Dickey's Barbecue Pit of Despair

Have you ever wondered what the food that comes out of the replicator on board the Starship Enterprise tastes like? I mean, sure it looks like Tea, Earl Gray, Hot. But do you think that Captain Picard ever sips on his hot cup of replicated tea and laments the fact that it tastes slightly of manufactured dreams and warp residue?

Just because a restaurant offers barbecue and may even call itself something like "Dickey's Barbecue Pit," that doesn't mean that what you're eating there is real barbecue. In Dickey's case, what I ate yesterday tasted to me like something I would have ordered from a replicator: It looked like barbecue. It didn't taste like it.

Dickey's is a chain of barbecue restaurants that's actually based here in Texas. It certainly smells like a good, old-fashioned barbecue joint when you walk in -- despite the fact that you're in a strip center across the street from a Target -- but then the wheels fall off. The first indication that you're probably in for some major disappointment comes straight from Dickey's themselves:

In 1941, the Dickey family opened the original Dickey's Barbecue Pit in Dallas.

Dallas? For barbecue? To quote the old Pace picante sauce commercials, "Get a rope."

The meat that I received on my two-meat plate ($11 with two sides and a drink) certainly looked like barbecue, but if there are two truths in life, they're these: (1) good barbecue does not come from a chain* and (2) good barbecue does not come from Dallas.

I am by no means a barbecue expert. I only know what I like and what I grew up with. And both of those things are the old-fashioned, African American-style pit barbecue with pork butts, fatty briskets and pork ribs. Growing up, we never ate barbecue in a restaurant. The entire idea was anathema to a staunchly East Texas family. You made barbecue at home. It took all day. You invited the family over when it was ready. You ate. Going out for barbecue was like asking someone other than your mother to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a kid: It just wasn't going to be as good.

As a result, I always have a difficult time eating barbecue from anywhere except my parents' smoker, especially at chain restaurants. The closest I can get to my father's brisket comes from places like Snow's. And therein lies the real reason you can't get good barbecue at chains: new smokers and/or inexperienced operators.

A mostly new restaurant like Dickey's isn't going to have a smoker that's charred and crusted with years of hickory smoke residue. It isn't going to have a pitmaster gently and lovingly tending to it with his years of experience telling him when to mop the brisket or get rid of any cold spots in the smoker. Instead, what Dickey's has is barbecue sauce and plenty of it, in the hopes that the watery sauce will cover a multitude of sins.

It doesn't.

The brisket was dry, with almost no fat on it and certainly very little moisture left. It tasted of nothing. Nothing at all. Not even beef, and certainly not hickory (as the restaurant claims it should). Ditto the incredibly fatty pork ribs, which contained so much gristle and gelatinous fat that I couldn't even eat one.

Yes, Dickey's has sauce available in large, metal canisters -- regular or "spicy," which means it has a few red pepper flakes floating in it -- and yes, they serve their meat with onions and pickles. But truly excellent barbecue doesn't need sauce. Ever. A good brisket will be flavored with the smoke and marbled fat and you won't want anything else to mar those two sensations as they coat your tongue. At Dickey's, the barbecue is virtually inedible unless you drown out the taste of the meat with the overly sweet sauce.

Mercifully, the two sides were somewhat palatable, or else I would have gone home with a belly full of nothing but lemonade. The potato salad was more like mashed potatoes made with mustard and pimentos -- no actual chunks of potato were detected at all -- while the coleslaw was a little too sweet, but passable. Dickey's has a pull-your-own frozen yogurt machine a la Jason's Deli for dessert, but I was too depressed by my barbecue misadventure to remain there any longer than necessary and left without grabbing a sugar cone.

I have never eaten at the original Dickey's in Dallas and am now wary of ever trying it. But that's not the larger issue at hand. Let's face it: There are very few places within the Houston city limits where you can get truly great barbecue. A chain restaurant based in Dallas was obviously a poor choice, but that doesn't excuse the rest of the city's Q joints.

So what gives? Aside from a handful of places like Thelma's and Pierson's, why is great barbecue in Houston so hard to find?

*Rudy's is currently the sole exception to this rule. Break it otherwise at your own peril.

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