Co-owner and head pitmaster Justin is easy to spot: NBA player-tall at 6'7", with steely blue-eyes and almost always sporting a tattered orange baseball cap that's patinaed with what looks to be a few years' worth of pit smoke. His partner and wife, Diane, has long, light brown hair that's often tied up in a bandanna and a smile that always seems just on the verge of breaking into full-on laughter; she might barely reach Justin's shoulder, but around here she's often referred to as "boss lady."
From Corporate America to the Farmers Market to Deep Ellum
The story of exactly how the Fourtons turned a fledgling catering company into a critically acclaimed smoked meat sensation is a long and arduous one. It begins, oddly enough, in North Carolina, where Diane and Justin, both Texas natives who grew up in the Dallas suburbs just a few miles from one another, met and fell in love in 2000. Five years later, they returned to Dallas and bought a house, building a barbecue pit in their backyard for fun, and to engross themselves in the Texan culture they'd both missed dearly. They married in 2007, had a son in 2008, and soon after decided to jump the corporate ship when the company they both worked for began downsizing.
"Doing a little catering business was our exit strategy, we thought, out of corporate America when we were ready to retire," says Diane. "We just ended up going for it a lot earlier on than we had anticipated." The catering business was originally a mobile operation, but six months in the Fourtons were so overwhelmed with business they sought out more permanent digs, leasing a small space at the downtown Dallas Farmers Market and opening four days a week for lunch. There they were discovered by barbecue-obsessed blogger Daniel Vaughn (who now holds the enviable position of barbecue editor for Texas Monthly). He sang the praises of their brisket on his blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and from there news of the hidden gem traveled quickly.
"The consultant in me started going, okay, how can we take something like barbecue, a very subjective thing, and make it quantifiable?"
"When we opened, the barbecue wasn't the focus," says Justin. "It was just Southern food. I guess the authenticity of what we were doing attracted Daniel to the restaurant, and then the barbecue part of the business started to take on a life of its own. We had no idea there was this whole subculture, these people going on barbecue tours and all that.
"Once we started to understand the context of how we fit in with the other places in Texas and this kind of subculture, that really focused us. Then the obsession kind of set in. The consultant in me started going, okay, how can this be repetitive? What can we measure? How can we take something like barbecue, a very subjective thing, and make it quantifiable so that you can grade yourself and make sure it's consistent? Our previous lives really helped to inform what we were doing here even though it wasn't food-related, it was just the methodology and the process."
When it comes to evaluating his pitmasters' handiwork, Justin's consultant background shows through in a performance evaluation sheet he created to rate barbecue. He declined to provide a copy of it, but offers some hints as to what qualities he looks for in a brisket: "Smoke flavor is important. The tenderness of the meat. The moisture content. It can be tough and dry, but it can also be tough and juicy. At first we had a number grading scale, and now it's just pass/fail. It either is or it isn't. There's no in-between."
The Fourtons' barbecue nerddom paid off. Accolades from publications like D Magazine and Southern Living began rolling in, and then in December 2011, spiky-haired Food Network personality Guy Fieri came calling. The following May, Pecan Lodge was featured in a ten-minute segment on the insanely popular show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The backwards-sunglasses sporting host proclaimed the brisket "rockin'," and the restaurant was hit by what Dallas Observer restaurant critic Scott Reitz has dubbed "the Fieri effect": a huge surge in business at a restaurant immediately after their episode airs. Just like that, the lunch lines stretched to an hour long as people came from all over to get a taste of the Fourtons' barbecue.
In the summer of 2013, the city of Dallas sold the Farmers Market to a private investment group with intentions of redeveloping it. Learning that the savings they'd poured into finishing out their space would be lost, the Fourtons once again found themselves hunting for a new home. For months they debated whether to stay or move to their own freestanding spot; generous offers from landlords in surrounding suburbs poured in, but they were hesitant to leave the downtown Dallas area that had become not just their home but part of their brand.
"We went from serving 600 people on a Saturday at the farmers market to over 2,000. It's nuts."
A mile or so down the road, the revitalization of the historic neighborhood known as Deep Ellum was in full swing. A hot spot for blues and brothels in the 1920s, it witnessed a resurgence in the 80's and 90's as a mecca for live music, art galleries and tattoo parlors before falling into a decade of decline marked by vacant buildings and an elevated crime rate. Now it was on the upswing again, with new businesses moving in seemingly every week, including plenty of bars and restaurants. When a real estate developer approached the Fourtons offering a space with a footprint nearly three times the size of their Farmers Market space, they jumped at the chance to be a part of a vibrant community that was clearly coming up.
Since moving to their new Main Street home in May, Pecan Lodge has been serving more barbecue than ever. "We went from serving 600 people on a Saturday at the farmers market to over 2,000. It's nuts," says Justin.
Inside the Lodge
The new space is finished out in a sort of Texan-industrial style: think concrete floors, corrugated metal, exposed ductwork, mismatched wooden tables, chairs that look like something you might find in Grandma's kitchen, old ranch signs and license plates on the walls, and a chalkboard menu. There's a spacious patio out back with picnic tables and a stage that features live music on the weekends. Perhaps best of all, there's a U-shaped bar where patrons can hang out and sip on local craft beer — including an exclusive collaboration with a local brewery, Four Corners, that's named Boss Lady after Diane — while they await their butcher paper-lined trays of smoked meat and sides.
