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Cover Story - Posted October 26, 2012 noon
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photos by Shannon Richardson

Pitmasters

Locally owned joints are saving grace for true Texas ’cue lovers

In the Lone Star State, barbecue is sacred. An age-old method passed down through the centuries, this cooking technique that’s evolved from civilizations past has emerged as a revered practice tweaked, tested and perfected over time. For devoted followers, eating true Texas barbecue is a treasured tradition, and for those who have never had the pleasure of tasting it, well, some would testify that first bite is nothing short of heavenly.

Over the past few months, we’ve conducted a reader poll on your favorite, locally owned barbecue joints in Amarillo, and here are the results! Ribs, brisket, beef, pork, sausage and traditional sides were the categories, and three restaurants came out on top – and let us tell you, they know what they’re doing. This is homemade, from-scratch fare, with everything sliced and diced on site. It’s what these pitmasters call the hard way, but, alas, they’ve learned it’s the best way.

Before you loosen your belts, stock up on wet naps and go on a barbecue binging spree, save room to sample our staff picks as well! They’re definitely worth a pit stop.


Tyler's Barbeque


Winner of Best Barbecue Joint, Best Ribs, Best Brisket, and Best Flavor

Every so often, between the hours of 7:30 and 8 p.m., a brown paper sign scribbled in black permanent marker with the words, “SOLD OUT,” is taped to the interior of the southfacing drive-thru window of Tyler’s Barbeque. Upon its opening two-and-half-years-ago, customers questioned the dignity of owner Tyler Frazer’s homemade sign.

It was a statement people were not familiar with, Tyler says, but once they realized he served everything fresh, that no day-old scraps sat overnight under a heat lamp and were nuked in the microwave the next morning, that a freezer was an unwelcome guest, they came back. If there are leftovers from the day, they don’t go to waste; Tyler’s delivers them to the Presbyterian Home for Children that night.

“The beans start out as a 50-pound bag of beans. The potato salad starts out as a box of potatoes and vegetables,” he says, adjusting the sleeves of his denim shirt. “We do everything the hard way… I buy the highest quality ribs I can get, and we trim them at Tyler’s and then mix our own rub.” When asked if he will reveal the 16 ingredients of his rub, Tyler facetiously remarks, “Sure. Salt, pepper, sugar,” with a wry smirk.

The cabbage for the coleslaw and the potatoes for the potato salad are sliced in the kitchen. The cobblers are made from scratch. The green chile stew on cold days and the prized, Thursday special of macaroni and cheese just might disappear before you can decide if you want the pasta with or without green chiles. We suggest arriving at 11 a.m. on the dot if you want a scoop.

Before converting the nautical-themed Long John Silver’s into a charming, barbecue diner bedecked with cowboy boots, hats and rusted license plates, Tyler moved from his hometown of Amarillo to work with the Ultimate Smoker and Grill, the world’s largest transportable smoker. His first summer working for the Grill, he cooked 60,000 pieces of chicken. During the Big 12 Tour, he cooked so many hot dogs that he stopped counting at 450,000. At the Grill, he cooked with an all-wood fire, a method he took to Tyler’s Barbeque, where he only uses mesquite.

He announced when he took the job at the Grill that he would spend five years there before returning to his roots and developing a straight-forward menu of Texas barbecue staples reminiscent of the Hill Country. He thought Amarillo people needed, and deserved, an old-school place that made everything from scratch.

“I tried to come up with a simple menu,” he says as a flurry of eager customers line up around the counter in the background. “I don’t have anything fried. I don’t use any butter on the bread. It’s real simple, but I think it’s pretty successful in a lot of places. That’s kind of what I was drawn from, is the smaller places that are really successful.”

Tyler had more than knowledge and professional experience under his black Stetson before he opened the doors of the modest, yet charismatic red building. He remembers accompanying his father to Van Dyke’s on Sixth and Gary’s BBQ on Western. His schoolboy memories as a third-grade student at Coronado Elementary School and walking to Doug’s Hickory Pit-Bar-B-Que, which was adjacent to the playground, saturated him with a fondness for the rich fare.

“[Gary’s BBQ’s] potato salad was the best,” Tyler asserts. “I know how to make it, but Gary spent 40 years in the business to build his stuff, and I want all my stuff to be different.”

As Tyler contemplates how best to articulately describe his pork ribs, one of his regulars answers for him: “Put down, They’re larapin’! They’re larapin’ good,” he hollers, licking his lips as he steadies his paper plate, weighed down with ribs and a chopped beef sandwich.

“I try to do the best possible quality every time,” Tyler adds, as he nods at the man in gratitude for his kind words. “It goes back to making everything fresh. They’re tender and moist with just enough seasoning where you can still taste the pork, and they’re not sticky wet with sugar. And a little bit of tangy spice.”

Tyler doesn’t serve meat doused with sauce. In his opinion, that should be the customer’s choice. He says it’s a way for some barbecue places to cover up their mistakes, and Tyler will tell you himself, he doesn’t have anything to hide.

