Too hot for barbecue? Hardly.
With the Texas heat pushing triple digits, we headed north toward Lake Texoma on a recent Saturday for the latest chapter in our Barbecue Chronicles. Over about 11 hours, we traveled 200 miles and ate at five joints.
Our tour included planned stops and some chance finds, one of which turned out to be the highlight of the day.
Learning from our earlier expedition to Tarrant County, when we overstuffed ourselves, we took a midday break at Cedar Mills Marina. We found some nice shade where we relaxed, watched sailboats, played horseshoes and rejuvenated our appetites.
Our eating began about 60 miles from downtown Dallas, at the corner of Gene Autry Drive and Highway 377 in Tioga, home of Clark's.
"They've been written up in Bon Appétit, and usually I would hold that against them, but I think they're pretty neat," said Chris Wilkins as we waited for the doors to open at 11 a.m. Wilkins, a photo editor at The Dallas Morning News, plans our itineraries.
Since last November, we've taken four barbecue tours and driven more than 1,100 miles, from Central Texas to the Oklahoma border. This Texoma trip took us through horse country, filled with postcard-perfect ranch houses and show rings. Photos of horses and riders cover the walls at Clark's.
While Wilkins rates Clark's among his favorite North Texas barbecue joints, some in our group, which numbered as many as 14 over the course of the day, were less impressed. The ribs were tender, but didn't taste fresh. The sausage and turkey were good but not great.
"The sauce needs a higher flavor profile," said Rebecca Gibson, wife of barbecue posse veteran Mike Gibson. Rebecca, an expert baker, works at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. On our tours, we can get into some serious taste discussions, but we think Rebecca is the first posse member to use the term "flavor profile." A nice touch of class.
Marshall Cooper, a commercial real estate broker making his first tour with our group, said Clark's brisket was lean and tender and had a good smoke taste, but it was slightly dry. Cooper cooks excellent barbecue himself.
"People don't understand," Hilliard said, "ours is a smoke-cured product."
Clark's also has chocolate and lemon pies covered with mountains of meringue.
"I'm so happy," said Ahna Hubnik, a multimedia editor at The News, as she hoisted a giant piece. Hubnik maintains that for a barbecue place to be really good, it has to serve pie.
From Tioga we drove north on U.S. 377 and then west on Highway 82, past Gainesville, to Lindsay, population 788, home of the Smokehouse Pit Bar-B-Que.
Like Clark's, the Smokehouse is a sit-down place. The big parking lot was jammed, and so was the big dining room.
The onion rings got raves, but that was it.
"I think my brisket was sliced on Thursday," said Bryan Gooding, a commercial photo producer making his second tour.
"It's a long way to drive for onion rings," said Bruce Tomaso, an editor at The News making his first tour.
After the Smokehouse, the main tour group headed for Lake Texoma. We also sent out two small scouting parties.
Photographers Tom Fox and David Woo stopped at Dieter Brothers, a few doors away from the Smokehouse, before returning to Dallas.
"You missed the sausage of the day," Fox reported by cellphone about Dieter's German specialty.
Another photographer, Michael Ainsworth, followed a tip about a new place near Sherman; he was to report in later.
Our main group followed U.S. 82 back to Whitesboro and turned north again on 377. A few miles up the road, we saw Big Ronnie's Texas Pit Bar-B-Que, which wasn't on our itinerary.
Big Ronnie's consists of a serving trailer, a giant smoker on wheels and a live-in trailer. Each sits on a new concrete slab. The serving area, with two picnic tables, is open and covered by a roof.
"This place has some killer drive-up appeal," Cooper said.
The food wasn't bad, either. The center-cut pork ribs were meaty and tender, though they could have used more smoke taste.
We continued on to Cedar Mills, on the western end of Lake Texoma. We sought shelter under some big trees. We got out the horseshoes and coolers. Tour veteran Gary Barber put on swimming trunks and took a dip.
"There's nothing like horseshoes and a sauna," Gooding cracked.
While at the marina, Wilkins got a call from Ainsworth. The cell reception was poor, but Ainsworth's excitement was clear.
"He just kept going on about the homemade ice cream pie," Wilkins said.
That pretty much sealed our next destination. The Bone on the Grill, Ainsworth's find, is about six miles west of Sherman, on the north side of Highway 82. Surrounded by ranch land and a few oil well pump jacks, it's been open less than a year.
The Bone surrenders nothing to Big Ronnie's in drive-up appeal. The joint is two old delivery trucks married by a spongy wooden deck. The pits are also homemade: two 55-gallon drums, side by side.
Through a sliding window, the group ordered ribs, brisket and pie. There was a low, collective groan when we opened the Styrofoam container to see ribs drenched in an orange-colored sauce. We soldiered on and got the surprise of the day. No smoke taste, but that didn't matter.
"The sauce was amazing, unlike anything I've ever had," said posse veteran David Guzman, a multimedia editor at The News.
"This was worth the trip by itself," Tomaso said.
We tried to get proprietor Lemontt Thomas to tell us his recipe.
"I'm not telling, man," he said. He did allow that he had lived in Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago, and his sauce was a bit of each.
The best was yet to come: ice cream pie, with chunks of Oreo or pineapple. Taking a bite, we understood why Ainsworth got so excited.
We left Bone on the Grill after 6:30 p.m. and made the short drive to Sherman and the OO Smokehouse.
Painted bright red and bordered by vacant lots, OO Smokehouse has no dining room and no restroom. Order at the window and eat right there in the parking lot.
An hour before closing, the ribs and sausage were sold out, but the brisket, turkey, stuffed peppers, pork tamales, hot links and sauce all got good reviews from the nine remaining posse members. It was a nice ending to a very hot but very enjoyable barbecue-eating day.
Afterward, Wilkins, our trip planner, reflected on our tours so far. He said the best moments are the unplanned stops.
"I'd like to plot out our next tour with no known destinations," he said. "Follow the blue highways and look for the smoke."
Of course, we'll throw the horseshoes in the trunk.
Texoma BBQ Tour itinerary
9:30 a.m.: Leave Dallas
11 a.m.: Clark's Outpost, 101 N. Highway 377, Tioga. Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
1:30 p.m.: Smokehouse Pit Bar-B-Que, 307 E. Highway 82, Lindsay. Open Sunday to Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
3 p.m.: Big Ronnie's Texas Pit Bar-B-Que, Highway 377 and Sandusky Road, north of Whitesboro. Open Thursday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Note: this joint is now closed. 7/14)
3:30 p.m.: Horseshoes and beer break at Cedar Mills Marina and Resort, 500 Harbour View Road, Gordonville, on Lake Texoma.
6 p.m.: The Bone on the Grill, 4933 Gibbons Road (at Highway 82), west of Sherman. Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Note: this joint is now closed. 7/14)
7 p.m.: OO Smokehouse, 200 S. Montgomery, Sherman. Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Note: this joint is now closed. 7/14)
9 p.m.: Back in Dallas
Story by Gary Jacobson
Photo by Chris Wilkins & Michael Ainsworth