Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Garven Store

GARVEN: The Garven Store
27304 N Hwy 83
Mountain Home, TX 78058
Open M-Sat 8-7, Sun 9:30-6

If you look at an aerial photo of the intersection of US Highway 83 and State Highway 41, you'll see just a few scattered houses and The Garven Store. Keith and Jackie Dowdy were running the tiny store when we arrived as the sun was setting. They are in a long line of operators, all in the Dowdy family, that had a hand in operating this place since 1932. The store is chocked full of what you'd expect from a convenience store along with a room full of leather biker wear and an extensive line of jerky. I tried a few varieties and they're all incredible. Don't skip anything labeled as spicy. They're no joke.

They also have brisket and homemade sausage on the menu. Thin slices of brisket were respectable with a bit of smoke and subtle seasoning, but the star here is the German sausage. A 50/50 beef and pork mixture was seasoned with salt, pepper, red pepper and something else that was hard to identify. When I went back inside and guessed ginger, I got a forlorn look as if they weren't too happy that I guessed it. Not only was the flavor top-notch, but the casing had a good snap and the link were just juicy enough without dripping with fat. Keith joked that they'd only been doing BBQ for eighteen years, so they're still trying to figure things out. I'd say they've got the jerky and the sausage figured out, but the brisket needs some perfecting.

Rating ***

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Belli Deli

Hwy 96
Kirbyville, TX 75956

Looking in vain for the much heralded jerky of the now closed Lazy H Smokehouse in Kirbyville, we happened upon the Belli Deli. A sign said BBQ just south of town on the west side of Highway 96, and we had to stop. No other customers were around, and I was beginning to wonder if there were any employees as I waited in the small foyer. To the left was a menu and an unmanned ordering window, and to the right was a door which suddenly opened to reveal a drum set, a few pieces of furniture and a rush of funny smelling smoke. The smoke I smelled outside the joint was odd, but this was all the confirmation I needed to know that they're not just smoking with wood at this joint.

A older man named John with a gravely voice talked up the brisket as he sawed off a few slices from the cold slab of meat. He urged me not to worry because he was only going to slightly warm it in the microwave. Very reassuring. He put a couple of ribs on the plate and, with his back turned, he ladled on some sauce before serving. The meats were smoked with oak, pecan and some fruitwood. Brisket had a solid smokiness, but had been overcooked to the point of crumbling. It may have been pretty good about 10 hours earlier. Huge spare ribs probably weren't good at any point on this day. Way over-smoked with a creosote flavor, they were also dried out and chewy with lots of unrendered fat.There just wasn't much to like here, and the ding of the microwave just added insult to injury.

Rating *

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cooper's BBQ - Statewide

I tried four different barbecue joints with the name "Cooper's" in just over a month. Here's what I found.

Cooper's - Mason
This is the original. Started by George Cooper in 1953, but sold to Duard Dockal (who still runs it) in 1983. This is where the family traditions of cooking directly over mesquite coals and ordering straight from the pit were born. It was one of my favorites of mine and Sam's inaugural BBQ tour back in 2006, but it disappointed a few years later. This visit would sadly be more like the second than the first.

On this day you could see the dried out edges of meat when the pit lid was raised. A thick beef rib was still chewy despite the prolonged warming time, but the hefty cut still had some juice left. Brisket was over-tender and a bit spongy while goat ribs provided the most disappointingly bone-dry meat. With all the sub-par meat here, the goat sausage was a revelation. A mix of pork and goat, these links also get a good dose of spices for a bold flavor that's not too heavy on the salt and a great snappy casing. Even with the numerous disappointments heaped on the butcher paper, I would return if just for the goat sausage.

Cooper's - Llano
In 1962, Tommy Cooper was sent out by his father George to expand the Cooper's BBQ business from Mason to Llano. Tommy sadly died in an accident in 1979 and the business was sold. It was sold again in 1986 to current owner Terry Wootan who has seen this Hill Country staple's fame reach new heights. The Wootan's have also taken to some expansion of their own and have seen new stores open in New Braunfels in 2009 and Fort Worth in 2010.

This is by far the most popular location with weekend road-trippers and bikers flooding the place by the dozens on the weekends. We opted for a visit right at opening time on a Friday where we had the dining room to ourselves. All the meats are ordered from the pit at the entry. The cooking pits are scattered about under the same roof, but this pit is just for warming. This is also where Cooper's can suffer. Meats are stored here without any protection, and I've had dry meats on occasion when I make a late afternoon visit. I didn't let the drying process start on this day and the meats were all superb. Beef ribs and brisket were boldly seasoned and tender with that signature flavor from those coals. It ain't called 'Home of the Big Chop' for nothing, and the one on this morning was better than I'd ever eaten. The two inch thick chop was still hot from the fire just flowing with juices. This was best meal I've had at a Cooper's anywhere, so get there early, folks.