“I actually don’t have any sauce in the back because of that,” he announces as he pauses to check on a customer’s meal. “It’s a pet peeve of mine when somebody dumps a bunch of sauce on the meat, and I really want to taste the quality of the meat before I put the sauce on there. People, they vary so much in what they like in sauce, and sometimes I think it takes away from it.”

Tyler concedes he didn’t see himself doing this – and nobody in the barbecue restaurant will deny how much work it is – but he always knew he wanted to stay in Amarillo. He’s hooked on this city, and his job, and he makes sure to let people know that every single day on Facebook and Twitter, sounding off on each post and Tweet with “I love my job.”

Tyler has only taken four days off since opening the restaurant in May of 2010, and although he no longer works 18-hour days, you can bet he’s usually on Paramount Boulevard, whether it’s wiping the perspiration from his brow in front of the smoking pit or catering to patrons, loyal and new.

“And that’s OK,” he says, as he thanks satisfied lunch-goers departing with full bellies. “You have to love it; you have to have a love for it.”


Crazy Larry's Bar-B-Que


Winner of Best Chopped Beef

Make it a moose. A moose Frito pie, that is. Why is it called the moose you ask? Even Crazy Larry himself doesn’t know the answer to that perennial question. “I didn’t name it that. The people came in here and they did that,” he explains. “I don’t name my food.” But he can tell you what it is.

“It’s a layer of chips, chopped beef chili, cheese and sauce, beans,” says Larry McDowell, nodding his head as he announces each ingredient. “It’s an addiction. It’s made with a lot of love.”

Larry owns Crazy Larry’s Bar-B-Que with his wife of 31 years, Jennifer. Everything they make is from scratch, produced right on the grounds of the restaurant.

The freshness is detectable in every dish. The melt-in-your-mouth brisket on the airy Snowhite buns may bring a tear to your eye; the beans sprinkled with just the right amount of chili powder give it an unrivaled jolt of flavor; and don’t be ashamed to scrape the bowl of peach, cherry and apple cobblers topped with vanilla ice cream, recipes courtesy of Larry’s mother.

“Everything is good,” Larry guarantees, “We do it the best way. From the homemade cobblers we make to the ribs to the turkey – whatever pleases the people. And Amarillo people know good barbecue.”

Crazy Larry’s isn’t just Texas barbecue; it’s fine Texas barbecue, he corrects. “Texas people don’t have drawl any more. We’ve lost our accents, so we’re fine Texas barbecue now,” he teases, the accent on his “i’s” notably stalwart.

If you’re curious about the atypical name of the restaurant, there’s a story behind it. A former professional water skier, Larry’s renowned for his “crazy” stunts. He performs tricks on his motorbike, and he used to ride bulls, but his risk-taking far exceeds sports.

Larry was set on opening his own barbecue place, and after years of working in construction, he was ready to ditch the cold weather for a hot kitchen. On her birthday, Jennifer hopped on the back of Larry’s motorcycle and arrived at an unoccupied Taco Villa on Teckla. He asked her, “How do you like this building?” She replied, “It’s fine.”

“Good, because it’s our new barbecue place!” Larry exclaimed. Jennifer left her job of 20 years at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company to support her husband in his endeavors, and the way she took on their new business surprised Larry, he says.

“She never wanted to do this. I chose this,” he states. “This was none of her doing. I didn’t even think she would work here. But she does everything. She’s a bad boy. Excuse me, a bad girl. She’s tough.”

Open for 14 years, Crazy Larry’s has undergone many a change. During its first year, a customer brought in a letter complaining that the chopped beef tasted like cardboard. Larry didn’t argue; he strived to make it the best chopped beef around, and apparently, he succeeded. He and Jennifer took on new angles for the smoke, mix and grind and came out with the product they proudly serve today. Experience, he says, is the best teacher.

“I wish I would have framed [the letter] because it made us change everything we did,” he declares, his hands fluttering about. “We had to. The fact that we have the best chopped beef now in the magazine and somebody said it tasted like cardboard… You got to listen to the customers. They ain’t always right, but they can influence what you do in a big way.”

All day long, Larry scuttles about the restaurant, carrying trays of good eats to his customers, always allotting enough time to rest a hand on their shoulders and ask them about their days. Jennifer, on the other hand, doesn’t take a moment’s rest in the kitchen, from six in the morning until three in the afternoon.

She uses nothing but hickory wood in the pit, which Larry designed and welded himself in two weeks. It gives the meat a sweet taste, a nice aroma and good smoke ring, Larry describes, and he claims it to be the best wood for barbecuing.

For the brisket, they shuck all the vein and fat from the meat. They then strip it, grind it and mix it with their homemade sauce, “top secret information,” Larry says, cracking a smile. They smoke six cases of beef daily, the equivalent of 480 pounds, and make 200 pounds of potato salad a week.

Over the years, the menu has seen several additions. When Crazy Larry’s first started, they only offered beef plates and Frio pie, which is still the No. 1 seller. At a customer’s request, Larry began serving turkey legs, but eventually took it off the menu because he was the only one eating it. A woman from Alabama came in about four years ago and suggested he serve pork, and he has ever since.

