Barbecue pitmasters spend a lot of time, energy and matches on figuring out the nuances of brisket — the hallmark of any Texas barbecue joint. Ribs are usually a priority, too, as pitmasters toy with various rubs and smoke time, trying to discover the best way to marry them.
But what of sausage, the Holy Trinity of barbecue’s third component?
Unfortunately, it often takes a backseat to brisket and ribs, with many BBQ joints simply smoking store-bought stuff, as opposed to going to the trouble of doing sausage justice — i.e., making their own.
Only a handful of local barbecue joints have taken on this challenge, among them Tim Love’s Woodshed, Pecan Lodge and Longoria’s. Joining this small group is AJ’s on Main, a tiny dive in downtown Grapevine whose sausage alone is worth the drive.
When you think of Texas barbecue joints, AJ’s is the type of place that comes to mind. Furnished with mismatched tables and decorated with beer signs, it seats about 40 people, and that includes the bar area. Chances are, owner A.J. Gillinger or his wife, son or daughter will wait on you. A former police officer and military serviceman, and longtime backyard barbecuer, Gillinger opened the spot in April, taking over a charmingly ramshackle building that was once an oyster bar.
The restaurant serves chopped brisket, pork ribs and chicken, as well as chili and tamales and a few fried sides. But the main draw is the dynamite pork and chuck mix sausage, which Gillinger says is smoked for six hours on an all-wood smoker (he uses hickory, primarily); you can get it on a sandwich or plate.
Our thickly cut slices were near-perfect, with a pleasantly chewy texture and a flavor that was heavy on smoke and punctuated by a splash of heat. Pork casing cracked like a knuckle.
It was the best thing on a sampler plate ($12.99) that also included brisket and two pork ribs. Brisket was good, too, although Gillinger’s approach to it is a bit unusual. It’s not served sliced, only chopped. Gillinger says he smokes the brisket for six hours, then lets it slow-cook on the pit for 20 hours. At that point, he says, it’s just too moist and tender to serve sliced.
Our portion was mainly lean — meat and bark. We were a little surprised that we didn’t miss the fat. It was moist enough to not require sauce, but the restaurant has bottles of a house-made savory, spicy sauce, just in case.
Ribs could have been better. While they had a good crust and a slightly fiery rub, they were dried out, too tough for us to finish. The plate came with a side of fries — not house-made, but good nonetheless, thick, crisp and dotted with seasoning.
We also tried the chili-covered tamales (5.99), served three to an order. Stuffed with ground beef and green chiles, the tamales stood out over the chili, which was a bit soupy and could have used more seasoning.
That’s a problem that’s easily solvable: Get the sausage instead.