In the early years of the Posse, we didn’t care much for barbecue side dishes. You know, the standard potato salad, coleslaw and beans that often accompany smoked meat.
We even had a no-side-dish rule, meaning we almost never ordered anything but meat. When you hit a half-dozen or more joints on a weekend tour, you want to reserve all your eating space for brisket, ribs and sausage. To us then, side dishes were barbecue blasphemy.
No more. In recent years, as the Posse has matured, our view of side dishes has evolved. We now think they are very important. And, we’ve found, the side dishes served at many Texas joints are better and more interesting than ever.
That point hit home during our recent multi-day blitz of joints in San Antonio, the Houston area, and Austin.
At 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, which opened last year, the coleslaw, potato salad and chicharoni macaroni were excellent. Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins thought it was the best potato salad he has ever eaten.
At Tejas Chocolate Craftory in Tomball, the first thing on the menu that caught my eye was the French onion brisket soup. Delicious!
Craftory honcho Scott Moore said his place started offering soups as a side dish this past winter. One day, the joint had three or four racks of leftover pork ribs.
“What can we do?” Moore said. “Pork rib chowder.”
The French onion brisket soup, with more broth, is a warmer weather dish.
“My favorite that we’ve done,” Moore continued, “is brisket and blue cheese soup with frizzled leeks on top.”
The Posse is already looking forward to a colder-weather return visit to the Craftory when that brisket blue cheese soup is on the menu again. And we’re looking forward to more of the joint’s carrot souffle.
Grant Pinkerton, who runs Pinkerton’s Texas Pit Barbecue in Houston, says barbecue restaurants are paying more attention to sides, especially for women customers.
“For the guy who only eats meat, his wife really cares about the sides,” Pinkerton said.
Pinkerton’s does a very nice jalapeño cheese rice dish.
Blue Moon BBQ near Normangee serves what it calls Cowboy Cornbread, made with chopped brisket, tomatoes, chilis and onions. The ingredients are stirred in cornbread and cooked in a cast iron skillet then covered with cheese.
Originally, Toni Moon explained, she used hamburger in the recipe. But she said she woke up one night with a revelation.
“Just make it with chopped beef brisket instead,” she said. “It’s a perfect item to bring to a tailgate party to share.”
“Outstanding,” Wilkins said after taking a bite.
On Saturdays, Blue Moon serves Hot Shots, fresh jalapeños stuffed with three cheeses and chopped beef, wrapped in bacon and smoked on the pit.
Looking back, one link to the evolution of barbecue side dishes in Texas is the opening of Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin in late 2012. The word “craft” in the trailer joint’s name refers to side dishes as well as smoked meat. The place still serves one of the best potato salads around.
Posse member Libby Gagne didn’t make our recent barbecue blitz. But she eats at lots of places. Her favorites remain the mac and cheese with crumbled bacon at Pecan Lodge in Dallas and John Mueller’s cheesy squash that he has served at several of his joints, including now at Black Box Barbecue in Georgetown.
“Overall it does seem like places are stepping up the sides these days,” Gagne says. “I've noticed interesting variations on coleslaw that are moving away from the traditional mayo dressing, like Kerlin's bleu cheese slaw and Stiles Switch's lemon vinaigrette slaw. And some are branching out into new items, like Freedmen's smoked beets and smoked button mushrooms.”
Posse member Jim Rossman, who might eat more barbecue than any other person in our group, didn’t make our recent trip, either. But this serious meat eater, too, says he has “come to appreciate the time and effort taken by some of our best pit masters to make sides.”
Particularly at three of his regular Dallas stops: Pecan Lodge, Cattleack BBQ and The Slow Bone.
Pecan Lodge introduced him to collard greens. “I had a serious aversion to ‘greens’ growing up,” Rossman says, “and it wasn't until I tasted the greens from Pecan Lodge that I realized what I was missing.”
Among other Rossman favorites are the burnt end beans at Cattleack as well as the Brussels spouts/cauliflower au gratin and sweet potato praline at The Slow Bone.
“It reminds me of Thanksgiving,” Rossman says of the sweet potato praline.
Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew in Austin opened in 2011 and initially served just three traditional side dishes.
“In the beginning, I didn’t care about sides,” owner Shane Stiles said as we ate at his place during our recent tour. “We changed pretty quickly. If there’s anything you can do to make customers happy, that’s good.”
At Stiles Switch, we sampled the tomato salad, corn chowder and potato salad.
“I’d like a report back on the potato salad because we’re really proud of that,” Stiles said. The dish is made with small red potatoes because they don’t have to be peeled.
The Posse’s report: All three sides were excellent.
And a Posse confession: At the end of a long barbecue-eating day, I ate more of the tomato salad at Stiles Switch than I did of the joint’s first-rate brisket.