Consensus is probably a mission impossible on a barbecue tour. Too many people. Too many sensibilities. And let’s face it, rib people are different than brisket people.
The Barbecue Posse, though, almost reached consensus when we visited the Loco Coyote Grill near Glen Rose on a summer Saturday. It was part of a 9-hour, 210-mile barbecue tour that took us southwest of Dallas, to the Brazos and beyond.
“Those ribs were the bomb,” R.J. Hinkle, a free-lance photographer making his first trip with the Posse, said of Loco Coyote.
Another tour newcomer, Michael Gluckman, general manager at Fearing’s at The Ritz-Carlton, said the ribs were “perfectly tender.”
Tour veteran Michael Hamtil called the joint “magical.” Another veteran, Tom Fox, said: “This is the first time that I’ve liked everything on the platter.”
Added Bryan Gooding: “I can’t believe this isn’t a top-50 place in Texas Monthly.” He referred to the magazine rankings that serve as a Bible for Texas barbecue lovers. Loco Coyote wasn’t listed in the most recent (2008) rankings.
From Gooding, that’s especially high praise. The producer for Quad/Photo can be a tough critic. On a previous tour, he said the ribs served at one very popular joint looked as if they had been “extruded.” He also has some serious barbecue cred. Gooding has eaten at about half, and counting, of Texas Monthly’s top 50 joints.
Because of the food (superior smoked meats), the drinks (iced buckets full of Coronas), the atmosphere (pasture land with a bandstand), and the music (wall-to-wall Waylon and Willie), we didn’t want to leave the Loco Coyote after we finished eating.
If you had a one-day fantasy barbecue tour, this is the place where you would want to end it, Gooding said. Many in the group said they wanted to return soon.
Of course, there wasn’t complete consensus. Marshall Cooper, a commercial real estate broker and tour veteran, just smiled politely as others raved.
Later, when pressed, Cooper agreed that the back-woods setting was “incredible.” And while he called the food better than most places, he said he would not rate it “excellent or outstanding.”
Bottom line: The Loco Coyote comes close, but the Posse is still looking for that perfect barbecue joint.
In this chapter of our Barbecue Chronicles, we ate at four places and saw lots of pretty hills following Highway 67 from Dallas to Stephenville and then returning on Highway 377 and I-20.
The Posse numbered nine at our first stop, The Red “Chew-Chew” BBQ & Grill in Cleburne, grew to 12 at Loco Coyote and the Hard Eight in Stephenville, and finished with six at the Ribshack near Granbury.
Trip planner Chris Wilkins had wanted to make this a Blue Highways adventure, with the Hard Eight as the only pre-planned stop. But we had four carloads of folks, some coming from different directions, so we shifted to a pre-set itinerary. That’s lucky for us. We never would have found the Loco Coyote unless we were looking for it.
In Cleburne, The Red “Chew-Chew” is located across from a city park that has nice horseshoe pits and a giant steam engine. If you’re a railroad fan, the old Santa Fe steamer is worth a look.
We ordered plates of brisket, chicken and sausage to share. The place doesn’t serve ribs. The hot links and a side dish of beans were good. But when we left, meat remained on all the platters. Not encouraging. We were looking for true smoke flavor. We didn’t find it.
We continued on, wistfully passing a couple of interesting-looking joints in downtown Glen Rose. “Are we sure we don’t want to stop?” someone said. The turn for Loco Coyote is about seven miles outside of town. Then we drove about another three-quarters of a mile.
“Location, location, location,” tour veteran Bruce Tomaso observed as we walked up to the front door of the rustic building. A couple of small dwellings were nearby, but the place really is in the country.
At the entrance, a sign said: “If you are in a hurry or have an attitude, you are in the Wrong Place.”
Inside, the floors were covered with sawdust. We settled on the sheltered wooden deck, near an old, dented coke machine. Giant fans blew a nice breeze.
Waylon Works, our waiter, said he had worked at Loco Coyote, off and on, for 13 years. He also builds hot rods. Works touted the ribs and told a story about a customer with no teeth.