"It's funny, people's perceptions of what a real barbecue joint is like," Justin says. "They picture this kind of side-of-the-road place with a nailed-up sign. When we sat down with the architect we told him we don't want to see faux anything. It needs to be real. I love the old places, but it doesn't make sense to start with a new place and make it look old."
"We're just trying to be authentic to who we are," Diane adds. "if you come in here, what you're seeing is authentic and real and it's a very accurate portrayal of who the two of us are, where we come from, who influenced us, the people in our lives who taught us how to cook. We're not trying to be something we're not. It doesn't need to have some kitschy, hand-painted sign and peanuts on the floor or whatever."
The Pits: Lurlene, Virgil and Rick
The smokehouse adjacent to the restaurant is occupied by a trifecta of barbecue pits: hulking cylinders of pure black steel emitting a steady stream of fragrant smoke that infuses hair, clothing, skin, and neighborhood with the telltale aroma of smoked meat. "People at the bank always tell me I smell amazing," Justin laughs.
The pits are fueled by offset fireboxes that provide low, slow, indirect heat. It's an ideal setup for producing the type of gentle smoke that will transform raw briskets into blackened masses over the span of 18 hours. Briskets that, after resting and slicing, reveal lusciously rendered fat and moist, unmistakably smoky meat clinging to a thick peppery bark.
Running the pits is a round-the-clock operation that stops for only a few hours a week.
All three pits were purchased at separate times from the same craftsman, an oil field welder in San Angelo, Texas that does a side business building barbecue pits. The first and smallest pit, which they affectionately call Lurlene, has been with them since their fledgling days as a catering startup; two others, named Virgil and Rick, were added to the flock later as media buzz grew, lines got longer and the Fourtons ramped up their production.
Running the pits is a round-the-clock operation that stops for only a few hours a week. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, but cooking for the week begins around 8 a.m. Monday morning and runs clear on through Sunday afternoon, when the pits get an eight or twelve hour rest and a thorough cleaning.
A cursory glance at one of the analog thermometers attached to each pit indicates cooking temperatures that hover around 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, but Justin's quick to crush any hopes casual observers might have of recreating his famed brisket at home based on that bit of information alone.
"Our pits are completely manual. There's no gas or electricity or thermostats or anything like that. It takes all of your senses to know the adjustments to make," he explains. "We'll use a thermometer to gauge their progress, but at the end of it, it's the way they feel that determines when we pull them off the pit. So over time, you learn when the pit's running a certain temperature, what the smoke smells like that's coming out of the stack. So I — and all the guys that work on the pits — we can be in the kitchen and all of a sudden if we catch a whiff that has come in through the back door, we instantly know if it's running too hot, or if it's just right, or if I need to go out there and put more wood on it without even having to be there to see it."
Different employees specialize in cooking the different meats. "I've got basically one or two guys that handle the brisket. More people that do the ribs. Ribs are easier to train, the brisket is a lot trickier," Justin says. Pitmasters are selected, not hired: "We never hire anybody to work specifically on the barbecue, we hire them to work in the kitchen and if they start to show the qualities that we think are consistent with somebody who can do this well, then we start to train them on the pit," he says.
"When you're cooking here, it's an entire day's worth of food that you can mess up in a 30-minute period."
"It has not so much to do with their cooking ability, but with whatever they're doing: are they passionate about it and are they reliable? Do I know they're going to be here at 2:00 in the morning regardless of whatever their day has been like? When you're cooking here, it's an entire day's worth of food that you can mess up in a 30-minute period. If you mess up a steak, you can fire another steak and in 15 minutes have it fixed for that person. If you mess up an entire pit of food for thousands of people…"
"It's a lot of pressure," Diane chimes in.
A Custom Blend of Wood
Occupying one corner of the smokehouse is a pile of split logs stacked clear up to the ceiling. The type of wood that Justin uses to fuel the pits has evolved over time: in the beginning, he used strictly mesquite. Commonly used in West Texas-style barbecue, which utilizes more direct heat, it's known for burning hot and fast and imparting a potent smoky flavor to meat.
"Most of my family was from West Texas and that was the wood they used out there, so I started cooking with that," Justin says. "Once we opened the restaurant, before we really had any kind of staff at all, I was spending the night running the barbecue pit and I used to get up every hour and a half or so to put wood on the fire and keep it running."
Eventually he began adding oak into the mix. Oak wood burns more slowly and enabled him to catch a few more hours of sleep at night, something that any startup business owner can attest is important.
Then, at an annual barbecue summer camp put on by Foodways Texas and Texas A&M University's Meat Science department, Justin participated in a blind-tasting of meat smoked over various different types of woods, and found that he enjoyed the sweeter taste of hickory smoke. "So I thought well, I don't want to just completely switch over to something new but I probably should start mixing that in since that's what I like," he says, leading him to the current blend of mesquite, hickory and oak that's utilized in the Pecan Lodge smokehouse today.
