There were smiles all around on Saturday at Joseph's Riverport Bar-B-Cue in historic downtown Jefferson.
Five and a half months after a devastating fire that completely destroyed the building, owner and pitmaster Stephen Joseph reopened on Thursday to swarms of old friends and townsfolk who appreciate some of the best BBQ on this side the state.
"We can't live without Joseph's," said longtime customer Misty Baldwin of Jefferson.
"When it burned, it was like losing someone in your family. It's all new, but it's just as good as ever"
Around midnight on January 15, Stephen got the phone call that all restauranteurs dread. His building was on fire.
He rushed downtown, even forgetting to put on a jacket despite temperatures in the low 20s. His initial idea was to rescue as much of the restaurant equipment and furnishings as possible.
Jefferson volunteer firefighters had already set up two streams of attack on the fire in the building at the corner of Polk and Lafayette Streets, trying to keep the entire block of historic buildings from going up in flames.
Stephen tried to enter through the front door but the smoke pushed him back. This wasn't going to be good.
The fire had started in a defective light switch in the back of the restaurant, showing how a small, inexpensive electrical part can bring an entire building to the ground.
A some point later, a firefighter told him they had the fire under control and were hoping the building wasn't a total loss. They were able to go into the building together to take a look.
When the fireman took a hook and punched through the ceiling, all hopes were dashed. The complete ceiling was engulfed in glowing embers.
They fled the building. Eventually, as Stephen watched from the warmth of his pickup around 2 a.m., the entire steel roof collapsed into the restaurant. Joseph's Riverport BBQ was a total loss.
Only a few items survived the fire. A small table, a lantern, an old sign he had gotten from his grandfather and a wooden alligator that was the unofficial mascot of the restaurant. All are displayed in prominent places in the new restaurant, with the gator greeting you as you stand in line to order.
On last Thursday, all the hard work of rebuilding came to fruition as a big crowd waited for the doors to open. Stephen snuck the last couple to eat there before the fire in through the back door so they could be the first in line. The party was on.
As we talked on Saturday, he said that Thursday and Friday were the busiest back-to-back days he's ever had. He also talked about how much the community rallied behind his business and family, hosting several fundraisers to help them make ends meet while the restaurant was being rebuilt. A large sign thanking the community now greets you as you walk in the front doors.
Fortunately, Stephen had good insurance that allowed him a top quality rebuild. That included a large Bewley smoker, built in Dallas. He has spent the past couple of months learning and seasoning the pit, doing some occasional catering along the way.
The barbecue we had there last weekend was nothing short of tremendous. By the time we arrived at 3 p.m., they were out of pulled pork but had plenty of brisket and ribs left. We added turkey to our three-meat plate, with sides of baked beans and homecut fries.
He has added boudin, a favorite of mine. to the menu but it was long gone at that point. A very popular menu item so far.
Through it all, Stephen hasn't changed a single thing about how he cooks. Low and slow. All wood all the time. Red oak, maybe sneak in some pecan from time to time when he can get it. No wrapping, no gimmicks.
The ribs tasted as good as they look, absolute perfection by KCBS standards, ie: tender but not falling off the bone. The rub is a combination of salt, pepper, paprika, white sugar and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
The brisket was sliced thick, moist with a perfect crust. The rub consists of salt and pepper, with some garlic and chili powder mixed in.
Stephen leaned how to cook from an old school pitmaster. No temperature probes or formulas. He was taught the brisket is "done when it's done." He pulls a brisket off the pit when he can press his thumb up to the first knuckle into the fatty end.
This is real Texas BBQ at its very best.
Welcome back Joseph's Riverport BBQ......
Joseph's Riverport Bar-B-Cue: 201 N Polk St, Jefferson, TX, 903-665-2341. Open Tues-Sat 11am-7pm, Sun 11am-2pm.
Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse