More so than any other type of regional food, barbecue is often found in the least likely of places: in old Dairy Queens, in beat-up roadside shacks, in farmers markets.
In the case of BBQ on the Brazos, it’s found 30 minutes south of Fort Worth, in a Texaco station in the pin-dot town of Cresson. While the restaurant is new, veteran hands handle the ’cue — those of John Sanford, who has cooked barbecue and other types of Texana cuisine in and around the area for the past three decades.
Local barbecue fans may recall Sanford’s previous spot, Sanford’s Fort Worth Barbecue in north Fort Worth, which wasn’t far from one of his other restaurants, Country Cafe in Saginaw. Sanford was also the original chef at Granbury’s Pearl Street Station, which his wife, Kathryn Warren, co-owned. Four years ago, the two turned their attention toward selling a barbecue sauce, BBQ on the Brazos, and in January, they opened this barbecue joint, using the same name.
Word has taken awhile to spread, but over the past month, fueled by social media, spread it has. There are now lines every Saturday afternoon, and as a result, the restaurant sometimes runs out of food. Best advice is to get there early; it starts serving lunch at 9:30 a.m. (the restaurant also serves breakfast, starting at 6:30 a.m., including tacos with house-made flour tortillas).
BBQ on the Brazos is worth the drive, line and alarm-clock setting. Everything we had over the course of two visits was a cut above most local barbecue joints; it’s about the closest thing to Dallas’ Pecan Lodge on this side of the Trinity.
The restaurant serves sliced brisket, beef sausage, pork ribs, pulled pork and turkey, sold by the plate, pound or sandwich, along with housemade sides. Pounds start at $10, plates at $9.
Brisket was sliced by Sanford before our eyes and plopped on a sheet of brown butcher paper. A quarter pound came in the form of four slices, each with a layer of glistening fat that melted in our mouths and black crust with a peppery crunch. The meat itself had a nice, red smoke ring and was tender and full of beefy flavor. Sprinkled on top were specks of a spice blend similar to paprika. It was a nice touch, offering a slight bite.
St. Louis-style pork ribs were big, with plenty of flavorful crust. The pink and red meat slipped from the bone after a healthy tug, a sign the ribs were cooked properly.
Beef sausage, which Sanford has made and shipped in from a sausage-maker in Austin, was a show-stealer. Its wavy skin snapped like a firecracker. Inside, the meat was dotted with spices, and had a hearty, smoky flavor. The links are huge; one can feed two people.
The turkey sandwich ($7) was good, too. Four thick slices were served, open face, on a jalapeño cheddar bun. The turkey was moist and flavorful, the bread light in weight but sturdy in texture.
The big surprise with BBQ on the Brazos is that Sanford isn’t using a direct heat method of smoking. Instead, he uses a gas-fired, wood-burning rotisserie convection smoker (oak is the primary wood). It’s rare to find someone who can get these types of results, consistently, with this type of smoker.
Just as good as the meat were the housemade sides. Coleslaw was not the usual creamy sort. Rather, long, julienned strips of red and green cabbage were doused in a light cilantro dressing. The instantly likable yellow potato salad was smooth, like mashed potatoes, and offered a fun jolt of dill. Best of all was the cornbread dressing, a mess of cornbread crumbles, sweet pickles and green onions, all held together by streaks of a pleasingly tart mayo-based sauce. This is a barbecue joint that vegetarians will like.
Warren makes the restaurant’s popular banana pudding ($3.25), a small mountain of sliced bananas, pie crust and irresistibly sweet pudding.
Although it’s in a gas station, there’s plenty of room, with a half-dozen tables in the main dining area, a half dozen more in an upstairs loft and a few on a balcony.
Refreshingly, BBQ on the Brazos is devoid of posturing and pretense. No claims to the best at this or that. Other barbecue places could learn a lot from this place, in more ways than one.