Driftwood to Austin to Taylor, and now in Dallas, too, a new generation of pit masters are making their mark. You can tell just how good they are by the length of the lines outside their barbecue joints.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.