On barbecue tours, it's better to plan a break for the middle rather than the end.
We learned that valuable lesson on a recent Saturday during a 100-mile, nine-hour excursion to four places in and around Fort Worth. Since the stops were close, all the eating was stuffed into five hours.
Even our biggest eater, Gary Barber, couldn't keep pace.
Barber (a multimedia editor at The Dallas Morning News) ate a half-pound of sausage, a quarter-pound of brisket and two ribs at the first stop, Off the Bone in Forest Hill, at 11 a.m. By our last stop, Smokey's Barbeque in Fort Worth at 3:30 p.m., he could barely nibble on a brisket sandwich.
"All my energy was devoted to digestion," he said.
Still, we accomplished our mission: Fact-checking D Magazine's recent list of the top barbecue joints in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as rated by Full Custom Gospel BBQ blogger Daniel Vaughn. The places we toured were all among his top six.
Our conclusion: None of them beats the only Dallas County joint to crack Vaughn's top half-dozen - Meshack's in Garland at No. 5.
After trips to the Central Texas barbecue belt last November and East Texas in February, this was our barbecue posse's third tour. We had our largest turnout, starting with 21 people and finishing with 13, including the first female posse members.
Suzi Woo, wife of News photographer David Woo, said she was struck by how serious everyone was. She said she'd never seen so much discussion "about a strip of meat, except perhaps on the Food Network."
Ahna Hubnik, a video editor at The News, brought expertise honed by eating barbecue at her grandparents'.
Smoke, Hubnik says, is mandatory: It "should be like a good perfume, just enough to make you wonder if it was a natural occurrence."
An early start
With so many people, cars converged from several directions. Our vehicle left Oak Cliff about 10 a.m., with trip planner Chris Wilkins driving. Others in the group were Michael Hamtil and newcomer Bryan Gooding, a friend of mine.
Wilkins and Hamtil work on the photo staff at The News. Gooding is a studio manager for QuadPhoto.
It seemed that Gooding had hardly finished explaining his recipe and technique for smoked jalapeño pimiento cheese - it tastes awesome - when we arrived at Off the Bone.
Still a half-hour from opening, we walked to the back of the former Dairy Queen near Interstate 20 and Loop 820. There we saw what being named the best barbecue joint in the area can do for business: the recent addition of eight feet of new smoker, doubling capacity.
As he loaded more ribs onto racks, owner and pitmaster Eddie Brown told us what he expected to serve that day: 90 slabs of ribs, 240 pounds of brisket, 40 pounds of sausage, 40 pounds of hot links and lots of chickens.
His talk made us hurry to the front of the building so we wouldn't be too far back in line. When you tour with a group our size, you create your own traffic jam.
Brown's brisket looked and tasted like roast beef, a letdown, but we praised his ribs, sausage and chicken.
As we finished eating, Brown took a break to talk.
He said he had added staff to reduce waiting times and admitted that maintaining quality while cooking so much meat was a challenge. He said he opened his place just four years ago but had been developing his technique for 25 years, cooking for the toughest judges around - his children.
"When I got it right, they'd tell me," said Brown, who cooks with a mixture of oak and pecan wood.
Brisket jerkyWe then headed south a short distance to Everman, home of Longoria's BBQ, rated No. 3 in the area. As we snooped around the rear of the building, trying to see the smokers, David Longoria opened the back door and invited us in.
He said his brother, Danny, was usually Mr. Outside, the one who explains their operation to barbecue enthusiasts, and he was Mr. Inside, the one gets up close and personal with smokers, grills and ovens.
"It's a greasy job, but not a dirty job," he said. He slowly spun a rack in a tall smoker, demonstrating how easily he could check meat.
David also does a pretty good job explaining.
He said that his father, Fidencio ("Fred"), built the wood-framed place about a dozen years ago. There are eating tables in the ordering area, as well as two separate dining rooms, one that Fred decorated as a tribute to James Dean. The smokers and grills are in an area covered by a roof but only partially enclosed.
Longoria's has some unusual specialties: brisket sausage, smoked brisket burgers and brisket jerky. We all liked the sausage and jerky.
Next, we headed west a short distance to Interstate 35 and then turned north. We exited on the edge of downtown Fort Worth and made our way to White Settlement Road and Angelo's, rated No. 6 by Vaughn.
Before the tour, there was controversy about including Angelo's. Despite its high ranking, the once-great place had lost a step, some posse members argued. They were right. Angelo's pork ribs were nearly uniform in size and shape, causing Gooding to say: "These look like they were extruded from a machine."
Some of us liked the wild-game trophies that covered the walls, especially the unusual stringer of nine giant bass, frozen by the taxidermist as if they were flapping.
We quickly finished eating and headed to the last stop, Smokey's Barbeque, on the east side of Fort Worth, rated No. 4.
Smokey's ribs were good, with an interesting combination taste: first sweet, then peppery.
While Barber ordered his sandwich, which he could only nurse, Hubnik showed some stamina. She ordered the four-meat sampler, planning to take home what she couldn't finish. She also had a piece of strawberry buttermilk pie. "Pie is a must after barbecue," she said.
We left Smokey's, most of us much wiser about our eating limits, and headed to photographer Tom Fox's house in Arlington. Tom's place has a huge, shaded deck. That deck is the main reason we packed so many tour stops so closely. We wanted to end the day drinking a beer, smoking cigars and talking barbecue.
Everyone was upbeat, despite the crammed eating schedule. There was some disappointment.
"All the brisket I ordered today was terrible, and that makes me sad," Hubnik said.
Above all, we vowed, next trip we'll plan our quality break time for the middle.
Fort Worth barbecue tour itinerary
11 a.m.: Arrive at Off the Bone BBQ, 5144 Mansfield Highway, Forest Hill; 817-563-7000. Open Mon-Sat 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
12:30 p.m.: Longoria's BBQ, 100 Christopher Drive, Everman; 817-568-9494. Open Mon-Fri 10:30am-7pm, Sat 10:30am-4pm.
2 p.m.: Angelo's, 2533 White Settlement Drive, Fort Worth; 817-332-0357. Mon-Sat 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
3:30 p.m.: Smokey's Barbeque, 5300 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth; 817-451-8222. Mon-Thurs 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by Chris Wilkins