That’s about how many restaurants, joints, food trucks, portable smokers, and holes-in-the wall were required to do this list justice.
I might not eat barbecue again until May. Okay, maybe March.
Actually, the only person I know who eats more barbecue than I do is probably the great Daniel Vaughn – barbecue editor extraordinaire for Texas Monthly magazine. That man travels all over Texas and the world to do his job, which quite possibly is the best job in the world. Me? I’m a lot less adventurous. I stick to familiar territory.
Which is my lifelong home, Dallas-Fort Worth.
As a result of being around DFW for so darn long, people who listened to me on the radio would routinely ask me for recommendations regarding where to eat, to take visitors, and for new places to try. That’s how doing this list got started. Inevitably it would be one of the most popular things on the station’s website. And, now that I’m working (mostly) for myself – no, I am NOT retired – it seemed like a good thing to keep doing on my own website. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and share the dickens out of it.
Now, some basics as we get going:
1. I don’t include chains. For starters, any time a restaurant expands consistency becomes an issue. Some do a good job, but most don’t. If you’re new to Texas and think that chain you tried represents “real” Texas barbecue, chances are you need to get out more. It’s original location might be passable, or even good – but quantity doesn’t equal quality. Once a brand gets up to about four or five locations, I might not recommend it – because I simply can’t be sure what you’ll get at the three or four I didn’t get to.
2. Bigger isn’t always better. There are some really famous places across the area where you can get good meals, but many of them are selling size more than excellence. Nothing wrong with a grand setting, because we Texans do love scale – but just because an establishment has a giant pot full of help-yourself beans doesn’t make it world-class, any more than would a free yellow plastic cup to take home your iced tea. It might be a great place to take the church group or cater your office party, but I lean strongly toward the lone operator out there before sunrise poking fire.
3. In spite of “ranking” my choices, this isn’t a competition. The difference in what the joint I put at #5 does and what you’ll find at #15 is so infinitesimal as to almost be silly. I also don’t believe in “critique” – which too many use these days as an opportunity for pettiness and snark. I will speak no ill of barbecue. No one does everything perfectly. The ribs might be awesome while the slaw might be okay. What I will do is find the best things to praise and praise those. The more praiseworthy a place is, the more it gets. And before anyone says, “Well, you need to try…”, believe me: I probably already have.
4. Yes, atmosphere and the experience play a role. Although the quality of the food is always Numero Uno, I deeply value the whole show. Ever been in a restaurant that just plays the wrong music for what they’re trying to do, or plays it so loudly that you can’t hear your server? A place where someone thinks sawdust on the floor makes it authentic? Servers who act like they’re doing you a favor? With me, that costs points. One restaurant on a previous list wasn’t even considered for this year’s precisely because of the latter. But a place where the people are overjoyed to serve you great food, and make sure every detail of your visit shows off the total package? Putting that kind of thought into it makes me a fan.
5. Lastly, I get the fascination with sauce. Plenty of barbecue sauces out there are flat awesome, and for some people the sauce is the very first thing they notice about any barbecue joint. It’s often mentioned prominently in reviews or comments. In some barbecue traditions, the sauce isn’t just part of the story – it IS the story. Who among us hasn’t felt ourselves enthralled by the mysterious multiple squirt bottles in the middle of a table – each promising sensations ranging from blissful satisfaction to partial incapacitation? Here’s where I come down: if you have to drown something in sauce or gravy, it ain’t no good to begin with – no matter what you slather on. I test barbecue “dry”. If it’s delicious without anything on it, chances are what a joint made to put on it got just as much love.
Oh, and the reason this list is for 2019? Simple. I have no idea where I’ll be eating in 2020. I can only tell you where I’ve already been.
So, with all that in mind and without further ado, away we go.
Let’s start with a grouping that usually ends these sorts of lists: “The Next Ten”.
Working in reverse order, this section covers restaurants I’ve visited ranked from 20 up to 11. Chances are, any one of these would be at the top of a hundred other “best-of” lists – and several of them have previously enjoyed that position. What this indicates is not that these aren’t the “best” – whatever that means – but that we have soooo many establishments now that are simply really, really good.
