How do you like your barbecue barbecued? Some might think that's a stupid question. After all, isn't it all the same?
In a word, no. There's barbecue and then there's Texas barbecue.
Though the cuisine is probably America's most distinctive, barbecue is so different from region to region. What passes for barbecue in Georgia, North Carolina, Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City is not the same in Texas. I've been lucky enough to have sampled various barbecue places on my visits to the Lone Star state. They just do it differently there.
And that's why we're lucky to have our own Dickey's Barbecue Pit now open in town. It is more fast-food than sit-down service, with an order-at-the-counter system that mimics Chipotle and Jake's Original Tex-Mex Cafe. But the product is so good you won't feel you're ordering down.
The restaurant was established in 1941 by Travis Dickey back in Dallas. Money was so tight, the story goes, that he rented space on the restaurant's sign to help pay startup costs. His sons, Roland and T.D. Jr., took over in 1967 and began expanding and then franchising. Roland Jr. took over in 2006.
What is Texas barbecue?
You have to start with beef brisket. I would say the entire state has an irrational affection for that cut of meat, but I have developed the same attitude, so I get it. Sure, we have our tri-tip and our Santa Maria barbecues, but Texans know that in the right hands, a brisket can be as satisfying as an expensive steak.
Other signs of a Texas barbecue:
* The dominance of meat as the star
* The use of rubs rather than sauce during the cooking process (the sauce interferes with the smoke getting into the fibers of the meat)
* The sauce is thin and tomato-based, not vinegary or, heaven forbid, mustard-based. In fact, I remember reading an essay by Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly magazine (yes, the magazine has one editor just to cover this topic!) who said that smoked meat should be able to stand on its own. Slathering on the sauce, he said, is cheating and usually only done at inauthentic places in big cities.
You get the idea behind Dickey's.
All the meat here is hickory-smoked on the premises, and you can choose from turkey breast, beef brisket, chicken, pulled pork, ham, Polish sausage, pork ribs or spicy cheddar sausage, either on sandwiches, meat plates, baked potatoes, salads or in family packs with a choice of sides from a list of a dozen that includes fried okra, Caesar salad, mac & cheese, baked potato casserole and green beans with bacon.
Naturally the meats are made in advance and stored in a tall warming chest adjacent to the counter, where you order. The large smoker is right behind, usually busy slow-roasting the future meals, but these restaurants do occasionally run out of food before closing time, so you've been warned.
(Back in Texas, there are many mom-and-pop barbecue places that close when they run out.)
There's usually a line, but people wait patiently, especially those who've been here before; they know there is a reward ahead, and the staff is hustling to fill those orders. If you've got children with you, send them over to get a free soft-serve ice cream cone in the corner, as big a Dickey's trademark as the bright yellow drink cups.
We ordered an XL family pack ($47.95) with a choice of three meats (beef brisket, chicken and pulled pork) with three sides (waffle iron fries, fried onion tanglers and jalapeno beans as they were out of barbecued beans). I had to get a half rack of ribs ($12) to try those out.
The food was mostly excellent, except for the rolls, which are bland. But you come here for the smoky meats, which don't disappoint. Reader Dale Barker told me after he visited that it was the best chicken he ever had. I understand his passion for it. It's boneless, skinless chicken breast meat sliced in thin strips. You might expect the brisket to be presented that way, but it's finely chopped, looking a lot like the pulled pork. These three meats are smoked, not sauced, and near the soda machine is a container of the three standard Dickey's sauces, including sweet and spicy. The meats served here have a great balance of smokiness, tenderness and the appropriate meat flavor, which is a difficult feat to pull off. The Dickey's folks have worked decades to find the right formula.
Also good is the smokehouse salad ($7.50) made with Romaine lettuce, cheddar cheese, fried onion strings, chopped beef brisket and ranch dressing. The four baked potatoes with different combinations of meat and cheese stuffings are also worth ordering.
Other things you need to know about Dickey's: The dining area is nothing fancy, just simple wood tables with vinyl cushions. Children under 12 eat free on Sundays (one child's meal with every adult meal, so big families are gonna have to adopt more adults). The meat is weighed as part of the process to assure appropriate portions. Nine beers are available in bottles, but no wine or hard alcohol.
The banner year for barbecue in Bakersfield continues. Options abound.