It's summer. Time to follow the sweet smoke that drifts from smokers and grills in rural Texas, Alabama and North Carolina all the way to the busy streets of Brooklyn and Chicago.
Diners with sticky fingers, wave their bones in the air as they debate whether or not dry rub by itself or a combination of dry rub and sauce brings out the best flavors in the meat.
With a far away gleam in their eyes, travelers talk about going miles out of their way for an encounter with a plate of fatty brisket, the smoke having penetrated just below the surface of the meat but not so far that the flavor of the sweet juices are overwhelmed.
Can anything in life be better, they ask, than eating a rack of pork ribs cooked to the point of tenderness, the meat threatening to fall off the bone, needing only the touch of a hungry mouth to grab all that deliciousness?
'Cue Joints and Steakhouses
In some parts of the country, barbecue shares the table with other local specialties. That's especially true in West Texas.
Barbecue brisket, pork and beef ribs, ham, chicken, turkey and sausage links often find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with thick cut bone-in steaks, fried catfish and chicken fried steak.
The first stop was the Wildcatter Ranch, a working ranch on top of a plateau overlooking the small town of Graham. Because of low humidity, even temperatures in triple digits aren't uncomfortable as long as you hydrate frequently. It's not by accident that the 1.9 liter Big Gulp was invented by 7-Eleven, a Texas company. Texans know hot.
The appetizers are either deep fried or smoked or both and all, happily, are very tasty. Chef Bob will spend time with you, talking about the Ranch and the food, about which he's very proud.
The first lesson of barbecue, West Texas style is dry rub is king. No wet sauce touches the meat during cooking. Sauces are available but only applied by the consumer.
Greens appear on the menu in the form of fresh broccoli and a couple of salads, the best of which is the Wild Mustang salad, livened with field greens, candied Knox county pecans, bacon bits Bob makes in the kitchen, blue cheese and a house made balsamic vinaigrette.
For side dishes there are lots of choices, including some delicious smoked cream corn. The local favorite is the old-school baked potato, loaded with everything your cardiologist hates but your mouth enjoys.
Wildcatter Ranch is an hour and a half from Abilene or Fort Worth. Close enough to be a great getaway for a long weekend of relaxing around the pool, canoeing, doing a bit of archery or skeet shooting, enjoying the Western landscape and eating.
BBQ by the side of the road
Every foodie-traveler's dream is to discover a gem of a restaurant on a dusty, god-forsaken highway. Fitting the bill rather nicely is the improbably named, Hashknife on the Chisholm Trail in Peadenville (population 6) at the junction of Highways 281 N. and 254.
Like many cooks in the area including his buddy, chef Bob at Wildcatter, Big Jim grinds his own hamburger. The "Trail Burger" features a patty with hamburger meat mixed with grilled onions, barbecue sauce and cheese. Nice.
Another treat was a special dessert made by his wife Lesa. Her banana cake was moist with lots of flavor. Surprisingly, she uses plantains instead of regular Chiquita bananas. A break with tradition and a good one.
Abilene is a good sized town with plenty of attractions and all kinds of restaurants, perfect for families and couples wanting a Western experience.
Abilene Zoo is fun, as are the many museums appropriate for kids, especially Frontier Texas! with its sculptures, dioramas and holographic figures telling stories about 18th and 19th century prairie life.
Abilene has dozens of barbecue, steak and burger joints. A must-stop is Harold's Pit Bar-B-Q for an encounter with old school 'cue.
In a barebones setting, Harold's menu focuses on barbecue classics: sausage, ham, pork ribs, brisket, turkey, cornbread, cole slaw, pinto beans, collard greens, flat green beans, potato salad, fruit cobblers and sweetened ice tea.
In his heyday, Harold would come out from behind the counter and sing for the customers. He loved people and they loved him back. Unfortunately, these days Harold is taking it easy and doesn't come by much, but the food's the same, watched over by Russell, Harold's son.
Another Abilene favorite, Sharon's Barbecue has a modern, country cafe atmosphere. The restaurant is bright and clean. The brisket is good, as are the sausages, chicken, jalapeno creamed corn and minced cole slaw. There's sweet ice tea and peach cobbler.
