I’ve begun examining Black-owned restaurants with time-honored traditions in D-FW that have one singular focus, and in doing so I have rediscovered my familiarity with what perhaps is one of the South’s greatest exports — not cotton, not rice, but barbecue.
For me, barbecue has always provided an intangible closeness with my family. We may not have been the best communicators, but I don’t think an argument ever continued over a plate of ribs. When words fail us, barbecue — or rather, the act of standing over a pit and watching the fire subside — has been an emotional pull that helps us recount our past.
Mama E’s, located at the intersection of Evans and Rosedale in the historic Terrell Heights area of Fort Worth, holds a very unique place in the world of barbecue enthusiasts. Ernestine Edmond is a female pitmaster. In the male-dominated world of guarding the pits, Edmond is affectionately known as “Mama E” to many, and is holding down her legacy while she simultaneously prepares the next generation to follow in her footsteps.
Mama E is currently teaching her 12-year-old great-granddaughter to one day fill her shoes, much like her own mother taught her. Though popularity evades Ernestine, she is OK with that. She is not as recognizable as legendary (and worthy) woman pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz, but she works every bit as hard.
Even as I’m speaking with her during an impromptu interview, she pauses and signals for me to follow her into the kitchen. I push through the swinging door and pass a chrome prep table full of kitchen equipment, and a stack of white Styrofoam containers. She gingerly slides into a side entrance and I see a massive brick wall with a large built-in pit.
“See this here?” she asks, waving toward her Rembrandt-like masterpiece. “Yes, it’s impressive,” I answer. “This was a walk-in freezer at one time, but it was made into a pit. And here’s my fire box outside.”
She unlocks the heavy back door and escorts me to what appears to be a small hidden side door. Once opened, it reveals a narrow tunnel, about 3 feet deep, that spills into a wide harrowing pit full of fire, embers and fragrant pecan wood that fuels the built-in pit on the opposite side.
The slender “Mama E” performs a well-choreographed dance that begins at the blazing box: She spins to pick up a long iron pole that acts an arm for her to shove the wood deeper into the inferno.
“My mother taught me all about barbecue when I was young, and she was born in 1912, so I can’t say how far back my family’s been doing this,” Edmond says. “I’ve been cooking many years for other people, but I got this restaurant in early 2000s because my husband and one of my daughter’s was in the Army, and my husband said I needed to find something to do with my time because I called him every day worried about our daughter,” she says with a laugh.
“I don’t do this for the money” — her candidness catches me off guard — “I do it because I love what I do, and it makes me happy. I love talking to my customers and seeing them every day.”
Indeed, Mama E’s should be recognized for the evocative emotions that embrace you as you exchange conversations with this non-related but somehow still familial kin, and your eyes dance about her menu of best-selling fried pork chops, traditional old-fashioned teacakes, and, of course, barbecue. I order her pork spare ribs, green beans and potato salad with her sauce on the side. But admittedly, I have a soft spot for her traditional soul food with my beverage of choice, her “red” Kool-Aid (for the culture).
Dr. Howard Conyers, a South Carolina-based rocket scientist and former NASA engineer, is considered by many to be one of the most masterful pitmasters. But he shuns the title, instead preferring “guardian of traditions.”
He enlightened me on his own family’s relationship with barbecue that stretches back generations. He recounted his community’s remarkable continuous legacy of rearing, as he says, “barbecue cooks and enthusiasts who very often prepared whole hogs, a true vestige of authentic Southern BBQ that is rarely done today.”
Conyers himself has cooked all over the South and has personally pit cooked whole animals including hog, goat, lamb and cow.
Conyers, former host of acclaimed PBS series “Nourish,” also encouraged me to read Savage Barbecue: Race, culture, and the invention of America’s first food, by Andrew Warnes. The book traces the historic rise of barbecue culture from what was likely the origins to current opinions about this much debated topic.
Warnes writes a compelling argument that barbecue, as we know it, was not a revered native practice passed down, but rather the misinterpretation of what Europeans defined as barbaric customs of preparing food.
