“Good barbecue is never too far away,” is an old saw favored by veteran barbecue fans. OK, I’ll come clean, I made that up — but it’s true. A little road trip is a small price to pay for good brisket. That’s the theory I developed a few months back when Texas Monthly cited the Tender Smokehouse in Celina as having some of the best brisket in North Texas. That was good enough for me, and so recently I hit the road south and met a friend in Bobcat country to give it a try.
Just off the square in Celina, the restaurant is in a re-purposed Freezette soft serve ice cream stand, but save for the sign over the front door, you wouldn’t know it. The meats, brisket, pulled pork, sausage, turkey breast and ribs are priced by weight and are a la carte. The sides, beans, potato salad and pineapple slaw, are extra. They also offer regular sandwiches: a monster sandwich called an El Jefe, which has brisket, pork, sausage and a rib, and two big potatoes, a russet or a sweet potato, topped with barbecue. Lined up on the front counter is a display of the Dublin Texas Sodas, craft soft drinks from the old Dr Pepper bottling works in Dublin that are sweetened with Imperial Cane Sugar.
After a look around, I ordered a quarter-pound of brisket and some potato salad. My friend, who has considerable experience in the barbecue business, went for the El Jefe and beans. The orders, delivered on one-eighth aluminum sheet pans, came with a slice of Texas toast, a couple of slices of bread and butter pickles and some sliced onions. The Smokehouse serves their meats without sauce, a good sign that they believe the meat doesn’t really need it. Certainly the brisket had more than enough flavor to stand alone.
When I ordered, they asked if I wanted my brisket from the fat or lean part of the cut. Take the fat; fat absorbs the smoke and carries the flavor, and lean, drier brisket does benefit from a sauce. That said, their sauce — only one — was quite good; it was on the sweet side, but had a little bit of heat and tang from vinegar. It would go very well with a pork sandwich.
My lunch was basic barbecue, meat and a little bread, and really, that’s all you need. The potato salad was smooth and cool, and while I like mine a little sweeter, it was a good side with the beef. I got a bite of the rib — tender, but not much smoke — the pork, like all pork it benefits from a sauce, and a couple of slices of sausage. Nothing special there, but tasty. The beans were a winner. Basically baked beans with “stuff” added would be my choice next time around.
They had three dessert choices, store-bought fried pies, banana pudding and lemonade pudding. I went for the lemon. It was an airy lemon mousse with a slice of lime on top and graham cracker crumbs on the bottom. It was OK, but not lemony enough for my taste. I like lemon desserts lip-puckering tart. When we were finished, my friend, who as I said, has a barbecue business of his own, got a sandwich to take home.
Texas Monthly, the same outfit that listed OOs Barbecue in Sherman for a couple of years after it went out of business, got it right this time. Tender Smokehouse is turning out some of the best brisket I have had north of the Hill Country, and the quick trip down US 289 to Celina is well worth the drive.
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