If there is barbecue royalty in Abilene, in addition to Harold and Sharon, it would have to include Joe Allen.
When they were young, Sharon and Joe started Joe Allen's in 1980 and as Sharon tells the story, "we worked ourselves to death with eighteen hour days." In 2005 when they split up, Sharon started her own restaurant and Joe moved to a new location.
In Texas, Fatty Brisket Reigns Supreme
The old Joe Allen's was a rundown joint. The current restaurant has two dining rooms and a spacious good-time bar with big game trophies on the walls and twinkle lights circling the room. Joe Allen's has the feeling of a rambling, Texas roadhouse. A place you want to sit and spend time eating, talking and drinking.
As explained by Joe's son, Josh Allen, the general manager, the smokers use mesquite, the wood of choice in West Texas. The brisket stays in the smokers 12-16 hours depending on the size of the cut.
That's the second and third lesson of West Texas barbecue: only use mesquite and do your cooking slow and easy to bring out the best of the meat.
Like the other 'cue joints in Texas, Joe Allen's only uses dry rubs. Some dry rubs are complex mixtures of a dozen herbs and spices. Not at Joe Allen's.
Insider's Tip: If you are taking notes while you're eating 'cue, you might find it interesting as I did, that there are different potato salad and cole slaw styles. At Joe Allen's the potato salad is creamy, almost like mashed potatoes. Cole slaw might be minced, as it was at Sharon's and Harold's, julienned or, as at Joe Allen's, somewhere in the middle.
With two locations, Betty Rose's Little Brisket has a strip mall look. The dining room has plastic tablecloth-covered picnic tables and a self-service steam table with hot sides. Everything eaten at Betty Rose's is made in the kitchen. The ribs are especially good--tender and moist--with that perfect balance of smoke and heat.
According to Terry Stewart, co-owner with Kyle Johnson, the struggle for everyone in the barbecue business is keeping prices down. "Since 1997, the price of brisket has doubled because the ranchers are getting out of the cattle business which means our prices are going up." The effect of drought and the cost of ranching--grain, fuel, land, insurance--has made the cattle business unattractive.
Insider's Tip: If you need a cup of coffee in the morning, don't waste time looking for a Starbucks or Peet's. There are only a couple in Abilene. Locals get their coffee from cafes serving breakfast. The corporate-chain thing never caught on in West Texas, not when there are friendly, eccentric places like The Dixie Pig to stop by in the morning.
Judging by the crowded counter and tables, a lot of people start their day at the Dixie Pig. As a waitress was overheard to say to Dave, a regular customer, "You had your coffee yet?" His nod said "no". That's all she needed to pour him a cup, "Here you go." Now his day could officially begin.
Speaking of the The Dixie Pig, the breakfast's are inexpensive, country-style, big plate affairs, loaded with fried potatoes and a biscuit with gravy.
Beehive Restaurant has locations in Abilene and nearby Albany. Primarily a steak house with steaks cooked on an open pit, mesquite fired grill or as chicken fried steak, the Beehive has an upscale, clubby feeling, the kind of place that attracts friends wanting a big meal and some cocktails, families with their kids, and couples out on a date.
Cypress Street Station in downtown is the only microbrewery in Abilene. Ordering a flight of 4-5 small glasses of beer is a good way to sample the wide range of beers, varying from light, delicate pale ales to thick, dark malt porters. Bottled beers are available, but it's a lot more fun to try brewmaster Brian Green's latest creations along with his inventive appetizers.
The Mexican Connection
Even without visiting a Mexican restaurant, you'll encounter Mexican ingredients in West Texas cooking. Jalapeno peppers will heat up creamed corn, cornbread and cheesecakes. Dried chili powder spices up candied pecans in a wild greens salad and the barbecue sauce you pour on your fatty brisket.
In many western towns, restaurants begin their lives in someone's home. That was the case with El Fenix Cafe. Olivia Garcia and her kids run the restaurant her parents started in their home.