Cooper's - Round Rock
I didn't dine here since it's closed, but I thought I'd add a word about it since we're talking about Cooper's. Another of George Cooper's sons named Gary Cooper opened this location in 1985, but it had to close in 2006.

Cooper's - Junction
The sign may claim that they've been smoking since 1953, but this joint opened in 1999. Current owner Mark Cooper is a grandson of George Cooper, so they're sort for taking credit for a few decades of Cooper's operation in Mason. The woodpiles and pits are just as impressive as the Llano and Mason versions, but its position at the off ramp of I-10 belies some of the quaintness offered in the smaller towns.


The general theme here is dry, dry, dry. The brisket was tough to pull apart and most of the moisture was gone before it was sliced. Pork ribs hadn't lost all of their juices, but again the meat was tough. Save for a good fatty jalapeno sausage, this one was hardly worth the effort.

Cooper's - Fort Worth
This was my third, and best visit to the newest Cooper's near the Fort Worth Stockyards. This is the newest in the Wootan empire, and it pays to get here early as well. Even at 11:00 the 'Big Chop' was starting to lose some of those juices. Fatty brisket edges which I usually relish for their richness can hardly be enjoyed here given the massive amount of salty rub applied.


Pork ribs had a bit more a kick from black pepper, but they were also a bit chewy, especially the rib tips. A beef rib had decent flavor, but wasn't particularly memorable. One memorable item worth noting is the beans. These are freebie beans to be doled out by the bucket-load if you wish from the communal pot. For free beans, they certainly put plenty of effort into them. Viscous and meaty enough to be a meal on their own, there are also plenty of jalapenos floating around if you want some greenery with your meal.

If I were to rank on these visits alone, it would be hard not to put the Junction location at the bottom with Mason barely beating them out with that excellent goat sausage. The Fort Worth location is still a pretender in my book with Llano easily outshining them all.

- BBQ Snob

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Virginia Barbeque

ARLINGTON: Virginia Barbeque
2290 SE Green Oaks Blvd. Ste. 100
Arlington, TX 76018
Open S-Thur 11-9, F-Sat 11-10

If you're not going to do beef well, then don't bother smoking brisket. That's especially important when you open a BBQ joint in Texas and it's called Virginia Barbeque. Their website specifically points out that they only do pulled rather than sliced brisket, and the Arlington location of this growing chain would have been wise to heed their CEO's words. Their meat cutter isn't so familiar with this muscle.

Every bit of brisket I got had been sliced with the grain. Given that it was also undercooked, it made for an especially chewy meal. There was nothing redeeming about it.

It's pulled pork shoulder that is the chain's specialty, and what would be better to order than the Virginia version? Unlike the Carolina version with vinegar sauce that's also on the menu, this one is mixed with a sweet tomato sauce. It's perfect for a sloppy joe BBQ sandwich, but not particularly smoky. I couldn't really get much of the pork flavor either. Ribs on the other hand were undeniably porky. They were on the drier side, but not too dry. The overwhelming flavor wasn't the rub or the smoke, but of ham. I'm not sure if these had been cured in some way like some pink salt in the rub (I doubt it), a extra long trip inside the smoker (they weren't that dry), or an extended dip in a salt brine (more likely, but unconfirmed). Either way, they had the right level of tenderness, and were still pleasing enough.

Sides showed some love with tempura-like and herb seasoned onion rings, sweet and salty corn muffins and some respectable banana pudding. They may have provided a few things to return for, but don't get the beef.

Rating **

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Wild Blue BBQ

31230 State Highway 100
Los Fresnos, TX 78566
Open Sat 11-8, Sun 11-5

Update: This joint CLOSED permanently on May 12, 2012.

2012: 'Which blog do you run?' was owner Abraham Avila's question when I walked in with my photographer not so distantly following me. Having been spotted, I fessed up. Mr. Avila noted his recognition of the FCGBBQ name and proceeded to construct the "Tour for Two". It's piled high with five meats and four sides. We needed dessert too.

