Feature

A Eulogy for the Barbecue Joint

by Daniel Vaughn · August 8, 2016
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Barbecue joints aren’t simply born. It takes time to develop into one. A barbecue joint is a worn-in stool at a counter smoothed over by time. It’s a soot-stained ceiling, a broken-in barbecue pit, a menu with prices scratched out, and a bigger smile when you use cash. A barbecue joint evokes emotion and jumpstarts memories. It feeds a community—and the family that runs it. When a barbecue joint dies, we lose more than another option for lunch; we lose part of our fabric, part of our collective history. A place where stories might have been made or shared is now reduced to a story told by someone who can only count themselves as a past customer. That’s why a true barbecue joint is more than a restaurant that serves barbecue; it is an establishment that should be cherished.

I’ve been traveling outside of Texas lately, and, of course, searching for barbecue along the way. Call me sentimental, but most of my targets were the old barbecue joints. I hit a few newer places with multi-page menus and large bathrooms, but I wanted to take in the joints that might not be around much longer. It made me realize that I often do just the opposite in Texas. With so many new restaurants opening in my “beat,” I find myself chasing other critics and barbecue fans to the next barbecue hotspot. If I skipped the places, I’d be derelict in my duties, but finding an older, unsung barbecue joint to crow about is always more fulfilling for me professionally.

I’d like to make clear what I consider a true “barbecue joint,” because I usually use the term pretty broadly. A true joint is independently owned. It’s not part of a chain, and it doesn’t have table service. Ideally, at a joint you’ll see your meat cut in front of you, and the smoker out back won’t be difficult to locate. It’s most likely a free-standing building (this requirement gives rural areas a built-in advantage of providing the right conditions for a joint). All of this means that, as much I love some newer barbecue restaurants that have opened in strip centers in big cities, it’s hard to classify them as a true barbecue joint.

Old Brick Pit 01

As I said, I’ve been visiting as many joints as possible during my travels outside of Texas. While in Atlanta recently, I met up with food blogger Grant Goggans and photographer Andrew Thomas Lee at Old Brick Pit Bar-B-Q, in the northeastern suburb of Chamblee. It’s a small joint designed to look like a red barn. Old Brick Pit has been cooking whole hams with hickory smoke on that, well, old brick pit for the last forty years, but I’d never heard of it until these two gentlemen suggested it. The menu is sparse. A barbecue sandwich and a cup of a classic Georgia-style Brunswick stew will set you back less than $6. A soft bun, juicy pork, and a thin, red vinegar sauce come together for a perfect version of Georgia-style barbecue. The Brunswick stew, packed with corn and smoked chicken, was some of the best I’ve had. It’s a great barbecue joint, and a reminder of Georgia-style barbecue in a city that’s now known more for more modern versions of barbecue.

Old Brick Pit 02

Pork sandwich at Old Brick Pit

When I posted a photo of Old Brick Pit, I received a curt comment: “not one of our finer establishments in ATL.” A hashtag of #notworthy was added. More like #smdh. Old Brick Pit isn’t flashy, and you won’t find smoked brisket or a dozen side choices. An hour earlier I had just sampled nearly the whole menu at Heirloom Bar-B-Que, quite literally one of my favorite joints in the country, and it took four trays to hold it all. Heirloom’s inventiveness is nearly unparalleled in barbecue, but its variety doesn’t diminish the perfect example of Georgia-style barbecue at Old Brick Pit just because the Brick Pit’s menu can fit on one plate. There’s room for a visit to the widely publicized new kid, Heirloom (2010), and the joint that’s been keeping it simple since 1976 (Old Brick Pit), but whose latest national newspaper clipping is from 1988.

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The pit at HB’s BBQ

I had a similar “discovery” in Little Rock several months ago. Scott Moody of the locally-made PK Grills suggested we meet at HB’s Bar-B-Q (1961). I’d seen the name only once before when a friend mentioned it last year, but the suggestions for a chain with seven barbecue sauces to choose from came pouring in when I mentioned Little Rock online. HB’s building sneaks up on you amongst the other houses in the residential neighborhood. I was happy to soak in more than fifty years of history at a table here, even if I had to pay cash. The house-made, Delta-style tamales covered in chili were great. The brick-red sauce was thick, but more tangy than sweet. It dripped from the jumbo sandwich of shredded, smoky pork topped simply with shredded cabbage, and served on a pillowy bun for $5.95. It was unique without being complicated, and gave me a window into Arkansas’s barbecue tradition.

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Jumbo pork sandwich at HB’s BBQ

Too often we take these joints for granted. It’s easy to assume a restaurant that’s been around forever won’t ever close, but who will be there to take over when the owner retires? The next generation doesn’t always stick around. Running a barbecue joint is tough on your health, and it often comes with little reward. Nobody’s getting rich selling $4 pork sandwiches, like the ones at Grady’s BBQ in Dudley, North Carolina.

