You may have seen the story on the news.
Yelp recently published its new Best Places To Eat list for 2019 – and based on ratings and the number of reviews, Celina’s Tender Smokehouse ranked #2.
In the whole country.
Keep in mind that restaurants make up 1 of every 5 listings on Yelp, which has now accumulated more than 170 million reviews.
The restaurant sits on West Pecan Street between Celina’s charming town square and Founder’s Station Park about 40 minutes north of downtown Dallas. Pit master and owner Dante Ramirez opened Tender in 2017 – and in fewer than two years his place has earned a Yelp average of five stars on more than 150 reviews.
Naturally, I needed to go see for myself.
Now, if Tender Smokehouse is indeed the penultimate place to eat in all of the USA, it would follow that it’s also the best place in Dallas-Fort Worth – at least according to Yelp. Realistically, that would be difficult to claim. The best next filters would be to say that Tender then must be Texas’ best barbecue restaurant, or north Texas’, and so on. If you’re better than everyone except Bend, Oregon’s Bangers & Brews, it’s simple logic. Right?
So, is Tender that good?
Well, obviously I haven’t had the privilege of eating at every restaurant between sea and shining sea. I haven’t even tried all the barbecue restaurants in my little corner of Texas, though I am making a go of it. Just recently, I posted my annual list of Dallas-Fort Worth’s best smoked meats establishments for 2018 (not for the coming year, because I don’t yet know where I’ll find myself over a plate of brisket). But I can say this year’s list will find Tender near or at the top.
First, expect a wait – though not always a long one. Orders are taken as seats in the smallish dining area become available, but there are also a couple of counters, a small bar, and a lovely outdoor area for pretty days. Tons of people order takeout for their entire offices, which can slow things down a bit – but it also gives you more time to consider that menu.
The first time I try a barbecue spot, I always start with the basics. To me, that’s brisket, beans, potato salad, toast – and that’s it. Sausage, if it looks interesting. Other things such as beef ribs or specialty items can wait for a return visit, if the brisket is good. If you can’t get that right, nothing else counts. And when I say “right”, I mean with no sauce. When brisket is done perfectly, sauce isn’t necessary. Doesn’t mean that won’t get a grade, too – but spectacular beef brisket stands by itself.
But let’s work our way around the horn.
Starting at 1st, toast. You don’t see reviews every day that mention toast. This is one. How in the world do you make toast alone worth writing about? Tender’s is actually hard to describe, other than to say per-fect. This is how you’d do it if you could do it one way, every time. Buttery, crisp but moist, simple.
At second, that potato salad. Really, really great potato salad is an art form – regardless of the variety. Red potato, Idaho, German-style, Southern. They all have their finest examples. This super-fluffy rendition is remarkable, and I loved it. A garnish of fresh chopped green onions gave it a delightful burst of color and flavor.
Which was the perfect set up for those beans. I’m one of those people who usually only eats one thing at a time, but the aroma coming out of that cup had me at hello. Each mildly spicy brown sugar bite made me think there had to be someone out back cooking these over a fire in cast iron next to a chuckwagon. If you want to show a friend how beans are fixed in Texas, serve ’em these.
In the center of the mound stands Tender’s jalapeño-cheese sausage. When you’re in line surrounded by people whispering you simply have to try the sausage, you try the sausage. And they were right. I like smoked sausage that’s just spicy enough, without making your lips feel like you just kissed a hot plate. Out of this world. And very good with the house barbecue sauce, by the way – which comes in little bottles on your table. If you use it, you won’t need much. It’s fantastic, and enhances the meat without being necessary to enjoy it.
Which brings us to home plate, and…the brisket.
When you get to talking about the best barbecue out there, it’s good to remember we live in a golden age for it. The margin of difference between that great place and this one is so small that it’s practically insignificant. There are a LOT of great barbecue joints, and a LOT of pit masters who’ve raised their craft to an art form. And Tender’s beef brisket is as good, if not better, than any I’ve ever had.
Have you ever had that perfect bite of steak, or perfect confection that completely melted in your mouth? That’s a forkful of Tender’s smoked brisket. Cut it with your fork if you like. The bark couldn’t be better, the smoke ring is pure and consistent, the fat gloriously dissolves on the tongue, and a mouthful transported me to the astral plane. Add one drop of sauce and you begin to have visions. It had taken an hour to get there, and was going to take another to get home – so I thought going in that it had better be really good. Having now been I’d drive from Katmandu.
Tender Smokehouse is open every day of the week except Sunday and Monday, and starts serving each morning at 11. I’d suggest getting there early, or allowing time for patience if you go after the doors open. Tender closes each evening at 9. Parking is also a little tight in downtown Celina, so you may have to circle the block once or twice.
Bon apetit, y’all…