Enslaved men and women indeed perfected much of what we love about barbecue today. Of course, contributions from other races melded together, but the labor and intelligence required to perfectly cook and coordinate feeding a mass amount of people at social gatherings, political events or family picnics, we owe to the ingenuity of Black labor.
Even the no-frills aesthetic that we attach to the modern barbecue culture — the gritty decor, sauce on fingers, plastic forks — was born of necessity. It pays homage to the Black barbecue “shacks” of yesteryear that dotted old dirt roads, whose only advertisement was word of mouth and rudimentary handwritten signs beckoning for hungry onlookers — regardless of color — to stop and eat.
Also, what has not been quantified are the number of Black pitmasters who did not have brick and mortar establishments, but sold some of the most sumptuous barbecued foods out of their own homes nonetheless.
Patrick “Jube” Joubert of Jube’s Smokehouse, in Fort Worth’s historic Stop 6 neighborhood, is one. This Louisiana native calls himself a “smokesman” instead of a pitmaster because he likes to set himself apart from the crowd.
Jube used to fire up the pit in his backyard before he had a building, and customers would stop by his front porch and order, he says. One day, his neighbor, fed up with seeing strangers come and go, called the police on the budding entrepreneur, but Jube says that when the officers showed up, they smelled the meat and instead ordered food to-go for themselves and others back at the station. Later that day, Jube offered a peace offering to the frustrated neighbor by hand delivering a rack of ribs to her. Those same officers, and even the neighbor, are still customers to this day.
Indeed, several Black pitmasters that I’ve visited with recently may not have a long history of operating restaurants, but they do all share a pedigree. They each are able to trace their passion back to the early 1900s, and some further. Barbecue has been something that they have learned about and shared with their grandparents. They’ve bonded over secret sauces and passing down recipes orally.
Conyers is currently a mentor in the Kingsford Preserve the Pit program, which helps highlight the 350 years of significant contributions Black people have made to American barbecue. Another fellow recently accepted into the program is Dallas pitmaster Kris Manning of Smokey Joe’s BBQ. The restaurant was established in 1985 by an extraordinary pitmaster named Joe Melton, who Manning credits as teaching him the customs, and his father, Kenneth Manning, who was an investor.
Manning, like Mama E, doesn’t fit the pitmaster stereotype. He’s young, fit and unpretentious, with none of the bravado we’ve come to expect from our Texas culture. He purchased the restaurant from his father right after graduating college, and has been learning and perfecting the craft for just under a decade.
12 D-FW Black-owned barbecue spots
Baby Back Shak: Holding court in the Cedars neighborhood of Dallas, owner Clarence Cohens’ journey began in Tennessee and ends in the Big D. Today he proudly serves what he says is a blend between Dallas and Memphis barbecue. They make their own seasonings and hand rub their specialty coating over their slow-cooked wood fired ribs, briskets and chicken. 1800 S. Akard St, Dallas. babybackshak.com.
Hardeman’s Bar B Que: It’s hard to believe, but this barbecue empire is an anomaly for any restaurant, let alone a Black-owned establishment, which can be more difficult to stay in business due to a number of reasons. Hardeman’s opened in 1948, reportedly making this the oldest continuously operating Black-owned restaurant in Dallas. On Tuesdays you can grab lunch (an entrée, two sides and a slice of cornbread) for $11. Their menu is extensive and also offers soul food classics like oxtails, pig feet and chitterlings. Three locations, each run by direct descendants of the founder, Chester Field Hardeman. 6931 Scyene Road; 618 S. Westmoreland Road; 2425 W. Kiest Blvd. hardemansque.com.
Jack’s BBQ and Home Cooking: Located a bit further out off Sycamore School Road, the strip mall restaurant is worth the drive. The pork rib plate is succulent with a hint of smokiness. The heavy to-go box barely contained the ribs, cabbage and macaroni and cheese that I selected on a quiet Friday afternoon. 3515 Sycamore School Road, Suite 138, Fort Worth. On Facebook.
