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The Why of ’Cue
Smoked, pulled, rubbed, sauced, and chopped: Pitmasters transform everyday meat into barbecue, a food subculture all its own. These spots are a few of Oklahoma’s best.
By Megan Rossman
Photography by Lori Duckworth
Published March/April 2017
Barbecue. A mouthful of smoky meat—juices running over the tongue and down the chin—evokes a primordial satisfaction that is absolute and holy. Sometimes, just the smell is enough to spark carnivorous lust. Ask Randy Busby’s Jack Russell terrier, Ms. Cookie.
“When we pull up in the parking lot, our dog knows we’re at Smokin’ Joe’s, because she can smell it,” says Busby, who lives not far from the Davis barbecue mecca. “She starts crying, and she doesn’t do that at other restaurants. So we bring her her own brisket when we’re done eating. If I’d let her, she would eat herself sick.”
Approved by both pets and people, Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch and RV Park in Davis is a must-stop for barbecue lovers traveling Interstate 35. In the summer, the restaurant goes through nine to ten thousand pounds of meat per week, feeding at least nine hundred people every day. Ribs and brisket are the most popular entrées, but there are many options to choose from, and they’re all good. Pulled chicken, half chickens, pork tenderloin, pulled pork, bologna, smoked hot wings, and fiery hot links are a few choices that bring in the crowds. The smoked ribeye special, offered Friday and Saturday, imparts more than sixteen ounces of beef with flavor and tenderness so divine, it might bring tears of joy to even the most resolute carnivore’s eyes.
So what makes this place so special?
“We cook it fresh every day,” says Coby Wells, who owns the restaurant with his dad Joe and runs it with his wife Bobbie. “We’re smoking constantly. We babysit it. Everything takes a lot of attention and time.”
Time is key, because barbecue is a waiting game. Briskets generally take ten to twelve hours to smoke; ribs, five to six; and processed meats like hot links and bologna usually take a few hours. “Low and slow” is a crucial mantra for tough cuts like brisket and ribs to retain moisture.
Like most barbecuers, Wells is up before the sun rises, checking his Southern Pride-brand smokers, tending to mesquite or hickory fires with his father—the namesake Joe—and a few other helpers. His average workday is fourteen hours, but despite the intense labor, he and the staff donate their time and food for numerous fundraisers, particularly for local schools, and take an active interest in the well-being of regulars like Busby.
“Coby and Bobbie are amazing,” Busby says. “I think anyone with hearts like theirs could serve dirt, and I would love it. But their food is spectacular.”
Capable of feeding an entire family, the Meat Locker at the Butcher BBQ Stand comes with brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken, smoked sausage, smoked hot links, burnt ends, three sides, dessert, and bread.
Photo by LORI DUCKWORTH
What constitutes barbecue of this caliber often is a subject of heated debate among enthusiasts. Is it the wood? The sauce? The smoker? The pitmaster?
“I’ve been in the industry for so long, I hear people make all sorts of subjective declarations,” says Adam Myers, owner of Burn Co. near downtown Tulsa. “That’s the thing about barbecue: There’s no wrong or right way. It’s just the way you like it.”
If lunch lines stretching out the front door and countless national media mentions are any indication, Myers and his team are doing barbecue the way a lot of people like it. A visit to Burn Co. is a field trip into pyromancy and culinary creativity. Along with staples like pulled pork and brisket, diners can order sandwiches like the Fatty—Polish sausage surrounded by breakfast sausage and chopped hot links and wrapped in bacon—and non-smoked items like hamburgers, steaks, and sausages that include jalapeño cheddar, pork, and venison. Myers and company also will top off a burger with brisket or bologna if a diner so desires.
Myers, who spent twelve years working for Tulsa-based Hasty-Bake and counts its founder Grant Hastings as a mentor, cooks with the staff on eleven Hasty-Bake charcoal grills in an open kitchen, a welcome spectacle for those waiting in line. While fuel sources on most smokers are offset, the firebox on a Hasty-Bake occupies the same space as the meat, which gives the bark a distinct texture. Charcoal, an uncommon fuel at most Oklahoma barbecue restaurants, adds what has become a trademark flavor here.
Clay Norvelle, who lives just four blocks away, has been eating at Burn Co. about once a week since 2014. Dubbed the restaurant’s “official unofficial biographer,” he’s become an honorary member of the team, occasionally tending bar or helping with errands.