The brisket was a lesson in anonymity in the BBQ world. I don't hide my face and there are plenty of pictures of my mug on this site and others. That sometimes (believe me, it's rare) results in being recognized, but the great thing about BBQ is they have to serve what they've got. You may be able to re-fire that ribeye or filet of sole for a critic in a normal fine dining situation, but a brisket leaves the pitmaster completely vulnerable. If it's not already good when I walk in, there's nothing that can be done to make it so by the time I get a plate full. That would take another fourteen hours or so. There are certainly choice cuts that can be had from a large brisket of which any customer has a shot at getting. On this visit, I certainly got some of those choice cuts along with a big helping of that vulnerability. Even the best cuts from the marbled point were chewy with little smoke and plenty of opaque fat running through them. A line of thick and undercooked fat marred the dry slices from the flat. The brisket just can't be recommended from this visit. Luckily the ribs made up for it. Smoky baby backs with a nice sweet glaze were tender and moist. The seasoning was a bit heavy and smacked of a chef's need for thirteen different herbs and spices, but the rib was good overall.

Dark meat chicken was pleasantly moist and well seasoned - a counterpoint to the dry breast. The skin on both was flaccid. A cylinder of pulled pork had great smoke and good flavor, but was dry from having been pulled long ago. Links of peppery sausage had good smoke and a nice snap. Most all of it paled in comparison to the sides and desserts.

Abraham Avila was trained and worked as a chef before opening this joint. The hours have been compressed to weekends only so he can focus on his next venture in fine dining - an in progress place called Papillon. The training shows in his insistence on sauteing to order some of the finest green beans I've had anywhere. You can also get a good version of macaroni and cheese and some spongy and savory corn bread along with it. Do not leave before you have dessert. The banana pudding was some of the finest I've had anywhere with just ripe bananas, a mix of soggy and crisp wafers and a bit of toasted coconut to send it over the edge. How could it be topped? By the finest dessert I've had at any barbecue joint. The sweet potato cobbler was a lesson in restraint and simplicity. I've had yams as a Thanksgiving side dish that were far sweeter, and that is the genius. Just enough sugar is added to coax the natural sweetness out of the fluffy and smooth whipped sweet potato filling. There's no guessing the base root being used here, and the subtle spices aren't there to overwhelm either. A sweet crumb mixture added textural contrast and buttery sweet bursts. It was so heavenly, it almost made me forget about that brisket. Almost.

Given the remote location , you'd have to drive out of your way from just about anywhere to visit, and it's worth a visit. Get some ribs and sausage, a side of green beans, and save room for dessert.

Rating ***

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Inman's Bar-B-Q (Marble Falls)

707 6th St
Marble Falls, TX 78657
Open Tues-F 9-5, Sat-Sun 9-2

With a 2:00pm closing time on Saturdays, I've forlornly left the small parking lot here a couple of times. This time the door was unlocked, but entering a very dark and very empty pit room, we weren't sure if we missed out on the famous turkey sausage one more time. Soon, our eyes adjusted and a large man with a large knife inquired about our order. We took our only two options on the protein front - the aforementioned turkey sausage and sliced brisket.

Taking in the smoky air and ancient looking brick pits, I was getting anxious. The sliced brisket looked so good on the cutting board. It looked as if the briskets sit in the smoker to keep warm. Once we started eating it was obvious that this creates an incredibly dry brisket. At least a quarter inch of the perimeter of each brisket slice was unpleasantly crisp. Only a hint of smoke found its way into the meat and it didn't have a lick of seasoning. There are smoked meat purists out there that scoff the idea of seasoning their briskets. Let the smoke be the seasoning - they say. I'm in the other camp where salt makes a huge difference. I'm not going to tell anyone to change what their customers like, but I'll choose a little seasoning over naked briskets every day.

I'd tried the turkey sausage before at the first annual BBQ Crash Course during 2009's SXSW. I wasn't impressed then, but I was holding out to try it in its native environment. The link we received had a very tough casing. It hadn't been crisped under the smoke, but rather had dried into a wrinkled link. The turkey filling was bland with little seasoning. A dip in the marinara-like sauce didn't help. I wouldn't describe it as an acquired taste since nothing about it was offensive. So many folks around seem to like the turkey sausage that it must be some sort of persuaded taste where people convince themselves that they're not missing the pork fat at all. What I got on this day didn't convince me.

Rating **

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pody's BBQ

1330 S. Cedar St.
Pecos, TX 79772
Open M-F 11-7

Israel "Pody" Campos needed a new direction in life. He had been training police recruits in Austin before being laid off. He then decided to move back home to Pecos, buy a laundromat, and convert it into a barbecue joint. Open for just six months, Pody's is an impressive addition to the barbecue desert of far West Texas.

