Friday, December 3, 2010

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Deeply smoked, seriously luscious brisket. Glistening, tender ribs that give up the deep, sultry flavor that comes from a long time in the pit. Sausage with a snap of skin, a lash of heat, a whisper of smoke.

Barbecue is one of the great perks of life in the Lone Star State.

OK, the brisket in and around Dallas and Fort Worth may not move you to tears, like what you find in Lockhart and Luling. But it can be awfully good, if you know where to go. And the ribs might just make you cry.

But contrary to popular opinion, it's not only about the meat. One of the great pleasures of hitting the barbecue trail is the people you meet along the way – for barbecue is almost as much about hospitality as it is about the smoke and the beef and the pork.

It might be the proud pitmaster in the rural outskirts of Fort Worth who stops at the table to chat because he hasn't seen you in his place before. Relax and enjoy your lunch, he says, and then I'll show you around. The family photos, his dad's collection of James Dean memorabilia, the pile of split oak – oak's expensive, but a friend supplies it in exchange for meals. And here's the old smoker in back ... .

Not far away, a banjo player picks a jaunty tune as folks in their Sunday best pass around platters of brisket and ribs. Did you save some room for house-made buttermilk pie? It's on the house today. Why? "Because we're in a good mood!" says the young woman behind the counter.

And right here in town, the owner's son at a spot with crazy good ribs tries to insist you take a half a rack on the house because they ran out of the smoked chicken you wanted to take home.

You might call these places bare-bones. After all, you order at the counter and the barbecue usually comes on a Styrofoam plate. Many are closed by dinnertime. And on Sundays. And often on Mondays. Most don't serve beer.

But beyond those screen doors lie some of the best dining experiences to be had anywhere in the country.

Here, in no particular order, we present the Best in DFW: Barbecue.

Bartley's Bar-B-Q

"Have you been to Bartley's before?" asked the server as I approached the counter at this unassuming spot in a Grapevine strip mall. When I told him it was my maiden voyage, he insisted I try some of the smoked meats before deciding what to order, then proceeded to carve me slices of no fewer than seven items. And that's not even the whole menu. The thin-sliced brisket could have been moister and smokier, but the super-meaty, well-seasoned ribs, done over oak with a lightly sweet glaze and deep, smoky flavor, were outstanding. Barbecue chicken was another standout, along with the sultry smoked sausages and smaller hot links. And hey – the ham rocked, too, and even the smoked bologna made a good impression.

Bartley's sides are some of the best around: classic collard greens that aren't too fatty, pinto beans spiked with lots of black pepper, super-fresh coleslaw with a crunch of diced apple, good chunky potato salad. I'll skip the peach cobbler next time, but the dinner rolls, made next door at Bartley's bakery, are a nice touch.

Tuesday-Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
413 E. Northwest Highway, Grapevine. 817-481-3212.

Longoria's Barbecue

The Longoria family's 14-year-old barbecue cottage has a Fort Worth address, but it's right on the edge of the town of Everman, and visiting there feels like a trip to the countryside. The house, barn-red with white trim, certainly looks the part, and the screen door slaps reassuringly when you walk in. The welcome couldn't be warmer, and a server will bring your order to the table when it's ready. Till then you might be joined by Danny Longoria, one of two pitmasters (the other is his brother David), who will be happy to regale you with the history of the place, along with a tour. Their father, Fidencio (Longoria's founder), is an ardent James Dean fan, and one of the back dining rooms is awash in Dean memorabilia.

The standout here is the unusual and irresistible brisket sausage, made by stuffing coarsely ground raw brisket into casings and long-smoking it over oak. It's profoundly smoky, with terrific snap. The other great surprise is the burger, an incredibly flavorful patty fashioned from smoked ground brisket. The bun might fall apart, it's cooked more well-done than I normally like and the condiments are afterthoughts, but this is one larapin good burger – terrific with a splash of Longoria's zesty barbecue sauce. (They sell it by the gallon, and smaller denominations too, if you want to take some home.) A big slice of sweet potato Bundt cake makes a fine ending.

Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
100 S. Christopher Drive, Fort Worth. 817-568-9494.

Off the Bone Barbeque

The Cedars neighborhood is home to some of Dallas' best barbecue, and that includes this friendly 2 ½ -year-old spot in a smart little space refashioned from a gas station. Pitmaster Dwight Harvey turns out terrific baby-back ribs – juicy, well-seasoned and redolent of pecan smoke. Haven't been there yet? You'll be offered a sample before deciding. But taste them, and the decision's a no-brainer. Take a seat on the patio or at one of the tables inside, and they'll bring out your ribs – and whatever else you choose. There's no sliced brisket, only chopped, and it's rich, moist, smoky and flavorful. And the fine-grained sausage is a snappy standout. Nothing needed sauce, but that sauce is quite good, with a welcome dusky note of molasses. The sides at Off the Bone have no shortage of personality. I particularly loved the coleslaw, enriched with blue cheese and topped with a bit of crumbled bacon. I tried to order a smoked chicken to go, but they were out of it. Must be good, and I'll be back. For dessert, don't miss the house-made lemon poundcake with its wonderfully bright, lemony glaze.

Good news for clubgoers: Off the Bone stays open Friday and Saturday till 2 in the morning. And once the NFL playoffs start, it may open Sundays, too.

Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
1734 S. Lamar St., Dallas. 214-565-9551.