Her mom, Maria Luisa, cooked in the kitchen and served customers in the dining room and, later, the living room and bedrooms. Years ago the Garcias moved to the current location, a rambling space decorated with papel picado banners--paper cut outs--and decorative lights hanging from the ceiling.
The menu, like many in Texas, exploits the cooking of the Mexican interior (as opposed to the coasts), the most notable example of the cuisine from Guanajuato is the carne guisada. In Los Angeles that would be carne asada or grilled beef. At El Fenix the beef is not grilled but braised. The result is tender, moist and flaky meat.
Buffalo Gap is only a few miles south-west of Abilene. The small town (population 463) has a fascinating Historic Village, a must for any western history buffs.
Lola's, like El Fenix Cafe, started life as somebody's home. The difference is, Lola's still looks that way. Newspapers and magazines are scattered on the tables as if the owners had left suddenly. The living room and side rooms are jammed full of discarded thrift-store dining room and picnic tables.
If you sit down and wait to be served, you'll wait a long time. Lola is the cook-waitress-and-dishwasher. If you want to place your order, go into the kitchen where she'll be stirring a pot of beans or making fry bread.
The jewel of Buffalo Gap is Perini Ranch Steakhouse. Located down a twisting dirt road, the steakhouse is in a converted barn with an outdoor patio cooled by lazily turning overhead fans.
Perini's is the brainchild of Tom Perini (on the right in the photo), born and bred a Texas cattleman. He loves cattle ranching but confesses there is no money to be made that way.
That's what you'll get at Perini's. Steaks, fried chicken, ham, chicken fried steak, hamburgers, catfish, and ribs come out on huge plates, designed to satisfy the hungriest of cowboys.
Perini's serves lunch and dinner and--a really great way to experience the setting--Sunday brunch. Locals testify to the pleasures of a leisurely Sunday morning spent at the ranch, a cowboy bloody mary with horseradish and pickled okra in one hand and a piece of crispy fried chicken in the other with the prospect of enjoying more of the chuck wagon favorites outside on the patio buffet.
More often than not, people have heard about Fort Worth but haven't visited Dallas's little sister. Dallas, the richer, larger destination, gets most of the attention, but for travelers-in-the-know, Fort Worth is a great place to visit.
Fort Worth Stockyards looks back to a time when railroads and cattle ruled the west. Commemorating that rich tradition, twice a day at 11:30 am and 4:00 pm, a symbolic cattle drive of 15-20 Texas longhorns ambles down E. Exchange Avenue to the delight of families with kids and travelers from all over.
This must be the most sedate cattle drive in the history of west, so nothing to worry about if you have young children. The cattle move so slowly, you'll have plenty of time to grab some photographs. The cattle drive is over in ten to fifteen minutes, after which there are a dozen places to eat along E. Exchange.
To build up your appetite and broaden your horizons, walk around the Fort Worth Cultural District, a complex of art and science attrractions as varied as the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Kimbell Art Museum, Museum of Science and History, National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Botanic Garden & Japanese Garden.
A must-stop is the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth which has a small but excellent collection. The museum building is as much an attraction as the art. The geometric lines of the galleries and ponds outside are soothing, helping visitors enjoy a few hours of quiet contemplation and self-reflection.
If you want to spend your time out doors, a few minutes from the Cultural District, the kid-friendly Fort Worth Zoo is south of I-30.
Now that you are in need of refreshment, it's time to look for a place to eat. Luckily, Fort Worth has a number of fun restaurants. A good starting point is back at the Stockyards.
Cattleman's Steak House opened just after WWII. The dark wood interior and long bar announce Cattleman's as a great place to hang out, casual, friendly, a no-tablecloth kind of restaurant. The kind of place where strangers will reach out to one another with "Where you folks from?" as if everyone in the restaurant could be a neighbor, no matter where they are from.
Because Cattleman's and the other stockyard restaurants cater to travelers, the large menus throw barbecue together with steakhouse and country cafe cooking: barbecue pork ribs, lamb fries (rocky mountain oysters), chicken fried steak, grilled pork chops, fried catfish, chicken fried steak and steak just about any way you could imagine: sirloin strip (New York 10 oz., K.C. 13 oz. and Texas 18 oz.), porterhouse, t-bone, ribeye (bone-in or boneless), tenderloin, pepper, teriyaki and filet mignon.
