You’ve seen those signs outside notable points of interest across the state: the ones put up by the Texas Historical Commission to designate special places of interest.
Well, apparently those honors include some of the tastiest spots in Texas, too. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, joined Texas Standard to share more about longtime barbecue joints that have been recognized by the state.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Has the Texas Historical Commission been honoring barbecue joints all along? How’d I miss this?
Daniel Vaughn: Well, there’s the Texas Treasures program, and it really honors any business that’s been open for over 50 years and continuously operating. So I just felt that, you know, it wasn’t getting enough attention in the barbecue community. And we’ve got so many great barbecue joints that have stood to that half-century mark that I felt like it was time to recognize them all. And the Texas Historical Commission agreed.
So you’ve been working with the Texas Historical Commission looking specifically for barbecue joints that would qualify?
Yeah, I have. You know, I worked pretty closely with them to really kind of lighten the load for some of the barbecue joints who might be unwilling to go through the registration process and turn in all the necessary paperwork. So I did a whole lot of old newspaper research to, you know, to really pinpoint when these places opened. And the Texas Historical Commission helped with some of the paperwork. So the lifting wasn’t so heavy. And when we had our Texas Monthly barbecue festival last year, we had the Texas Historical Commission up there to recognize the new spots – or not-so-new spots – that have made this list.
Dang, man. Doing the legwork. That’s pretty impressive. So you mentioned the 50-year mark – you have to reach 50 years in business before you would qualify as a Texas treasure, is that the way that works?
Yeah, that’s right. So if you’re 1973 or before, right now, then you would meet that criteria.
Let’s talk about some of the standouts among those joints eligible for honors in your article for Texas Monthly. You mentioned Swinging Door Bar-B-Q, Southwest Houston, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right, in Richmond. So, you know, we honored so many of them last year in 2022, that in 2023, I didn’t want to get the new spots that were newly eligible left out. So I talked with Steve Onstad at the Swinging Door down in Richmond. He opened the place in 1973 but almost closed it for good after the whole place burned down a year later.
Wow. Well, good thing he did. And what’s he specialize in – brisket, I presume?
Yeah. He said the brisket’s always been the most popular thing and remains that way. You know, they do a lot of things really well there. But the brisket is where it’s at now.
There’s a northside rival. I understand you write about Burns Original. Tell us more.
Yeah, Burns Original BBQ: It’s a family-run spot originally started by Roy Burns Sr. in 73, but then it was outside of a car wash. He was rolling a pit there every weekend and selling as much barbecue as he could. Finally graduated to a brick-and-mortar location up the road there in North Houston. And the family still runs it today. He passed away several years ago, but his sons still run it.
I love how a lot of these places are family-run and have been for, you know, generations in some cases. What does Burns specialize in?
Well, I mean, it’s the rib sandwich for me. It’s one of those sort of Houston specialties. And you can find it in other places in the state. Sounds like a misnomer, but it is ribs on the bone in between two slices of bread with a bunch of sauce poured over top. Now, you’re not meant to try and bite through it all the way, but you take those ribs out and you sop up any leftover sauce with the white bread that come with it. So that’s one of my favorites there. They’re also known for their massive stuffed potato as well, which could easily feed three.
You know, you think about it, a lot of change in the barbecue industry in the past 50 years. We’ve talked about a lot of that change: shifts in palates, shifts in prices, price increases – you’ve got the real estate prices, which are nothing like what they were 50 years ago – demographic change, of course. What does it say that after 50 years, both of these places have managed to hang on after so many others have come and gone?
Yeah, it really is an amazing accomplishment, I mean, for any business, let alone the restaurant business – and then even beyond that, the barbecue business – to still be at it after 50 years. A lot of it means that, you know, you’ve just got perseverance – and then family dedication to have another generation come in and help out and keep the place going. I think it also just says a lot about the popularity of barbecue, both new and old, and the nostalgia for some of these old-school joints.
Editor’s Note: Since being recognized by the Texas Historical Commission, Swinging Door Bar-B-Q permanently closed last month.