Of the restaurants included in this list that have more than one location in Dallas-Fort Worth, the ranking and comments refer only to the original or initial entry into the market.
These are all some of my favorites, and I don’t think you can go wrong at any of them.
The Next Ten
20. Green’s Texas BBQ (Euless) – The youngest son of a local legend carries on the legacy. greenstexasbbq.com
19. Barbecue on the Brazos (Fort Worth) – Top-rated by the Star-Telegram. bbqonthebrazoscressontx.com
18. One90 Smoked Meats (Dallas) – Tiny little place that makes a big impression. one90smokedmeats.com
17. Billy’s Oak Acres (Fort Worth) – Outstanding brisket, and Mom makes dessert. billysrealtexasbbq.com
16. Mike Anderson’s (Dallas) – Old school, everything-you-want, cafeteria-style. mikeandersonsbbq.com
15. Off the Bone (Dallas) – Pecan-smoked, counter-style, and authentic. offthebonebarbecue.com
14. Smoke Sessions (Royse City) – Fast becoming a Central Texas-style favorite, the full parking lot says everything. smokesessionsbarbecue.com
13. Slow Bone (Dallas) – There’s usually a “Sold Out” sign by 2pm every day, and with good reason. slowbone.com
12. Pecan Lodge (Dallas) – The area’s most award-winning barbecue joint, by far. Expect a line. pecanlodge.com
11. Heim Barbecue (Fort Worth) – Started in a trailer four years ago, now known world-wide. heimbbq.com
An important note: if you plan on visiting any of these fine establishments, check ahead before you go. Many smaller or craft barbecuers have different days and hours of operation. Several on this list are only open one or two days a week, not always at the same location.
All rankings and comments regarding the restaurants or joints herein that have more than one location pertain to either the original or initial entry into the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
And if you go…plan on setting aside enough time to wait.
The Top Ten
#10. Tender (Celina)
Rarely has anything been so aptly named. Celina has long been known as home to championship high school football. Now it’s known for championship world-class barbecue. They recently opened a second location in Frisco, but Tender’s original in charming downtown Celina borders on perfection. Melt-in-your mouth smoked meats and home-made sides – and I’m convinced little bread fairies make that incredible toast in tiny gnome-ovens in a secret room they must have behind the kitchen.
#9. Terry Black’s (Dallas)
In the Texas Hill Country, the name “Black” signifies meat royalty. Twins Mark and Michael opened their first location with father Terry in Austin back in 2014. Now the boys have come to Deep Ellum, with a huge 11,000 square foot Texas Taj Mahal. Besides the fantastic meats and sides, there’s plenty of seating – plus a big bar, patio and rooftop area. It’s all “market-style”, right down to the meat-cutter who counsels and seeks your explicit approval before expertly drawing the knife. And right now, rarely a line. Expect that to change as word continues to get out.
#8. Lockhart (Dallas)
Lockhart Smoke House now has three Dallas-Fort Worth locations, which puts them on the verge of the dreaded “chain” classification. Lockhart defies that label. The original in Dallas’ Bishop Arts District is a step into Central Texas greatness, with huge portions of meaty awesomeness served as the iconic Schmidt family has always done it: on butcher paper. No plates – and no need for a knife and fork, either (although they do have them). Lockhart is also the only place in this area where you can get legendary Kreuz Market Sausage – and plenty of Texas brews on draft to fill your frosty mug.
#7. Zavala’s (Grand Prairie)
What Joe Zavala Jr. started as a pop-up and catering business now has a brick-and-mortar home of its own in downtown Grand Prairie. The first thing you need to know is that Zavala’s is currently only open on Saturdays. The second is that there’s a line 100-people long half-an-hour before he opens, and Zavala’s is only open until the No Mas sign goes up – which usually takes less than three hours. Only in his new location since the middle of the year, Zavala would be the first to admit he’s still perfecting his menu – but Texas Monthly calls his brisket “flawless”, and that’s no exaggeration. Perfectly barked but not over-seasoned, juicy and moist to the point of being ridiculous, and accomplished with little more than salt, pepper and love. There’s a Tex-Mex touch here more places should try – including the delicious Sloppy Juan taco – and the result is sensational.