Off the Bone BBQ

Unrelated to Off the Bone Barbeque in Dallas, this out-of-the-way spot not far from Fort Worth is the place for the best all-around selection of barbecue in the area. Pitmaster Eddie Brown Sr. uses a combination of oak and pecan, which gives all the meats a full, round, smoky flavor. The crust was cut off the brisket the day I sampled it, but the meat was superb: moist, juicy and smoky all the way through, with the fat well-rendered. It's the best brisket I've had this side of Taylor. Smoked chicken was rich, moist and super-flavorful; you can choose dark or white (I went for the dark). Pork loin, which can so easily turn out dry, was just as juicy. There are sassy hot links, but I liked the thicker, bias-cut smoked sausage even better. Big, lightly glazed, meaty, tender ribs, were smoked just long enough – fabulous. And the short ends at their best (some had gristle and unrendered fat) were even more of a treat: wonderfully crusty, smoky through and through. Let's call it pork candy.

Sides are outstanding: fresh, well-dressed coleslaw sharpened with celery seed; rich, eggy Texas-style potato salad balanced with a touch of vinegar; crisp, hot fried okra; exemplary fries. Only the underseasoned pinto beans fell short.

Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
5144 Mansfield Highway, Forest Hill. 817-563-7000.

Meshack's Bar-B-Que Shack

You can't see inside the mysterious shack when you order through the screened window at this to-go-only spot in a tumble-down part of Garland, but what's inside the paper bag that comes out a few minutes later is the stuff of dreams. Not the brisket necessarily (yep, it was dry). Not the barbecue sauce (hot or regular); it was way too sweet. Not the smooth-style, also too-sweet potato salad. Not the also too-sweet beans.

I'm talking about the links: super rich, wonderfully smoky, filled with coarse-ground pork. Their glistening casing offers such serious resistance to the tooth that you have to wonder whether it really wants to give up that fabulous filling. And I'm talking about the ribs, big and luscious but smoked long and slow enough to form a thick crust. These can make you cry. The menu posted outside is very limited; ask for a card, and you'll also find chicken and pulled pork. Definitely I'll try those next time.

Tuesday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., or until they run out of barbecue.
240 E. Ave. B, Garland. 214-227-4748. Cash only.


Much of the best barbecue in the area can be found on the outskirts of Fort Worth, but Angelo's has been serving up smoked meats right in the heart of Cowtown for more than half a century. The hunting lodge atmosphere adds to the fun, the restaurant's open for dinner, and you can get an icy schooner of beer with your combo plate. OK, so the brisket can be a bit dry and the sides are standard-issue, but the ribs have a nice crust and good smoky flavor. It's an all-around good place.

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
2533 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth. 817-332-0357.

Baby Back Shak

Baby Back Shak, which has been dishing out Memphis- style 'cue in the Cedars neighborhood since 1995, is hopping at lunchtime on a weekday, but orders come out in a flash. The ribs are extraordinary: highly seasoned, garlicky and peppery, with a good crust and just the right tug. I'd never put sauce on these, but the sauce here happens to be exemplary, tangy with a little heat. The brisket was moist, with superb smoky flavor, but it wasn't quite tender, and the fat wasn't rendered out. Combo plates come with two sides. "Shak beans" are tomatoey and chili-like; the sweet-pickle-studded coleslaw's dressed with a mustard vinaigrette.

Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.
1800 S. Akard, Dallas. 214-428-7427.

Baker's Ribs

Barbecue can be quite the variable art, and I've had luscious, smoky brisket and killer ribs at Baker's in the past, but they were less impressive on my most recent visit to the Deep Ellum location. I love the dining room, with red oilcloth on the tables, Lone Star flag motif booths, vintage pig art and Coca-Cola signs on the walls. You can grab a Shiner Bock from the cooler before you order – definitely a plus. The sleeper hit was the outstanding barbecue chicken and turkey – both smoky, moist and terrific.

Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
2724 Commerce St., Dallas; 214-748-5433; see website for other locations.

Smokey's Barbeque

A trip to Smokey's, on the southern edge of Fort Worth, is quite the event. Especially at lunchtime on Sunday: That's when you'll find Richard Don Simms strumming "Ain't She Sweet" or "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" on his banjo, right by the front door. (That's a fine how-do-you-do!)

Order a combo at the front, then help yourself to the salad bar, where you'll find a fine-chopped coleslaw and eggy potato salad that's at once smooth and chunky. (Or get a family pack by the pound, with three sides.) Take a seat at one of the long communal tables, and they'll bring over your food. Pitmaster Paul Calhoun's brisket was almost wonderful the day I tried it, absolutely luscious, with just the right perfectly rendered fattiness, marvelous texture and a well-defined smoke line. Unfortunately, it was undersalted. Naturally, it benefited from a drizzle of sauce, which was served hot, a nice touch. The generous ribs more than made up for the flaw in the beef, with a light, slightly spicy, slightly sweet glaze and smoky, tender meat that took only gentle nudging to come off the bone.

Calhoun makes desserts, too, including a terrific velvety vanilla buttermilk pie with a tender, golden crust. Thanks to the good mood being shared by all, the pie, that happy day, was on the house.

Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
5300 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. 817-451-8222.

About the Best in DFW series

The Best in DFW series presents critics' and staff picks and asks readers to chime in with their favorites.

This feature started with a focus on the area's best restaurants and is expanding to include entertainment venues and other high-interest topics.

How we choose

The Best in DFW series presents critics' and staff picks and asks readers to chime in with their favorites.

Critics' picks are presented without ranking.

To view other dining features, check the Restaurants page at

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