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A great meal at Grady’s BBQ

After enjoying as much of Grady’s menu as I could fit (do not skip the butter beans), I talked with owner Steve Grady in the pit house. At eighty years old, he still cooks whole hogs over a hardwood and charcoal fire. We stood in the heat of the pit room as my shirt soaked through with sweat. Grady, in long sleeves and jeans, didn’t even get wet around the temples. I had a feeling the venue he chose for our discussion was designed to limit it. Still, he told me stories of his life’s work on the farm, in the sawmill, and at the barbecue pit. Grady is a man who’s not afraid of hard work, but he knows his limits. He didn’t seem hopeful that Grady’s had too many years left. When he and his wife Gerri close it, it’ll be gone for good. North Carolina will lose another master of whole hog barbecue, and we’ll all lose another great barbecue joint.

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Pat Gee’s Barbecue in Tyler

The same will likely happen at Pat Gee’s (1963) in Tyler, a quintessential joint I recently wrote about. It’s also been refreshing to see new life breathed into the pits at the original Bodacious Bar-B-Que (1968) in Longview.  That’s not to say that new barbecue joints can’t develop. It takes time, nobody knows exactly how much, but I’m hopeful when I happen upon new spots like Zeke’s BBQ in Windthorst, Truth BBQ in Brenham, Evie Mae’s in Wolfforth, or The Smoking Oak in Mercedes. A few more years under their belt, and they might become part of Texas barbecue joint lore, but it’s not automatic. Last year we published a list of the twenty-five best new barbecue joints in Texas. One that I had great hope for was Hwy 29 BBQ in Bertram, but it has hit hard times. It had to close temporarily due to a lack of summer business. I hope it comes back strong, but we may have lost a great barbecue joint before it ever really got going.

Truth BBQ 05

Some good news just came out of Farwell that the Thursday-only operation, The BBQ Shop (another from the 25 best new joints list) will be back open on August 18 after a hiatus due to co-owner Judy Mimms’s medical issues. It’s a reminder that you can’t just plug a new employee into a barbecue joint to keep it running. The owners are the operators, the pitmasters, and the heart and soul of a barbecue joint.

We all know that barbecue is growing, but a reminder is in order. As we pointed out last year, the independently run, counter-service barbecue restaurant numbers are shrinking. Those are the barbecue joints. When they’re gone, they’re gone. We need to foster that category of new restaurant if we ever want them to grow into barbecue joints. Those new places on their way to becoming bona-fide barbecue joints deserve our support, and for barbecue’s sake, don’t dismiss the ones we already have.

Comments

10 Comments

    Will Hinton says:

    I am truly with you on the idea of a real “barbecue joint”. I’m generally quite skeptical about any barbecue place that is too clean and new. That said, I’m saddened that you had to highlight Old Brick Pit in Atlanta. That place is easily one of the worst in ATL for a multitude of reasons. Next time you are in ATL, I can show you the good barbecue joints.

    Doug Worgul says:

    Brilliant, Daniel. Brilliant.

    Robert Evans says:

    Good article. Yah, as barbecue becomes easier to make and more trendy, the temptation to divide restaurants into “upper class” and “lower class,” to practice elitism and oikophobia, will grow. Probably many of the newer places would refuse service to a man who showed up in bib overalls and a feed store cap.

    Ralph Zarker says:

    Great piece.

    Valerie says:

    My father in law owned one such BBQ joint in Buchanan Dam, Tx. He is gone now, but The property is for sale if anyone is interested in opening an authentic joint! Complete with smoker, huge pit, stained ceilings, pieced together building. Big John’s BBQ! Open thirty years!

    Ellis says:

    I’ve been eating here for over 40 years. Some of the finest Pork BBQ and Brunswick stew in the South.

    Anyone tagging The Old Brick Pit as #notworthy doesn’t know BBQ.

    Tasha says:

    If you are ever in Houston, Tx, check out Burns BBQ in Acres Home, the original one on DePriest Street. Cant get anymore authentic than that.

    PM Summer says:

    This confirms what I have saying for a number of years. The ‘Neu-B-Que’ restaurants (many of which are very good) are killing off the old pits and joints.

    I hear that Wilhite’s in Creedmore has succumbed.

    Joe A Idar says:

    I was lucky enough to have had BBQ at Mizz Millers on the very near west side of San Antonio. You would drive into the neighborhood, park in front of the house , walk down their drive way into the back yard where there was a screened in shed. The pit was dug into the ground , Mizz Miller would lift a large steel plate unveiling some of the most beautifully barked brisket, chicken, sausage, ribs you have ever seen , I would place my order grab my soda pop and enjoy . It disappeared in the early 80’s maybe due to Health codes or Health of Mizz Miller but either way R.I.P Mizz Miller your BBQ was the BEST in Texas . BTW this would make a wonderful article for Texas Monthly to research , I’m sure there are a lot of people around who have great memories of Mizz Miller

    Karen says:

    It will indeed be a sad day when Grady’s in Dudley, NC closes. We have enjoyed their food for many years on an individual basis, but also had them cater family events!

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