#6. Panther City BBQ (Fort Worth)
The first time I tried Panther City BBQ it was the middle of a terribly hot August day. Easily 110 degrees in the sun. No shade. My daughter and I had already been waiting in line for 40 minutes. The only seating available? The four or five ancient picnic tables (then) near Panther City’s trailer, also in the direct sun. Do you know how good something has to be in order to completely forget the suffering you endured to enjoy it? That’s how good Panther City BBQ is. The brisket is black Angus prime, and to die for (which I almost did in that heat). The beef ribs are epic, and available Fridays only. The first things they will sell out of will be the pork belly burnt ends and the brisket elote – a version of Mexican street corn so yummy that you may be inclined to fill up on it alone. If you’re testing your personal limits, get the Southside Slammer sandwich. Ordering for the office or family? Get the Hell’s Half Acre. Everyone will think they’ve gone to heaven. By the way, Panther City now has its very own covered patio for seating – which will be much appreciated come August.
#5. 407BBQ (Argyle)
You don’t have to live 10 minutes in Dallas-Fort Worth to know that the region is exploding. Areas we used to think of as “out in the country” are now dense subdivisions and neighborhoods, and those sleepy little communities that used to be on the outskirts of the city now seem like they’re in the middle of it. That’s partly why 407BBQ is such a treasure. Just pulling into the crushed rock parking lot feels right. Even though you’re minutes from DFW Airport and within eyesight of Texas Motor Speedway, it feels like that joint you love near the deer lease – except no one out that far ever has food this good. Spectacular brisket, of course – but how about smoked meatloaf? You won’t ever want meat loaf any other way again. Smoked bologna, too. Terrific sides, items such as the Spudzilla – what has to be the mother of the mother of all baked potatoes – and both peach and apple cobbler.
#4. Cattleack (Farmers Branch)
Waiting doesn’t bother me. The ability to wait is a gift, and should be cultivated. I’m suspicious of people who don’t know how to do it. I can make a good argument that microwave popcorn is one of humanity’s worst inventions. So as I got to the counter at Cattleack Barbecue, I contemplated some of my most memorable waits. I think it was an hour to see the that new movie back in 1977. I believe it was called Star Wars. I lost track of how long Madi sat on my shoulders while we waited with the Manhattan throngs for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but I know it was long enough for my pocket to be picked twice. Those two waits were worth it, but not all have been. I don’t even want to think about how long it took last October to get my driver’s license. At Cattleack, it was a solid two hours from getting in line to getting my food – and it was worth every second. Had to be. Waiting that long at some legendary place in the Hill Country likely at least gives you a great view of your surroundings. Standing in the alley of an industrial park does does not, so the payoff had better be good. At Cattleack, it most assuredly is. Previously ranked elsewhere as the single best barbecue joint in Dallas, Cattleack deserves all the accolades it gets. There were visitors, tourists and guests from every point of the compass – most of whom were taking photos. I’m pretty sure I heard at least twenty different languages being spoken. I saw one 95-pound girl with a tray piled with what must have been a complete side of beef, going after it like Scrat and his acorn. She smiled. Whatever language she was speaking, I’m pretty sure I understood “Mmmmmmmmmm”. Cattleack’s reputation is that well-known, and completely deserved. The beef ribs and burnt ends go fastest, and save room for the Crack Cake – or if they have it that day, the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. Just don’t wear a white dress shirt like the guy in front me did.
#3. Hutchins (McKinney)
Born in 1978, Hutchins BBQ started life in Princeton, Texas as Roy’s Smokehouse. It became so successful that founder Roy Hutchins eventually built his house next to it so he could go outside in the middle of the night and check his pit. It’s one thing to love barbecuing enough to build a pit next to your house. It’s a whole ‘nother level to love it enough to build your house next to your pit. When Roy retired in 2006 he passed that love on to his sons, who showed their own devotion to the craft by elevating Hutchins to the ranks of one of the best barbecue restaurants in the state – just one year after a devastating fire savaged the family business. In fact, the love of making both great barbecue and customers happy is evident in everything Hutchins does – from the award-winning brisket to the quickly-sold out bacon-wrapped stuffed jalapeño and cream cheese Texas Twinkies. And although the barbecue gets the attention, Hutchins’ fried catfish might be the best around. Going there the first time was literally a religious experience. Had angels sung “Hallelujah!”, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit. Hutchins’ second location in Frisco is primarily home to the family catering operation – and if they opened one down the block from me I might be there every day. Oh, and expect a line. I got there half an hour before opening, and within another 30 minutes the crowd already stretched around the building. And did I mention they have a drive-thru?