On E. Exchange Avenue, H3 Ranch adds Mexican favorites like guacamole, nachos, tacos and quesadillas to a menu similar to Cattleman's. Steaks are offered from a petite 9 oz. filet mignon to a 32 oz. porterhouse for two or, as the menu says, "One Hungry Cowhand".
For fans of barbecue, brisket and pork ribs can be ordered at H3 Ranch with sides and on combination platters of grilled chicken, sausage or shrimp. Rounding out the menu are hamburgers, chicken fried steak, rainbow trout, spit-roasted pig and chicken, fried catfish, Alaskan king crab, cedar planked salmon and prime rib. In a phrase, something for everyone.
Booger Red's Saloon has a long bar where half the stools are topped with saddles so even a barfly can ride the western spirit without walking outside.
Riscky's--a family run dynasty with more than half a dozen restaurants in Fort Worth--has long been a destination for visitors to the Stockyards District.
Riscky's Barbeque has a large, covered patio cooled on blisteringly hot days with cold water mists. Inside, the restaurant looks like everybody's image of a roadside joint, a big rambling shamble of a space with a honky-tonk, neon-laced bar on one side and the crowded restaurant on the other.
Riscky's Steakhouse. There's a friendly rivalry between Riscky's, H3 Ranch and Cattleman's. Their menus share a love of Black Angus Beef. Steaks are grilled the way you want them with lots of sides, salads, soups and "surf"--lobster, shrimp and catfish. Like the others, Riscky's Steakhouse is a friendly place to hang out, have a cocktail or a few bottles of Shiner Bock.
Angelo's Barbecue couldn't be more different. By comparison, Angelo's menu seems downright skimpy, focused as it is, like Harold's in Abilene, on barbecue classics.
On the trip, in the parking lot near the entrance smoke billowed out of a rusty oil barrel. Assistant Manger, Lowell Brown explained that they burn off the still smoldering ash from the wood fire pits in the oil barrel. Was this good houskeeping or a sly marketing ploy to attract more customers? You could smell that delicious barbecue aroma for miles around.
The first time you visit Angelo's you might be distracted by the hundreds of mounted animal heads on the walls. The next time you come, you probably won't even notice.
You'll be too focused on eating your plate of fatty brisket and the excellent mashed potato salad with poppy seeds, relish and red pepper. You'll dig your fork into the creamy cole slaw made with red and green cabbage and you'll never look up at the buffalo, elk, deer and elk staring down at you.
If you want to splurge on an upscale western restaurant, head to Reata.
White tablecloths are on every table. The subdued lighting encourages polite conversation. The waiters happily describe the ingredients of each dish. Everything about Reata is designed to be classy, including the subtitle to the name: "Legendary. Texas. Cuisine."
The chicken fried steak is massive and salty enough to require the mellowing effect of the pan dripping-black pepper gravy. The pat of jalapeno and cilantro butter on the ribeye steak is a nice, finishing touch. The heat of the pepper-herb mixture heightens the flavors of the bloody medium-rare beef.
Unlike her country cousins, Reata's kitchen uses gas grills not mesquite-fired open pits. A little something is lost in the difference, but the ribeye was excellent none-the-less.
Reata shines in many ways, especially in the desserts.
If you're hungry at the end of the meal, definitely order the dessert tacos with caramelized bananas and chocolate gravy. The pralene tuile taco shells are a crunchy way to enjoy what is, essentially, a banana split. Be careful to lean over the plate as you eat, otherwise expect to find chocolate sauce on your shirt in the morning.
The double layer ice cream cake is also good. With an oreo cookie and chocolate ganache crust, the cake has a thick layer of rocky road and one of vanilla ice cream, definitely a dessert to share.
El Asadero Mexican Steakhouse and Seafood, a mile and a half south of the Stockyards District. The down-home, neighborhood Mexican cafe serves a big menu of Mexican dishes as well as a great steak, the bistec ranchero.
After so many stops in a short amount of time, El Asadero was a delightful conclusion to a remarkable trip.