DALLAS — The wheelman on a barbecue tour needs thick skin and quick reflexes. During a 240-mile trip from Dallas through East Texas on a recent Saturday, our driver had both. Moments after getting needled for poking along at 50 in a 70 mph zone, David Woo quickly had his car at the speed limit.
Then we spotted smoke coming from a portable smoker in front of a low building. We were headed east on State Highway 31, between Tyler and Kilgore, about 115 miles from Dallas.
"That looks interesting," one posse member said.
"Let's go back."
Never miss a local story.
Woo, a photographer at The Dallas Morning News, quickly slowed and did a U-turn.
Hickory Hill BBQ wasn't on our itinerary, which consisted of three long-famous East Texas Oil Patch joints: Stanley's, Pat Gee's and Country Tavern. Oil and water may not mix, but oil country and barbecue do.
Open only seven months, Hickory Hill was short on history, long on promise.
"What's your best item?" we asked husband-and-wife owners Kerry and Kelly Shaw.
Their place had the feel of a clean, small-town diner. A picture of the Last Supper hung on one wall. The menu touted the Working People Special, two pieces of hickory-smoked chicken with one side, $2.99.
Kerry said everything he cooked was the best: "I want to be No. 1, not just in Tyler, but the world."
"You're raising expectations considerable," I cautioned.
It was about 3 p.m. We had lunched at Stanley's and had left Pat Gee's just minutes before. We ordered a plate of pork ribs to share. Several of us would call these the best ribs we had all day. Photographer Guy Reynolds said he would be happy if these could be part of his last supper.
As it turns out, the Shaws also have some marketing flair. They use the portable smoker to lure passing motorists. The pit is inside.
Our barbecue posse, composed of staffers from The Dallas Morning News, took its first tour last November. We traveled nearly 600 miles in 28 hours, hitting five of the best places in the Central Texas barbecue belt.
After our story ran, we received lots of feedback. Some readers loved the tale. Others criticized our itinerary, our expertise and our ability to describe the ambience of great barbecue joints.
We were invited to have dinner with barbecue champ Myron Mixon (of BBQ Pitmasters on the TLC network). We couldn't make it. A serious local amateur wanted our take on his barbecue prowess. We're still waiting for nice patio weather to sample his stuff. A prison inmate (and former Dallas barbecue king) wrote to tell us he would soon be out and planned a comeback. We eagerly await the opening of his new place.
And almost a month after the story appeared, we received an e-mail from a group that duplicated our trip. They drove the same route and ate at eight places, all in one day.
All of the feedback convinced us there was appetite for more stories from the barbecue trail.
Our East Texas trip included three members (Chris Wilkins, David Guzman and myself) of the original six-person posse and added five more, mostly from Dallas Morning News photo staff. We came armed with still and video cameras. At times, we had guys taking pictures of guys taking pictures of ribs, brisket and pit masters.
Wilkins, a photo editor, again set the itinerary. This time he focused on personal nostalgia. He grew up in Tyler and went to Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q as a kid.
We left downtown Dallas a few minutes before 10 a.m. Nearing Interstate 20, Woo asked Wilkins how he would rate the barbecue we expected to eat.
"Dude, I've had to re-rate everything in my life since our last trip," he said.
Wilkins' younger brother, Jonathan, was the fourth passenger in our car. A second car would meet us in Tyler, as would several other members of the Wilkins family, including his father, James.
Ribs were on our minds when we arrived at Stanley's shortly before 11:30 a.m. The sold-out sign by the door caused disappointment. Barely a half-hour after opening, the baby backs were gone.
Stanley's has changed little over the years. An outdoor deck has been added, but the roadhouse atmosphere is the same as when J.D. Stanley acquired the business in 1960. Stanley died in 2003.
The four-meat sampler is perfect for barbecue tours. Just meat — pick from brisket, pulled pork, ribs (when they have them), turkey, sausage — and two slices of white bread. No sides. Some members of the posse loved the brother-in-law sandwiches: chopped beef or pulled pork with sausage and a slice of cheese.
The smoked turkey breast came highly recommended. It was good. When I went back to order a pound to take home, it was gone. Never underestimate the quick reflexes of a good wheelman: Woo got the last of the turkey. By the time we left, the sausage was also sold out.
We drove a short distance to James Wilkins' house, where Nick Pencis, a musician and neighbor who now owns Stanley's, joined us.
Pencis explained the origin of Stanley's famous sandwich: It was made by J.D. for a guy who reminded him of his brother-in-law. "Old-school guys would never considering putting cheese on barbecue," Pencis said. "Just try it, man."
He had never been to Pat Gee's so we invited him along.
Pat's Barbecue is a few miles outside Tyler, near several rural churches. Woo's GPS got us close. Then, we followed the wood smoke.
The small, wood-frame building sits on a small lot notched between pine trees and pasture. An outhouse is out back.
Inside the main room, near the front door, is a fridge. Once, it was white. Four fly swatters hang from the counter, under the drink cooler. The light bulbs are bare, and the wood framing lumber is black, coated not with paint but 50 years of smoke.
Pat died in 1999, so family members run the place now. When his son, Arthur Gee, opened the door to the pit room, smoke sifted through.
"This isn't the best barbecue I've ever had, but it's the best place," Chris Wilkins said.
Several of us ordered brisket sandwiches. Billy Walker, another of Pat's sons, poured on their homemade sauce. "You'd offend him if you asked him to hold it," Chris said.
Pencis ordered ribs, sliced beef and ham. "I like the ham," he said. "I've never done ham."
Behind the counter, Arthur Gee concentrated on chopping and slicing. He wasn't much for conversation.
After eating, we said goodbye to Pencis and James Wilkins and worked our way back to Highway 31, detouring briefly to Hickory Hill BBQ.
From the 1970s, the Wilkins brothers remembered the Country Tavern, outside Kilgore, as a smoky beer hall.
No more. Now the place is lit by neon, the napkins are cloth, a squadron of young waitresses greets customers at the door, and steamed towels are provided so guests can clean their hands after eating.
"This isn't a joint," Jonathan Wilkins said, "it's a restaurant."
At the large eating area filled with Saturday regulars, we ordered two pounds of ribs. Even though the posse quickly converted them to a plate of bones, there was some disappointment. "I liked the look of them better than the taste," said Michael Hamtil, a photo editor.
News editor Marty Melendy, an old-school traditionalist, spurned the cloth napkins. "We're in a barbecue place," he said. "I'm sticking with paper napkins."
With the help of Woo's GPS, we found a shortcut to I-20 and made it back to Dallas at 7:30 p.m. I kept thinking of something that Nick Pencis of Stanley's had said earlier:
"Everybody's favorite barbecue is what they grew up with."
There is some truth to that.
BBQ TOUR: EAST TEXAS ITINERARY
9:45 a.m.: Leave Dallas
11:30 a.m.: Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, 525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler. Open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2 p.m.: Pat Gee's Barbecue, 17547 Jamestown Road, Tyler. Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (or until the meat runs out)
3:30 p.m.: Hickory Hill BBQ, 20101 Highway 31, Tyler. Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. until the meat runs out
4:30 p.m.: Country Tavern, FM 2767 at Highway 31, Kilgore. Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
7:30 p.m.: Back in Dallas