#2. Dayne’s Craft Barbecue (Fort Worth)
The pursuit of great barbecue is like what they used to say about the United States Postal Service: neither dark of night, snow, sleet nor rain can keep me from the task at hand. This, I know, thanks to my visit to Dayne’s Craft Barbecue on 5th at Currie on Fort Worth’s happening near west side. It was my last chance to try Dayne’s before starting the final draft of this list – and having heard so many great things about this new Saturday-only spot behind Lola’s Trailer Park Bar, I knew I had to go. And naturally, it was raining. Hard. Wanna know what? Having now tried Dayne’s Craft Barbecue, I’d be inclined to endure a hurricane for it. Perfectly seasoned, smoked and sumptuous beef brisket is the emphasis, and it sells out fast, but that’s just the start. You need to try the Bacon Brisket – a slab of bacon smoked and sliced like…brisket. Dayne’s turkey might be the best I’ve ever had, anywhere. The juicy beef ribs are monster, just like the menu says. The Triple Cheddar Pepper sausage practically flies over the counter onto the trays of excited patrons, but you have to try the gouda and blueberry when available. It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten – like a charcuterie board in a sausage skin. And although the Flamin’ Hot Street Corn and TJ’s1802 Mac & Cheese are unforgettable, Dayne’s had me at Loaded Red Potato Salad. It can’t storm hard enough to keep me away. The towable smoker sits out back and right now cover amounts to an awning and a couple of pop-up tents, but Dayne’s is hoping for a building of its own sooner rather than later. In any case, don’t let even the nastiest storm stop you. Watch this place. Dayne’s will be on top of everyone’s list before you know it.
#1. Hurtado Barbecue Co. (Arlington)
Hands down, Hurtado Barbecue Co. blew me away. Open Friday evenings from 5 until 8, Saturdays from 11 to whenever they sell out, and then Sundays next door at Legal Draft Beer Co., Hurtado sits on Front Street right by the train tracks along Division in Arlington’s fast-growing burgers and beer district. Right down the street from Babe’s Chicken and Arlington Music Hall, to be exact. The frigid weekend morning I went I might have missed it – had it not been for already-forming line and the three television camera crews who were there shooting footage. That day Hurtado was set up for service under a pop-up tent, with warmers and lights powered by a breaker box both kept tripping. How do you get people to stand outside on a frosty morn in an hour-long line to wait for anything? By being transcendently good at what you do, and that’s what Hurtado does. Until Hurtado opens its own building – which will be soon, I hear – that’s it. You get your order and find a spot at one of the picnic tables around the corner on an empty grass lot. The ginormous beef ribs and stunning pork belly burnt ends go fast, of course – but the brisket is an epiphany unto itself, as is the house-made spicy sausage. A huge treat for me was discovering smoked quail on the menu, and it’s one of the delights included on Hurtado’s formidable El Jeffe platter. Hatch Chile Mac (and cheese) was stunning, as was the Serrano Cole Slaw and Spicy Charro Beans. And, in one more nod to our regional Tex-Mex heritage, smoked elotes – which sold out faster than one can spell “give me more”. To be honest, sitting out in the cold enjoying that meal while the occasional freight train whizzed by was about as perfect as it gets for a Texas-native, or at least this Texas-native – and I had plenty left over to take home, where totally hid the container in the back of the fridge so no one but me could have it. You’re darn right I’m going back for more.
Cattleack’s tribute to Texas’ legendary pitmasters
Billy’s Oak Acres
Terry Black’s massive Moberg smokers
Panther City BBQ’s original trailer