The wooden sign on the wall at the original Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse on Inwood Road says "Real Texas Bar-B-Que."
It's next to a large black and white photo of Sonny himself. The late Dallas BBQ patriarch, dressed in a white shirt, white apron and white chef's hat, has a gentle smile on his face and a big carving knife in his hand.
Once upon a time, that sign might have been accurate. Not anymore.
The same goes for all four of the joints the Posse visited on a recent Saturday during its Roots of Dallas BBQ Tour, which included the original location of Dickey's Barbecue Pit as well as Sonny Bryan's. Both are now part of big chains.
When Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins, a photo editor at The Dallas Morning News, developed the tour itinerary, he picked places that were must-see for anyone who cared about the history of Dallas BBQ. He didn't have high hopes for the food. He was mostly right.
All day long, we kept asking ourselves, where's the smoke? We've been to Franklin in Austin. We've been to the Central Texas BBQ heartland. We've been to Meshack's in Garland and the Pecan Lodge at the Dallas Farmers Market. For us, you can't have real Texas BBQ without smoke.
On this tour, the only place that served what we would call barbecue brisket was Peggy Sue BBQ at Snider Plaza, and that needed some assistance from a very nice mustard-vinegar sauce. All the rest served roast beef. No smoke. No rub. No taste. Very bland.
The joints burned wood in their pits, but they just didn't lay much of that taste on their meats. On purpose for at least one place.
Dave Rummel, the general manager at Sonny's, admitted he wasn't a big fan of smoke, particularly hickory.
"I get more smoke on my clothes than I do on the meat," said Rummel, whose name tag said "Baron of Beef."
Before we get too carried away about the lack of smoke, it should be noted that each of the joints we visited had many customers. So, people like what these places produce, even without much smoke.
We started our tour, eleven Posse members strong, about 10:45 a.m. at Sonny's, across the street from UT Southwestern Medical Center.
An attraction of the original location is its decor. The joint still has the old wooden school desks where customers eat and the original pit, built into the wall when the place opened in 1958.
"Uh-oh, that's a bad sign," Bryan Gooding said as we walked in the door. The Quad/Photo producer pointed to the cooked pork ribs already cut and stacked on a grill in the kitchen.
Later, Rummel explained the recipe. Cooked for several hours on the pit without rub or seasoning, the racks are then dipped in barbecue sauce and stored in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, before serving, they are cut into individual ribs and grilled, carmelizing the sauce.
"That's the way Sonny did it," Rummel said.
While some of us cringed at the technique, the ribs themselves had some fans.
"I'll defend that rib," said Mac Hargrove. "I won't defend the brisket." Hargrove, a financial advisor making his second tour with the Posse, brought along his nephew, Brantley Hargrove, a writer for the Dallas Observer. They and other Posse members loved Sonny's giant onion rings.
We headed south on Inwood, under I-35, over the bridge with its sweeping view of downtown Dallas, to where the street changes its name to Hampton Road. We turned left on Singleton and, after a couple blocks, pulled into Odom's Bar-B-Que, which traces its roots to the 1930s and the Hardeman family. Posse member Michael Hamtil, a photo editor at The News joined us there.
When we arrived before noon, the pit master was just finishing loading four cases (more than 40 racks) of pork spareribs on the smoker with a long-handled pitchfork. That's a lot of ribs. Like Sonny's, Odom's smoker opens out of a wall into the kitchen area.
Our order of brisket, ribs and sausage came smothered in sauce, which overwhelmed the taste of the meat.
Jim Rossman, a tech specialist at The News, was smarter. He said hold the sauce.
"This was all right," Rossman said of his food. "But I don't know if I'd make the trek over here for lunch or anything."
We drove East on Singleton and worked our way around a couple detours to cross the Continental Avenue Bridge, with its nice view of the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. We crossed downtown on Woodall Rogers Freeway to Central Expressway.
The original Dickey's, which opened in 1941, is located at Central and Henderson. There's a painting in the dining room of the building when it was a country cottage, then on the outskirts of Dallas, before it became Big D.
"You know what you do with brisket like this," Wilkins said as he settled in the dining room and tasted his order. "Chop it up and sauce it." Translation: It was dry and had no taste.
Hamtil, a photo editor at The News, said his pulled pork sandwich was "really juicy" but his peach cobbler tasted like "whatever they coated the baking pan with." He left it half-eaten.
Dickey's has earned raves from Barbecue Snob Daniel Vaughn for its jalapeno cheese sausage, but on our visit, the sausage fell short. Gooding said the cheese tasted "Velveety."
"I just don't think it was cooked enough to melt the cheese," Rossman said.
The free soft-serve ice cream, though, was a treat.
We took Central Expressway one exit north to Mockingbird and drove West, past SMU, to Hillcrest. Snider Plaza on Saturdays is a zoo. Good luck parking. We finally found a space about three blocks away in a residential area.
Barbecue has been served at Peggy Sue's location since about the 1940s, first as Howard and Peggy's, later as Peggy's Beef Bar. We walked in the door, past the salad bar, to the Corner Club, a nice place to have a beer and finish the tour.
"This is the best brisket we've had today," Mac Hargrove said. "Anyplace with a Buck Owens album cover on the wall, you know you're in good company."
Hamtil ordered the fried chocolate pie with ice cream and forks for everyone. It was delicious.
From first stop to last, the tour covered 16 miles and took about four hours. Along the way, we traveled through West Dallas and the Park Cities, certainly a study in contrasts.
While the food was largely uninspiring, we did have some favorites, though the grading curve was low.
"The best rib I had was Odom's unsauced," said Marshall Cooper, a commercial real estate broker.
All in all, R.J. Hinkle, a photographer at Quad/Photo, probably summed up the day best.
"Once you know good brisket, then at most places you go it's a disappointment," he said.
Roots of Dallas BBQ Tour itinerary
10:45 am: Meet at Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse BBQ, 202 Inwood Road, Dallas, TX 75235, (214) 357-7120. Hours: Mon-Sun 10:00 am-8:00 pm.
noon: Odom’s Bar-B-Que, 1971 Singleton Boulevard, Dallas, TX 75212, (214) 631-3538. Hours: Open M-Thur 10:30-1:45am, F-Sat 10:30-2:45am, Sun 10:30-11:45pm.
1:15 pm: Dickey's Barbecue Pit, 4610 North Central Expy, Dallas, TX 75206, (214) 370-4550. Open: 10:30 am-9:00 pm.
2:00 pm: Peggy Sue BBQ, 6600 Snider Plz, Dallas, TX 75205, (214) 987-9188, Open: Mon-Thu, Sun 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat 11am-10pm.
Photos ©R.J. Hinkle & ©Chris Wilkins