In regional barbecue circles, Hard Eight Bar-B-Q in Stephenville is one of the more well-regarded 'cue restaurants, lauded for its old-school, meat counter-type service and no-frills atmosphere; free beer has helped, too.
Named after a dice roll, the restaurant opened in 2003 and quickly became a hit, thus leading to expansion: A branch opened in Coppell five years ago and, in February, a new one arrived in Roanoke, in the town's burgeoning restaurant district. (A store in Brady came and went, too.)
Like the other two locations, the Roanoke store is owned by the Nivens family of Stephenville and operates in the same no-fuss fashion. Meat is sold by the pound and served in piles on white butcher paper and simple trays. You can order as much or as little as you want, down to a single rib or slice of brisket. Your other meat option: sandwiches, which are $6; there are no combo plates.
All the barbecue basics are here -- sliced and chopped brisket, pork ribs, turkey, chicken and ham, along with a few more interesting items, including chicken and steak kebabs, prime rib, sirloin, rib-eye steaks and bite-size bacon-wrapped chicken and shrimp "poppers"; prices range from $12.50 to $25 a pound.
In the style of the famed Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano (and Fort Worth), you order meats first at a large outside pit where meat is smoked over mesquite wood -- a manager said the meat is cooked on a rotisserie, then finished on the pit, except for the brisket, which is cooked entirely on the pit. After your meat is weighed and priced, you head inside for sides, desserts and drinks. Save for a small room with a half-dozen four-top tables, seating is communal, at long benches both inside the restaurant and on a spacious covered patio. Unlike the Stephenville location, there is no free booze; you pay for your beer and margaritas.
If a barbecue restaurant is to be judged by its sliced brisket, this Hard Eight location isn't quite there yet. During our two visits, the brisket was uneven, hinging on who was doing the cutting and the size of the cut from which the slices originated.
On our first visit, we asked for fatty and lean cuts and received small strands of each that were so crumbly, they resembled chopped beef. That particular hunk of brisket, we noted as the cutter was slicing it, was down to its last legs.
The lean cuts had a discernible smoke ring and pleasingly smoky flavor but were very dry and had very little crust. Fatty cuts were moister and more flavorful, thanks to the ribbons of fat and a more generous portion of peppery, blackened crust.
On another visit, we received the first cuts off a brisket. The slices were larger, but still dry. Fatty slices were a bit too fatty this time; some of the fat had not been cooked long enough, and it was unpleasantly chewy.
Of the meats we sampled, the ribs were the most consistent. Short and thin, they had a good amount of tender, smoky meat and healthy lines of well-rendered fat. The meat required a slight tug, a sign the ribs were cooked properly, and they had a nice, simple salt-and-pepper rub.
A quarter-pound of sirloin was unappealingly tough. It was well seasoned with salt and pepper, but it hadn't been cooked long enough, as evidenced by streams of reddish-pink juice trickling from it. Shaved into thick slices, the ham was another disappointment -- light on smoke and flavor.
The mild and jalapeño sausages aren't made in-house, but they were likable, their snappy casings cracking open to reveal flavorful, smooth-textured pork. The jalapeño sausage had a bit more zip. We fell hard for the chicken poppers -- bite-size chicken chunks wrapped in bacon, onions and jalapeños.
Hard Eight offers two sauces: a thick and slightly sweet sauce and a lighter but spicier sauce. Neither helped the dry brisket.
Sides included the restaurant's beloved cornbread salad ($1.75), an irresistible meshing of cornbread mix, diced tomatoes, chopped green onions and tiny pieces of bacon; crisp and thick Shiner Bock beer-battered onion rings ($2); and grilled corn on the cob ($2.25), still in the husk.
Before ponying up for sides, know that the best one is the complimentary pinto beans located at the end of the checkout line, in a big steel pot. These "beans" were more like a stew, floating in a pool of jalapeño sausage, whole jalapeño peppers, bacon and ham.
Desserts included peach and cherry cobbler, pecan pie and an excellent banana pudding (each is $3.25), made with whole banana slices and topped with crumbled vanilla wafers.
But as is often the case with new barbecue restaurants, the pits need to be better seasoned and the pit masters better trained; it'll take some time. Until then, Hard Eight lives up to its name -- the place is a real gamble.