“I can sit there for hours and watch people, and everybody looks really happy to be there,” he says. “I’ve seen how much the guys go through, getting up at almost four in the morning and starting the fires by five or five thirty, and they’re doing this all to show the community their craft but also to feed their families. But, really, it’s just a cool place to go.”
Diners come in droves to Burn Co. in Tulsa. Ribs, sausages, macaroni and cheese, grilled potato salad, and the Fatty sandwich are the most popular items.
Photo by LORI DUCKWORTH
Seventy miles down the turnpike, the Butcher BBQ Stand in Wellston has emerged as another one of the state’s coolest barbecue spots. It’s operated by second-generation butcher and third-generation barbecuer Levi Bouska.
“My family owned a custom meat processing plant down the road, so I’ve been throwing meat at grinders since I was old enough to stand on a milk crate,” he says. “It’s all I know how to do.”
On the same lot along Route 66 where his grandparents ran Pioneer Camp BBQ from 1995 until it burned down in 2007, Bouska now operates out of a forty-foot insulated shipping container. Friday through Sunday, under a picnic-style pavilion adorned with string lights, people line up, eager to get their fill. When the weather’s good, Bouska and his crew see upwards of 600 people during Saturday peak hours. On a typical weekend day, they churn out 120 slabs of ribs, 35 briskets, 35 burnt ends, 24 pounds of sausage, 24 pounds of hot links, 40 pounds of chicken, and 120 pounds of pulled pork all smoked to hickory-licked heaven. And they usually sell out of everything. Everyone from travelers, truckers, toddlers, and locals line the benches. Around them, piles of meat amassed on metal trays lined with wax paper are swaddled by sides of creamy macaroni and cheese, barbecue beans mixed with pulled pork and apple pie filling, and a sprinkling of Twinkies.
Terry Mason and his wife Terry have driven from their home in McLoud every weekend since Butcher BBQ opened in May 2015. Mason estimates he spends at least forty dollars a week here, and when guests come in from out of town, he makes lunch plans for them.
“I tell them, ‘If you all want barbecue, I’ll take you where the best is,’” he says. “Levi takes good care of me. It’s the best barbecue I’ve eaten.”
Bouska’s expertise lies in his upbringing. Son of barbecue world champion David Bouska—whose product line is available at the restaurant and in hundreds of stores around the country—Levi honed his meat skills not only in the butcher shop but also on his dad’s barbecue team at competitions around the country.
“I try to make everything perfect,” Levi says. “That’s why I only do this three days a week: It’s how I felt I could keep up the consistency. If I give you a tough rib, that was my one chance. You don’t get second first impressions. I want everything to be how I’d want it to be if I drove this far.”
Giant portions of food are the name of the game at Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch in Davis. Fans farther west can check out the second location now open in Rush Springs.
Photo by LORI DUCKWORTH
A journey often is part of the quest for good barbecue. Like the carpenter’s cup, the unassuming Buffalo’s BBQ trailer in the Daylight Donuts parking lot in Sperry, about twenty minutes north of downtown Tulsa, is a Holy Grail of sorts.
Monday through Friday, owner Donny Teel is parked here, chopping and slicing between phone orders and the steady stream of customers who wait outside the trailer window for brisket, pulled pork, ribs, turkey, hot links, and bologna—or, as Teel calls it, “Oklahoma Tenderloin”—and prime rib on Wednesdays. Although he serves all the typical barbecue meats, he says pork and ribs are what he does best. Crisp, smoky bark holds a tender center that tears gently from the bone. These ribs are a work of art Teel has been perfecting for twenty-two years.
“You don’t want stuff falling off the bone,” he says. “Anyone can cook stuff falling off the bone. All you’ve got to do is overcook it. A perfect rib is when you pick up clean bites at the bone, but the bone stays in the rib.”
A cofounder of the Oklahoma Barbecue Society, Teel boasts a long list of national accolades, including winning the 2004 American Royal World Series of Barbecue—commonly known as the world’s largest barbecue—and the 2005 Jack Daniels BBQ World Champion title. Masters of ’cue don’t even need to mention his name to other Oklahoma barbecuers. When talk turns to Oklahoma greats, others bring him up without prompting.
“If there’s an award to win, he’s won it,” says Levi Bouska. “Buffalo’s BBQ is the best I’ve ever had.”
“People always talk about Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue,” says Buffalo’s BBQ owner Donny Teel. “I look at it as a sandwich. Texas is the bottom side of the bun, and Kansas City is the top side. All the good stuff’s in the middle. That’s us.”
