Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, April 18, 2002
Bottomless Pit

Sixty-year-old Dickey’s Barbecue Pit keeps churning out the hits.


Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

5530 S Cooper, Arlington. 817-468-0898.

Sun-Thu 11am- 9pm; Fri-Sat 11am-10pm. Opening Apr 30: 1801 Ballpark Way, Arlington.

Since the newest location is still being finished, we visited the oldest Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, which was built in 1951 on the site of the original restaurant on Central Expressway (Highway 75) in Dallas. It’s a folksy, homey restaurant, hung with cowboy art — not that décor equals good barbecue, but it does help set the appropriate mood. What we found there, from the menu, provided a pretty solid explanation for the Pit’s continued success.

Since the Pit’s creation, there have been a few menu additions to the barbecue triumvirate of brisket, ribs, and poultry. Roland Dickey, who runs the business with his brother T.D., says they’ve added more vegetables, free soft-serve ice cream, and some new meats like pork shoulder; but overall, Roland says, they “keep the same recipes for the stuff.” That means the brisket is cooked with the same spice rub that his father, restaurant founder Travis Dickey, perfected.

Each barbecue joint has its own idiosyncrasies. Roland points to a few areas in which Dickey’s is unique. He says that side dishes are made fresh at each location, and that the brisket is closely trimmed of fat. Meats are also smoked at each location. “The only locations that won’t let us burn wood are at DFW Airport,” Roland says. The meat for the airport locations is trucked in each morning.

But to keep the business going after their father died in 1967, Roland and T.D. had to find a way to create barbecue more cost-effectively, without cooking meat for less time or sacrificing quality. The brothers patented a huge (7 by 10 feet) hickory-burning smoker that smokes food under pressure. “Hickory has a lower burn point, so it burns longer,” Roland says. “We use the same wood smoke and cook the meats overnight, but the process is more efficient than in the old days.” They get the same results that their father did but use less wood, which Roland says is more expensive now than in his father’s day.

The next step to profitability was franchising, which is Roland’s half of the business. Dickey’s began franchising five years ago by partnering with Host Marriott. Roland sees the hotel as being responsible for the restaurant’s national expansion. Dickey’s now has 42 locations, six out of state and 31 in Texas, with five more on the way.

One thing explains the expansion into Tarrant County: demand. The Arlington location on Cooper, Roland says, is the highest-volume unit in the chain. On a recent rainy Saturday, I had my first meal at Dickey’s. How a barbecue freak like me missed Dickey’s for all of the ten years I’ve been in Texas comes down to location; there isn’t a Dickey’s near me, and I’m kinda partial to neighborhood joints. I love Angelo’s on White Settlement Road and Clark’s Outpost in Tioga, but a serious barbecue jones will send me to the Sonny Bryan’s location closest to my home.

Dickey’s was out of pork loin, so we tried brisket, ribs, turkey, chicken, and hot links. The turkey was tender and as succulent as strip steak. It tasted as though it may have been soaked in a brine solution — although Roland insists that he uses only a spice rub.

The brisket was so neatly trimmed that the smoke ring could be cut away with the excess fat. Of all the meats we tried, only the brisket was good rather than outstanding. It had a rich, beefy taste, like consommé without the salt. It tasted more like tender roast beef than brisket straight from the smoker.

The pork ribs, Roland’s favorite, were wonderful. They were meaty and smoky without being soft from steaming. Solid bone and soft meat is not as easy as it seems. At another joint, I once bit right through an inch-thick rib bone that was softened from countless hours in a steam-holding area. It put me off ribs for a year.

The hot links, the favorite of brother T. D., rocked. Pure and simple. The bright maroon slices were packed with spice and salt and all the things that make sausage delightful. Each bite brought a tempered surge of flavor that leaned closer to pepperoni than bratwurst.

And Dickey’s chicken breasts have a sweet, smoky flavor that can tend toward dryness. Perfect for a sandwich, but not so swell for finger food.

Sides at Dickey’s are self-served from a long steam table with the requisite sneeze guard. The sides are typical to barbecue restaurants: potato salad, cole slaw, black-eyed peas, and other legumes. We tried the coleslaw, potato salad with green beans, and baked-potato casserole. The ’slaw was cut rough, and offered a blast of sweet and sour flavors. The sides I liked most were the green beans with new potatoes and ham and the baked-potato casserole studded with scallion and bacon and topped with cheddar cheese. The beans provided a textural counterpoint to the meats and were dynamically flavored with essence of ham. The new potatoes soaked up the salty ham stock and held the salt content of the whole dish at tolerable levels. The casserole was the best part of a baked potato: soft potato and fillings, without the potato-skin shell.

Roland admits that there isn’t a lot of difference between his product and, say, Sonny Bryan’s. Both use quality meats, and both have signature sauces and rubs. Choosing one place over the other probably becomes a question of location — and whose sauce is better. Dickey’s regular sauce is sweet and vinegary, and the spicy sauce has a jaunty kick of heat. If it’s not as good as Sonny Bryan’s, well, then it’s damn near the next best thing.

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