Simple sides be damned, Pody offers a green chile cheddar pozole with a real West Texas identity. A thin sauce mac & cheese falls flat, but the spicy barbecue sauce brings the everything right back home. Some spicy sauces are just an original version with a bit of cayenne or hot sauce added. This one is a unique recipe with honest-to-God chunks of habanero, seeds and all. Be sure to order a large tea if you're brave enough for the sauce.

The meats are also impressive. In this region it's odd to find any wood other than mesquite, but Pody fires up the smoker above with cherry wood and pecan for his ribs. They are thick and meaty spare ribs with a jet black bark and a black pepper bite. They were a bit dry, but had soaked up plenty of smoke. I'm sure they're at their peak around lunch time rather than at this late afternoon snack time. We skipped the sausage since it was billed as Black Oak sausage on the menu. I rarely see someone bragging about using cheap Hillshire Farms sausage, but I was glad for the warning.

A mix of mesquite and oak provide the heat and smoke for the briskets which are done in an odd looking cylinder smoker with a lazy-susan style set of racks. Smoke is provided via and remote fire box and a steel duct into the bottom of the smoker. It's a design I hadn't seen before, but it certainly does the trick. Thick cut brisket was a bit mushy from being wrapped for several hours, but the fat was perfectly rendered with a great smoky crust. Maybe this Austin boy can show these West Texans how to smoke some meat. From what we saw there isn't much competition for a hundred or so miles.

Rating ****

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rudy's BBQ (Arlington)

451 East I-20
Arlington, TX 76018
Open Sun-Thur 6am to 10pm, F-Sat 6am-11pm

One of the newest members of this popular statewide chain opened up in Arlington some time ago, and I finally found some time to drop by. On the whole, it was one of the better Rudy's experiences I've had. I like how they decorate the dining room too.

I ordered with authority getting both moist and lean brisket, turkey, baby back ribs, St. Louis ribs, jalapeno sausage, new potatoes, creamed corn, banana pudding and a Dr Pepper. Luckily I had a guest for lunch.

The brisket was some of the best I've had at Rudy's. The moist lived up to its name, but lacked flavor and smoke outside of the well formed crust. The lean wasn't as successful in the texture department, but I guess the folks ordering lean don't mind if the slices are dry with all the fat cut off. St. Louis ribs were a bit overdone and overseasoned, but they too had great smoke and the fat within the ribs was well rendered. I enjoyed the baby backs more which had a sweetness to the rub and exhibited perfect texture. The meat didn't fall of the bone, but it didn't take much to release it. More good smoke was evident on the jalapeno sausage which also had good snap. Rather than just a bland heat, you could actually taste the jalapeno along with plenty of black pepper.

May folks I know go to Rudy's just for the creamed corn and turkey, and there's good reason. While a bit soupy, the corn is rich, creamy, spicy and well seasoned with plenty of golden kernels. Turkey from a real turkey breast instead of deli turkey is always a good idea. The heavy handed seasoning complemented the juicy slices of well smoked meat. Potatoes sloppily soaked in butter were far less enjoyable. A thick banana pudding topped with too much whipped cream finished the meal, but the pudding itself was very good. Rudy's provided high quality food across the board, and the smoked meats were mostly great.

Rating ***

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Monday, April 2, 2012

R.O.'s Outpost

SPICEWOOD: R.O.'s Outpost
22112 Hwy 71 W
Spicewood, TX 78669
Open Tues-Sat 11-9

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2012: I've never had to do this, but here's a post-mortem review. R.O.'s closed soon after my visit, so I won't beat a dead horse too much. The visit started with a friendly chiding of my attire since I'd chosen to wear a Franklin Barbecue shirt on this day.

Brisket was very smoky, but dry and lacking even simple seasoning. The meat was tough, but not as tough as the ribs. Lacking smoke and suffering from a gloppy sauce, the ribs were tough to separate from the bone. The excellent okra began to make up for it, but no apologies were needed when you can make pie like these folks. I hadn't planned to get any dessert until I heard someone order the jalapeno-apple pie. My ears perked and I grabbed a slice. The crumb topping and sweet filling stood up well against the restrained spice from the jalapenos. This was not a gimmicky pie, but instead a lesson in how to combine spice and sweet. It also got extra points for not being a comically overstuffed apple pie. It had enough integrity to be eaten in hand, and I did. Every last bite.

As a left I was asked how their barbecue compared to the best in the entire universe, again referencing my Franklin Barbecue shirt. The answer was not very well, but I'll definitely miss the pie.

Rating **

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.