Photo by LORI DUCKWORTH
On the other side of the state, it’s cold and gray in Lawton, but John & Cook’s Real Pit BBQ is warm, cozy, and permeated by the smoky-sweet aroma of the pit in back. It’s well after noon, but a continuous trickle of late lunchers keeps the staff occupied in friendly conversation.
A waiter emerges from the kitchen with plates bearing bright red hot links and mounds of juicy pulled pork. John & Cook’s three sauces, if even necessary, are tangy departures from the norm. And then there are the beans. Cooked in a spicy, mustard-based sauce, these legumes are a serious contender for the best side in Oklahoma. Sweet tea refills come unprompted and with a smile. It’s a combination of good food and attentive service that’s kept the city’s oldest black-owned business running since 1930, when John Weathers started it in his backyard. A few years later, Weathers teamed up with Lamar Cook, and since 2005, Cook’s grandson Lonzo Gaines has been running things. He’s worked in the business since he was sixteen, and it’s still the same John & Cook’s barbecue Lawtonites have grown up loving.
“I have a lot of old customers,” says Gaines. “They were raised up on this food. They brought their kids, and then they brought their grandkids. You take care of your customers, and they’ll take care of you. That’s our bottom line.”
Gaines talks at length about his customers, but when it comes to cooking specifics, like many pitmasters, his methods and recipes are secret.
“You have to know your fire, and you have to know your woods,” he says. “There are a lot of different techniques, and I don’t disclose those.”
He does acknowledge the brick pit oven behind the kitchen is responsible for some of the magic. “If it’s not brick, it’s not a pit,” is the restaurant’s unofficial slogan. While many places use barrel pits for their ’cue, Gaines employs this forty-year-old, well-seasoned tool to give his meat a hit of extra flavor. Between Gaines’ own culinary sorcery and his oven’s, it’s a safe bet John & Cook’s will be casting spells on Lawton residents well into the future.
Debra Ivory co-owns George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q in Oklahoma City.
Photo by LORI DUCKWORTH
Debra Ivory, who’s owned George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q in Oklahoma City with her son Stephen since 2012, doesn’t know why the restaurant’s founder George Thompson named the restaurant what he did, but that doesn’t change one fact about this place: “We got a lot of pig.”
When it began in 2003, George’s was a carry-out restaurant at a filling station at Northeast Tenth Street and Martin Luther King Avenue, but its popularity led Thompson to open the larger current location south of the State Capitol. He died three years later, but his rubs and basic sauce recipe live on in harmony with Debra’s own creations.
“I like my meat flavored to the bone, like George, and I use pecan, the same wood he used,” Debra says. “We smoke that brisket all night, and we smoke the other meats all day long. There’s something going all day.”
Everything else, however, is done Debra’s way. Savory collard greens, beans flecked with brisket, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and a wide variety of desserts like cobblers, cakes, and cookies are satisfying accompaniments to the main course. Politicians intermingle with blue-collar workers over populist fare like rib ends and bologna—and wings on Tuesday and Wednesday—while the staff churns out the goods lunch through dinner, giving the place a feeling of home.
“We call people by their names, and we expect them to come, and they do,” Debra says. “I always wanted a place where you felt at home and you felt the love in the food.”
That love is what it comes down to. With so many variables in technique and fiercely revered institutions to boot—Bad Brad’s, Mac’s, Elmer’s, Albert G’s, Wild Horse, Van’s, Bob’s, Leo’s, Jigg’s, Roy’s, and Ken’s are just a few on a seemingly unending list of Oklahoma favorites—attempts to crown a winner defy barbecue’s democratic backbone. True to this egalitarian appeal, the freedom to choose a favorite place remains among Okies’ inalienable rights, and the choice of how to satisfy this hunger is and always will be in the hands of the people.
Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch is open Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 3165 Jollyville Road in Davis, (580) 369-2818. Burn Co. is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. or until they sell out. 1738 South Boston Avenue in Tulsa, (918) 574-2777 or burnbbq.com. The Butcher BBQ Stand is open Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter and 8 p.m. in summer and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 3402 West State Highway 66 in Wellston, (405) 240-3437 or butcherbbqstand.com. Buffalo’s BBQ is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or until they sell out. 201 North Highway 11 in Sperry, (918) 288-6200 or buffalosbbq.com. John & Cook’s Real Pit BBQ is open Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. 1310 Southwest Twenty-first Street in Lawton, (580) 248-0036. George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 712 Culbertson Drive in Oklahoma City, (405) 525-8111.