In 1911, a half-square-mile chunk of land three miles north of Fort Worth was incorporated as Niles City. It was home to 508 residents, two meat-packing companies, six railroads and a transient population of bovines on their way to becoming tasty barbecue.
The borders expanded, and even during the Depression, Niles City was a center of wealth and meat, earning it the nickname “The richest little city in the state of Texas.”
Fort Worth may be Cowtown, but people quickly figured out that having the cattle downtown was problematic — the name Funkytown comes from the smell, not the music. So cattle operations were given their own city, controlled by the cattle industry until Fort Worth forcibly annexed Niles in 1923.
What once was Niles is now the Fort Worth Stockyards, and now the only cattle there are stunt-cows brought in for the tourists — and for the hungry, such as the ’cue in the pit at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.
For the past few years, we’ve been on the hunt for the Holy Grail of Texas BBQ joints, and it’s finally time for me to officially add to the roster Cooper’s, a Texas tradition. It has four BBQ dispensaries, located in Llano, New Braunfels, Austin and Fort Worth, and has been serving ’cue at one location or another since 1953.
Cooper’s is in a massive tin building right across the street from Billy Bob’s Texas. The building may be new (by my measure, the best BBQ is found in dilapidated hole-in-the-wall joints), but it’s already caught fire once, so that gives it some street cred.
You walk in the door and find yourself in front of the big warming pits full of meat, where the man with the big knives cuts up what you want and puts it on a tray. Cooper’s tradition is to dunk the meat in a warm bucket of thin sauce, and while I normally want my sauce on the side, well, when in Niles, do as the Nilesians do.
I asked for a half-pound each of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage.
In the next room, they weigh your meat. My brisket weighed .8 pound and so did the ribs; the sausage was right at half a pound. The staff offered to cut my sausage up for me, which I found odd, and wrapped it all up in butcher paper.
I got some potato salad as a side, and Cooper’s has a self-serve bean repository that comes with the meal. Total ticket for three meats, potato salad, and soda came to 35 bucks. Not cheap, but that’s a lot of meat. Service was efficient but reasonably pleasant. Not quite the surly we’re-doing-you-a-favor-by-selling-you-’cue attitude I look for in a BBQ joint, but not bad.
The dining room at Cooper’s is a massive concrete-floored room filled with picnic tables. Despite the newness, this is the kind of no-nonsense BBQ-consuming environment I look for. I grabbed a spot toward the back of the room and tore into the bundle of animal flesh.
First up were the sides: The potato salad was homemade and pretty decent, if not particularly memorable. The beans were better, and you can get as much of them as you want, so I think I will stick to that next time.
With the meat, first up was the jalapeño sausage: I found out why they wanted to cut this for me; it was chewy — like a big ol’ Slim Jim. Flavor wasn’t bad, but it could seriously use some more fat.
Next we had the brisket: Texas BBQ brisket should be tender and pull apart without effort, but hold together to the point you can pick it up with your fingers. Cook it too long, and it breaks into strands like pot roast. I like a good pot roast, and this was a damn fine pot roast, but as barbecue it was lacking.
The fat was well-rendered (if you don’t eat the fat with ’cue, you are missing a big part of the experience), but the rub was a very heavy, salt-pepper blend that overpowered it.
Cooper’s cooks meat over direct heat, with hot mesquite coals. So there’s not much in the way of smoke flavor compared with the low-and-slow method. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this stuff and would probably eat it again. I like all kinds of meat, but this isn’t traditional Texas ’cue, and traditional is what I’m looking for.
On to the pigsicles. These were spare ribs, instead of the more expensive St. Louis-cut that some good-hearted pitmasters provide for their customers. On these, the meat was tough and did not pull away from the bone — and there wasn’t that much meat-per-bone to begin with. The flavor, even after the dunk in the sauce, was bland. Especially given the cost, these were a big disappointment.
So Cooper’s doesn’t hit the Holy Grail mark for me. The beef is good, if not traditional ’cue, but I wasn’t a fan of the ribs and sausage. If I’m in the Stockyards looking for cow flesh, I wouldn’t hesitate to stop in — but we’re still looking for the perfect Texas BBQ joint.
If you know a place that is the ultimate blend of slow-smoked meat, indifferent ’cue slingers, and crumbling infrastructure, we want to hear from you. Tell us on DFW.com, or drop us a note on our Facebook page.