“The guy asks what’s the best thing here?’” Works said.
“’The ribs,’ I tell him.”
“’I can’t eat them,’ he says.”
“’Yes, you can,’ I said. ‘They’re very tender. If you can’t, I’ll buy your meal.’”
The customer paid, Works said.
While we waited for our platters of ribs, brisket and sausage, Works walked by with a barbecue Po-Boy sandwich for another table. It looked awesome. Several of us know what we’re going to order the next time.
Occupying a newer building at a busy highway intersection, The Hard Eight is the favorite barbecue joint of Jewel, the singer, according to People magazine. She lives nearby. “I take all of my out-of-town guests here, and they rave about it,” she told People. “In fact I think they visit me just for the barbecue.”
Maybe so. We found the food pretty good and the performance art captivating.
Near the entrance, the place has eight smokers in plain view. Customers can watch everything. While we were there, one cook, Keith Baker, wheeled over boxes of fresh brisket and loaded 16 – each weighing a dozen pounds or so – onto one smoker.
Baker then shoveled a layer of hot wood coals from two nearby firing towers directly under the meat and closed the lid. The temperature gauge soon read 500 degrees. Baker said that after an hour or so, the meat is turned and cooked some more. Then it’s seasoned, cooked some more, wrapped in foil and transferred to another smoker, where the temperature is lower.
The whole process takes roughly half the time of the low temperature and slow cooking methods that require 12-15 hours or so. And it consumes a lot of wood. Barrett Joiner, a manager, said the place burns about 12 cords of mesquite a day.
“Great barbecue is a kind of art form that is very unique to each person who makes it,” observed Gluckman, the Fearing’s general manager. “People want to see how it is made.”
Watching the cooks in the kitchen didn’t spoil the meal. But, frankly, the Hard Eight had a tough act to follow after Loco Coyote. We liked the ribs and brisket, but not as well. The prime rib looked terrific, but the taste was bland. The thick pork chop was very tasty, but dry. Tom Fox remedied that by having his chop dipped.
“I don’t know what was in that vat but the chop was one of the best I’ve had,” Fox said. The dip appeared to be, largely, melted butter.
We headed back toward Dallas on Highway 377. We initially missed the turn (Old Acton Highway) for the Ribshack and had to double back.
Bob Wherry, who runs the Ribshack with his wife, Debbie, said his operation started a few years ago, catering to crews on gas drilling rigs in the area. Their specialty was pulled-pork pizza.
More recently, they remodeled an old barn into a restaurant. The corrugated steel exterior of the building screams BBQ joint. Out back there is a stage for live music, a dance floor, horseshoe pits and fire pit. Like the Hard Eight, the Ribshack offers free beer. “My favorite kind,” Gooding quipped.
We sampled the ribs and brisket, which were o.k., and the Shack Attack sandwich (pork, chopped beef, sausage and cheese) which was very good.
The best dishes, though, were desserts (banana pudding, pecan cobbler and blackberry cobbler) and some enticing homemade pickles.
“Hey Bryan, pass those pickles down here,” R.J. Hinkle said after tasting one. He wanted more.
Barbara Watts, who took our order, said she knew we’d like the pickles.
“They’re like Texas women, “ she said, “sweet and hot.”
Brazos and Beyond BBQ Tour itinerary
9:45 a.m.: Leave Dallas
11 a.m.: Red Chew Chew BBQ & Grill, 811 Hillsboro Street, Cleburne, (817) 558-2439. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
12:30 p.m.: Loco Coyote Grill, 1795 County Road 1004, Glen Rose, (254) 897-2324. Open Thurs-Friday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
3 p.m.: Hard-Eight Barbeque: 1091 Glen Rose Road (Hwy 67), Stephenville, (254) 968-5552. Open Monday to Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
5:00 p.m.: RibShack BBQ, 4021 Acton Hwy, Granbury, (817) 326-4752. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
7 p.m.: Back in Dallas
Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by Tom Fox, R.J. Hinkle & Chris Wilkins