Brisket Is the State Bird of Texas
Texas is, of course, beef country, so naturally brisket is considered the pinnacle of Texas barbecue. Pecan Lodge's is considered by many to be the best in North Texas. In 2013, Texas Monthly had this to say about it: "As for the brisket, the first bite reminds us of the heights that this cut can achieve in the right hands. Each slice has the aggressive smokiness we expect from mesquite, but it doesn't come along with any of the creosote flavor that is often that wood's downfall. … If too much dried-out barbecue has you questioning the simple perfection of smoked brisket, Pecan Lodge will restore your faith."
Pecan Lodge uses Certified Angus Beef, "the upper two-thirds of Choice, just below Prime," Justin explains. They've worked closely with their supplier over the years to define a set of specifications for the size, weight, and marbling of the briskets they buy. As far as any treatment the meat receives before hitting the pit, it's about as simple as it gets: They trim the brisket's fat layer down to about a quarter of an inch before hitting it with their spice rub, and then it's off to the smokehouse.
Making Barbecue Magic
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Pecan Lodge falls on the barbecue spectrum of old school vs. new school, or defined regional styles. Unhindered by the decades of family tradition and the sort of meat mysticism that define many of Texas' legendary barbecue joints, Justin and Diane have been free to pick and choose various elements to assemble their own hybrid style.
"Dallas doesn't have a lot of its own barbecue traditions, which is great for us because we can kind of do our own thing," Justin says. "I think we're in a good place to allow our style of barbecue to grow without being judged too harshly."
The brisket, as he explains, sticks true to the classic Central Texas style in terms of cooking method, but the rub is more closely aligned with what's found in East Texas. While Central Texas pitmasters tend to rely on a simple mixture of salt, black pepper and maybe a little cayenne, "East Texas is a little more complicated," Justin explains. "The spice rubs are more complex. My personal opinion is because of the proximity to Louisiana you get some of the Cajun influence that blends in." Pecan Lodge's blend includes Lawry's seasoning salt, granulated garlic, black pepper, chili powder, mustard powder and paprika.
Pulled pork is something the Fourtons developed an affinity for while living in Charlotte, North Carolina. While they cook and pull their pork in a decidedly Texan style — from shoulders, not whole hogs — that leaves it super-moist, smoky and interspersed with crusty bits of bark, it's served with what they simply call "pork sauce," a traditional vinegar-based concoction like you'd find in eastern North Carolina.
"If you cook the meat perfectly and it's seasoned well, you don't need sauce."
There's Texas-style barbecue sauce on offer too, of course, made with a laundry list of ingredients that includes dried guajillo chiles, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire, ketchup, mustard and soy sauce. Less viscous and considerably less sweet than what you'll find at many other places in Texas, it won't obliterate the flavor of the brisket should you choose to slather it on. Most of the customers, however, seem to find that wholly unnecessary and use a light hand with the squeeze bottles that are provided at each table (or just choose to ignore it altogether).
"My opinion is that if you cook the meat perfectly and it's seasoned well, you don't need sauce," Justin says.
The menu also includes pork ribs, massive Fred Flintstone-esque beef ribs that weigh in at over a pound each, and both regular and jalapeno-cheddar sausage links that are ground and stuffed in-house. A specialty menu item, the aptly-named Hot Mess, is a decidedly new-school creation you definitely won't come across at any of Texas' time-honored hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints: a hefty-sized baked sweet potato that's split and loaded up with South Texas-style beef barbacoa, butter, cheese, chipotle cream and scallions.
Every menu item is subject to plenty of scrutiny in the name of consistency.
The rest of the menu is a mish-mash of old family recipes (both the banana pudding and the fried chicken come from Diane's late grandmother) and new creations, like the West Texas-style pinto beans laced with brisket trimmings that were devised by one of their kitchen staff. While not every menu item is subject to its own performance evaluation sheet like the brisket, they're all subject to plenty of scrutiny in the name of consistency.
"Just last week I threw out three batches of banana pudding in a row," says Diane. "There's a recipe that has to be followed exactly, and if it's not done just right then it doesn't meet our standards. It needs to feel like home, like when you go home to your grandparents' house you don't want anything to change. You want it to be exactly what you expect."
Considering the way Pecan Lodge has ascended the competitive Texas barbecue hierarchy in just five years, it's hard to imagine where the Fourtons might be another five years from now. The possibility of expansion seems to hold little interest for them, though: "I imagine there are ways that you can expand and still keep control of the quality, but we don't know how to do that," Diane shrugs. "It takes every ounce of everything that we have to keep this where we need it to be. So having one is enough for us."
The couple has an equally laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the issue of their children carrying on the family business. "We're not going to force it on them," says Diane. "This is our path and if they want to be a part of that, if they feel inspired, then we'll encourage it. But if not, that's cool too."
As for more immediate goals, those are clear: They plan to install some misters on the patio to help mitigate the blistering Texas heat for their patrons, and eventually hope to build a rooftop patio in order to take advantage of the unobstructed view of the downtown Dallas skyline. "Other than that, I'd like to maybe have a vacation sometime in the next five years," Diane laughs. "That's a goal."