My friend Mike and I had the chance of a lifetime. We both love BBQ and smoked meats in general. Mike’s wife, Michelle, found a BBQ School and suggested that Mike might like to go. My wife, Kathy, jumped in and thought that I might be interested. So with the loving approval of our wives (who had ulterior motives; they wanted to taste test the fruits of our education), Mike and I were on our way to Dallas-Fort Worth.
Now, surprisingly, Dallas is not a barbeque town. Certainly not like Austin, Kansas City, or Memphis. Heck, even D Magazine, describes the area as:
The ugly truth: Dallas does not do barbecue well. Great BBQ joints are out there, but you have to search hard—and sometimes wide—to find them.
But Mike and I are on a quest. We sign up for two days of classes at The BBQ Institute (grand sounding name, huh), led by veteran competition pitmaster Konrad Haskins.
The first day was an introduction to BBQ and the second day was a premium meats class. Mike and I had scheduled a day in between the two classes to find our own favorite BBQ.
After flying in to Dallas, our first stop is to get dinner. It is interesting that most of the restaurants that we found close around 9pm. My flight arrived at 8:15, so we found a place close to the airport in Coppell called Hard Eight. The restaurant is set up in a fairly typical Texas BBQ style. You walk up to the pitmaster, choose what you want and how much from the meats on the smoker, the pitmaster puts it on a tray with a paper liner and weighs it when you have finished choosing. They had brisket, chicken, pulled pork, ribs, sausage and bacon wrapped chicken and steak. Everything is by the pound and all the same price. You can then take your tray down the cafeteria style line and pick up break, salads, pickles, desserts and drinks. The cashier rings you up and you find your way to a table. Hard Eight had a bean pot at the end of the line that was complimentary and unlimited.
Our first exposure to Dallas BBQ on this trip was a bit of a disappointment. Mike and I both took an assortment of meats. The brisket was tender but had very little smoke flavor and in fact, was too bland without sauce. The same with the pulled pork. The ribs were tender, very meaty St. Louis style ribs with a nice rub. The baby back ribs were a bit dry but had the same nice rub as the St. Louis ribs. The sausage was a Kielbasa style with both hot and mild varieties. Again, not enough smoke flavor for us, but good sausage overall. The beans were just ok – not enough seasoning and no meat tidbits in the gravy.
The next day, Friday, was our first day at school. We arrived early and the instructor, Konrad, was just setting up the smokers. He had a trailer that had a built-in 60″ smoker, a built-in 48″ smoker and a Weber Smokey Mountain 22″.
No gas, but a ton of charcoal briquettes and hickory wood. Konrad’s first lesson was how to start a fire using a charcoal chimney. Then we went inside the barn where the class was held and Konrad started taking meats out and preparing them. On this day, we ended up cooking a whole chicken, boneless skinless chicken breasts, baby back and St. Louis ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, pork loin and pork tenderloin.
We learned about rubs, marinades, preparing the meats for the smoker, cooking times and temperatures, doneness testing and braising. A lot to learn in a one day session. The best part was tasting the results of Konrad’s efforts. The meat was cooked very well. We were able to comparison taste different rubs, preparation styles and meats.
After a full day in the sun and heat (96F and 60% humidity) we were ready for a nap. But dinner beckoned. We found a great hamburger joint (Twisted Root) in the quaint town of Roanoke, relaxed and discussed the events of the day. Nearly everything at the burger joint was homemade, including the pickles, ketchup, mustard, hamburgers and even Root Beer.
The next day was our exploring day. We had hoped to find some sort of athletic endeavor (not to participate in, of course, but to watch), but we were shut out. So we grabbed the D Magazine write up and tried to find some golden nuggets of BBQ out in the Metroplex. Our first stop was at a place called Meshacks in Garland, TX. It had been highly recommended by another student in the class. Most people would not give this place a second look. It was an appropriate name because the place is a shack.