Jube’s Smokehouse: Patrick “Jube” Joubert, born and raised in Louisiana, now resides in Fort Worth’s Stop 6 neighborhood. It’s worth a visit alone just to hear Jube, a retired pastor, educate you on the history of the building and the long line of pitmasters who’ve called the small building home to their barbecue. His unique sausage is made in Alabama and blends complex flavors of garlic and onion with a shy hint of sweetness from apple. Jube’s current “congregation” consists of regular customers who consider it a blessing to come back again and again for his brisket and ribs. 1900 South Edgewood Terrace Fort Worth. jubes-smokehouse.com.
Mama E’s BBQ and Home Cooking: Ernestine Edmond is well known in her beloved Evans and Rosedale neighborhood in Fort Worth. It opened in 2006, offering tasty down-home foods. Mama E, 68, is a proud pitmaster carrying on the legacy of woman-led barbecue in her family. She even makes her recipe for classic teacakes, which aren’t as easy to find as they once were. 818 E. Rosedale St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3322.
Meshack’s BBQ Shack: This family-owned operation is known for its traditional fare and is considered a Dallas-area classic. It opened in 1978, but the founder’s daughter Donna and son-in-law, Travis Mayes, reopened it in 2009 at the present-day Garland location. The building is exactly what you want in a barbecue establishment: small, unfussy and unpretentious. The writing is on the wall — literally — and advertises the rotating menu with pride. Be prepared to wait in line with their regulars. 240 E. Avenue B, Garland. 214-227-4748.
Willie Meshack’s BBQ: A different side of the Meshack family is going their own way with their new restaurant in Plano. Willie Meshack Jr.’s place offers prime brisket, jerk chicken, pork and beef ribs, and jerk-spiced pulled pork alongside Trinidadian-inspired sides made by his wife Roberta Plaza. 200 Coit Road, Suite 112, Plano. 972-905-5424.
Record’s BBQ: Matriarch Barbara Record helped open this iconic Oak Cliff restaurant with her husband Albert 53 years ago. Attractive prices, stuffed barbecue baked potatoes, turkey legs (when available), and outstanding banana pudding are what some of the customers rave about. 2405 Lancaster Road. On Facebook.
Smoke-A-Holics BBQ: This award-winning joint that’s also made Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list is run by Derrick Walker and wife Kesha. The small building is hard to miss when you see the lines wrapped around the street. They open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. until often sold out. Tuesdays are reserved for their mammoth sized turkey leg meals, and the barbecue is on the menu the remainder of the week. 1417 Evans Ave., Fort Worth. smoke-a-holicsbbq.com.
Smokey Joe’s: This Dallas spot in Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list was opened in 1985 by Joe Melton and Kenneth Manning. Manning’s son Kris is now the visionary who’s made updates to the menu repeatedly. After learning the craft from Joe, he studies relentlessly. Not only will you get an attractive plate that is IG worthy, but it will be some of the most tender and flavorful ribs you’ve ever tasted. Also impressive are his sides and desserts. 6403 S. RL Thornton Fwy., Dallas. smokeyjoesbbqdallas.com.
Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que and Home Cooking: Not to be confused with Smokey Joe’s, this restaurant is a local favorite and promises “good meats, good sides and good vibes.” Brothers Brent and Juan Reaves manage the family-owned restaurant that has been operating 46 years since their father “Smokey” John Reaves founded the restaurant in 1976. They proudly “nourish the community through the joy of food, the strength of faith, and the spirit of family.” 1820 W. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. smokeyjohns.com.
Winner’s Smokehouse: Former footballer and owner De’Andre Jackson claims to be “smoking the competition” since they opened in 2019. After a torn ACL injury left his promising football career in jeopardy, Jackson decided to reclaim his roots in a barbecue dynasty that began with his father Darryl. After two attempts at operating a restaurant with family, De’Andre decided to go at it alone in 2019 and opened Winners. His dry rubbed Texas-style ribs are all the talk. 1435 N. Highway 67, Suite 200, Cedar Hill. winnerssmokehouse.com.