It’s not just serving fresh, homemade barbecue that is the mission of Crazy Larry’s. Larry and Jennifer strive to provide friendly customer service and a welcoming, Christian atmosphere at their second home.

“I’m not a preacher, but I’m a believer,” Larry declares, “And I think that takes you a long way in life – good customer service.”

“The most enjoyable part of it all is meeting the Amarillo people,” Jennifer continues. “You really don’t know who’s here until you open up your own business. They know you. That’s the most exciting part.”


Dyer's Bar-B-Que


Winner of Best Pork, Best Sausage and Hot Links, Best Beans, and Best Potato Salad and Coleslaw

If you were born after 1967 in these parts, chances are you’re acquainted with the name Dyer. If you’re not, don’t worry, you’re still just as welcome to sit down and partake in the Dyer family’s famous barbecue. The four-generation deep business was born in December 1967 on Highway 60 in Pampa, where a red, farm-like, pitched roofed sign painted with the words Dyer's Bar-B-Que Served Family Style” beckons locals and passersby to drop in for a taste. For the first five years, everything, from the cooking to the cleaning, was done by Finace and Neva Dyer, and their son, Roy.

“It was a long time before we let anybody touch it,” says Roy Dyer, the patriarch of the Dyer clan.

The 2,400 square-foot building seated 100 back then. Today, the Dyer’s empire has grown, nestling another location near I-40 and Georgia in Amarillo after the Pampa oil boom. That was in 1984. Roy has since passed the family legacy down to his son, Brent, who runs the Pampa location with his wife, Kim. Brent’s son, Nick, runs the kitchen in Amarillo.

“Nick’s ribs beat Roy’s ribs now,” cracks Roy’s wife, Christy. “He doesn’t like to hear that. Nick is a better cook now than what Roy was at his age. It just ensures us that we’re going to have 30 more years of good ribs. And he has the same passion that Roy has for the restaurant, just not as grumpy.”

Roy’s retort: “Give him 40 years!” For Nick, it’s important to keep the Dyer name associated with good Texas barbecue, he says, and in order for the business to maintain its reputation in years to come, that person needs to be someone who cares about what Dyer’s means.

“It takes time to learn,” says Nick, the father of two girls, ages 5 and 1. “I knew from as soon as I was old enough what I wanted to do. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do: Dyer’s. And keep Dyer’s run by somebody with the last name Dyer.”

At Dyer’s, upholding a family tradition is vital; but it’s more than a family legacy they are bequesting; it’s also a legacy of quality, family-style cooking and good service that’s synonymous with the Texas Panhandle. As Christy puts it, “Dyer’s has become a part of the community and the community’s become a part of us, both in Pampa and in Amarillo.” The restaurant supports local organizations such as the Special Olympics and America Supports You Texas.

“We just try and give back to the community because it means so much to us,” she says.

Roy thinks back to when he was a boy, his barbecue memories forming a gruff, yet serene smirk on his face. The food and business possibilities intrigued young Roy and his parents.

“We got hungry so that’s why we [opened a barbecue place]. To make a living,” he says, clutching the handle of his red mug of black coffee. “My mother’s sister had a place in Pampa called Harvester BBQ,” spelling the name letter by letter. “The other one had been successful, and it’s something I had wanted to do since I was 12 years old. There used to be a place in Borger, called Sutphen’s BBQ – don’t ask me how to spell that – and I ate there when I was a kid and I was always fascinated with it.”

The conversation rouses Roy’s remembrance of the Pampa barbecue diner. The railroad track was on the other side of the road, and sometimes when the trains would stop and the crews would cross the tracks to eat barbecue, an SPS (Southwestern Public Service) helicopter would land behind Dyer’s, and they’d have to feed them all at the same time.

It’s easier these days to feed a crowd of barbecue seekers. The specially designed flat pit in the Amarillo location, constructed for its first year of business, and rotisserie smoker sit side-by-side, cooking and smoking the award-winning meat just the way customers like it.

Although Texas barbecue is known for its beef, Dyer’s best-selling meat is pork. They use hickory and oak wood to give the meat a rich, natural taste. Everything at Dyer’s is homemade, and has been since 1967. The recipes are straight from the family, and have been developed over the past 55 years, says Roy, or shall we say, Pitmaster, as one reporter christened him. Store-bought potato salad, defrosted coleslaw, rubs you can find on the shelf at the supermarket, are not on the menu here.

On Wednesday, the all-you-cat-eat catfish is American-raised, straight from the Mississippi Delta. Dyer’s only serves the best, the family says, and they have the traditional, smoky beans, crisp coleslaw and juicy, tender meat to back up that affirmation.

“That’s one of the things that I like about this restaurant, and the way Roy and his father and his mother started it, is everything is made from scratch,” Christy heralds, as she keeps a watchful eye on the spacious restaurant. “There is nothing that’s premade, from the potato salad to the coleslaw; our beans, our ribs, our rubs, our spices, our sauce – everything is made from scratch. And you can tell the difference. Out there, it’s all chains and their kiosks… We have the process from start to finish.”

To see our barbecue staff picks and more mouthwatering photos, click here!

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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