In fact there is no seating, unless you pull up a hunk of wood for the smoker. Since the temperatures were the same as the previous day, we opted for the comfort of our air conditioned rental. At Meshacks, you go up to the window (like at some old time Dairy Queens) place your order and when it is complete, the window opens and you are handed a styrofoam box. Inside the styrofoam was some BBQ heaven. We ordered two mixed plates – one with ribs and brisket and one with ribs and sausage. The plates came with beans and potato salad. All of the meats were covered in sauce. Next time I would ask for the sauce on the side. The ribs tasted terrific. Just enough tenderness and nice flavor. The only complaint was that they did not trim the rib tips, so some of the rib pieces were misshapen. I can live with misshapen. The brisket was also right on target. It didn’t fall apart but had just the right amount of tenderness. The sausage was very good with a strong smoke flavor. The potato salad was homemade with a base of mashed potatoes and added potato and egg chunks. The beans were great, with a great smokey flavor and lots of trimmings from the brisket in the beans.
Thus sated, we wandered westward back towards Fort Worth. We spent an hour in the C. R. Smith Museum at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. This is an American Airlines museum. We got to play with a mini flight simulator and tour a DC-3 Gooney Bird. Now, on to the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Every city has a tourist attraction. Chicago has Navy Pier, San Francisco has Fisherman’s Wharf and Baltimore has Harbor Place. A place where there are tourist shops, restaurants and some history of the town. The Stockyards are Fort Worth’s answer. While looking at some of the shops, we noticed a sign that said there was a BBQ competition going on somewhere in the Stockyards. Our interest piqued, we went searching. Out in the far reaches of the Stockyards in a dirt parking lot, we found the competition. Perhaps the sight of over 80 smokers was the giveaway. Mike and I walked among the competitors and checked out the various smokers on display. Just as we were walking out of the parking lot, a gentleman asked us if we would be willing to judge the brisket competition. I looked at Mike and he looked at me and we said “Yes, of course, we would be happy to”. We were among 35 judges for the brisket section of the competition. We had the arduous task of tasting and rating 13 different team brisket submissions on a scale from 1 to 10. What was most surprising was the fact that there was so much differentiation among the competitor briskets. We had to judge based on smell, taste, display and tenderness. What a great experience.
After the competition, we stayed around to see the cattle drive, where cowboys actually lead a herd of long horn cattle through the streets of the Stockyard. Then it was time to take a break and decompress from our busy day.
But we weren’t finished eating. It was dinner time. We chose another Fort Worth BBQ restaurant, Angelo’s from the D Magazine article. Again, we had the opportunity to choose our meats, pay and then find our table. Again we chose mixed plates, ribs and brisket and ribs and sausage. All meals came with beans, cole slaw and potato salad. The ribs were good but a little fatty. The brisket was great with a nice char and texture. The brisket was served in chunks, rather than slices. The sausage was a bit disappointing. There is ok flavor but the texture was mealy, rather than sausage like. The beans were ok, but like the Hard Eight, could have used some meat to help expand the flavor. The sauce was a thin sauce, but very flavorful. Overall, the feeling inside was like a 50’s Elks hall: dark, plastic chairs, paneling on the walls, lots of stuffed animal heads (not the cute cuddly kind, more like the taxidermy kind).
Fully sated with 3 huge BBQ meals today, we went back to the hotel and dreamt of, what else, BBQ.
Sunday was our premium meats day at the Institute. The goal was to take what we had learned on Friday and explore the topics with some different types and grades of meats and some different preparations. Although the class had 5 participants, Konrad smoked a whole bunch of meats. We had 2 briskets, one a Waygu (American Kobe) and one a Sterling Silver prime, a Karubuto (like Kobe, but for pork) pork shoulder, 3 racks of ribs, a whole chicken, a whole turkey, a smoked ham, a prime rib and a whole pig.
Yes, indeedy, we had enough to taste test. We were able to trial some injections and do some side by side comparisons with the different briskets. We saw how to prepare a whole pig and how quick and easy it is to smoke a prime rib.
Given all the meat that we smoked on Sunday and the small number of students, we had an opportunity to take home some samples. Unfortunately this meant an emergency stop at Wal-Mart on the way to the airport to find a cooler that could hold 15 lbs of smoked meat that we could carry on. Mission accomplished. Last step was making a whole planeload of people salivate with the smells of our smoked meat bonanza.
All in all, we were able to see how great BBQ is made. This trip was a great learning experience and the lessons that we learned will be used to help us make better BBQ for our friends and family.