Last Thursday, they were serving the best barbecued brisket in Texas, and therefore the planet, at the Stop N’ Save (1259 N. Market Street) in Hearne.
This fortuitous discovery was a complete accident. I had pulled over to use the facilities at the slightly decrepit convenience store on the road from Bryan to Waco. When I came out of the restroom, I saw a guy making brisket sandwiches. For each one, he sliced and weighed a messy half pound of brisket with lots of black and fatty bits and put it on a hamburger bun spread with sauce and dotted with pickles.
I wasn’t going to try it at first. After all, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of gas stations, convenience stores, and roadside trailers that sell barbecue in Texas. You can’t eat at all of them.
But then, on the way back to my car, I noticed the huge barbecue rig parked under a shed roof with split oak piled all over the place, and the charming BBQ sign out front which also had the gas prices on it. It was past eleven and I was alittle
hungry. So I went back inside and requested small samples of the various smoked meats.
“Are you Willie T.?” I asked since that was the name on the sign.
“No, I’m Dan Swick,” the man said. “Willie T. isn’t here anymore.” The African-American barbecue man who founded this convenience store barbecue stand was named William Toles, better known as Willie T. He sold the stand to his Anglo understudy, Dan Swick, and went on to start another barbecue joint in the nearby town of Calvert. Dan Swick has been making the barbecue here for 15 years now. But he kept Willie T.’s name and technique.
I asked for brisket from the fatty end, and Swick obliged with a crusty chunk from the outside edge. The slice was black on one side. The other side was half glistening gray meat and half melting fat. It was the kind of slice that barbecuers usually reserve for themselves. It sold for $3.99 a pound, my piece was under two dollars. I ate it with greasy-chinned abandon and no sauce. It was some of the best barbecue I have ever put in my mouth.
More and more barbecue joints, including some of the most famous places in Texas, are using smokers with supplemental electric or gas heat these days. Such modern shortcuts are often deemed necessary to turn out barbecue in volume. They also make it easier to serve barbecue in big cities where various city ordinances make it difficult to run an old-fashioned pit.
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At a smoker by the side of the road, the cooking methods are more elemental. The barbecue found at Texas gas stations, convenience stores and shade tree operations can be awful or it can be awesome, depending on the competence of the barbecue man, the time of the day, and many other factors. But the odds are pretty high the meat was cooked with nothing but woodsmoke.
As the author of Legends of Texas Barbecue, I occasionally get calls from food writers asking me to compare New York barbecue with Texas barbecue. I try to explain that you can’t make such a comparison because in Texas barbecue is a culture, whereas in NYC it’s a restaurant concept. Few are satisfied by this response.
The next question is usually: Where’s the best barbecue in Texas? That usually causes me to try and explain the barbecue culture thing again. Then I finally give up and name some barbecue joint or another in order to give the interviewer what they are looking for.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, mopping my face with a paper napkin, I decided that henceforward I will tell anybody who asks that the best barbecue joint in Texas is the Stop N’ Save gas station and convenience store on Highway 6 in Hearne. – Robb Walsh