The search for the best in town: Barbecue edition

The sliced brisket plate from Branding Iron. Photo by Cortney Wood. May 2.

Taylor Morrison

There was a time when students of MSU argued which local burger shack had the best burgers. When the answer came to light, they needed something else to argue about. Politics, environmental issues, racism and sexism were all played out. The dawn of a new argument began, an issue that struck the core of every man, woman and child: What is the best local barbecue place in Wichita Falls?

I have assembled an elite team of food enthusiasts with nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon.

There is Stephen Wright, English senior. Stephen is a veteran barbecue eater. He helped bring peace and clarity to those looking for the best burger in town, and now he is back to do more good. In the field he is loud, lewd, rude and crude, and he is the best damn food eater I’ve ever seen. Picture him as the Deadpool of tasting stuff.

New to the fellowship is Randal Hicks, Wichita Falls native, and all around badass. Randal is our tank in this excursion. What he lacks in wordplay he makes up for in ability to eat things. He is our strong silent member who tackles the really hard questions. Think of a life-sized Care Bear that never smiles.

Also joining us is Addison Thompson, marketing senior. She just happened to be around and hungry at the time this plan was devised. To get a better idea of who we are dealing with, you could compare her to, a brunette Caucasian girl, about 5’5″. Moving on.

Lastly, I’ll be narrating this epic. Taylor Morrison, mass communication junior. Think of the absolutely coolest dude you have ever met, and now think of a normal dude with bad posture. I’m more like the second guy. But I’m alright, I guess. I’m more of an acquired taste, but I know some cool people so, ipso facto… You get it.


The Branding Iron

Our first stop has taken us to The Branding Iron. A classic in Wichita Falls, The Branding Iron is located on the corner of Scott Street and Kell East. It is open 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The building is unassuming: muted yellow bricks wrap around a square structure. Pulling into the parking lot, dust engulfs our car. The gravel parking lot plumes in a cloud of powdered rock from the disturbed sediments under-tire. Approaching the front of the building, there are two doors to choose from. One door on the right, leading to the pick-up counter, and one door on the left leading to the dining room.

Standing at the threshold of the entryway, we are hit with a waft of barbecue glory. The smoke, spice, meat and heat all culminate together to create the most welcoming slap to the face any of us have ever endured. But I digress…
Entering the building, our entourage almost feels a quiver of despair. The walls are adorned with scrap and bits of metal. Ancient and rusted hand-tools, barbed-wire, horse tackle and branding irons collect dust on every available inch of wall space. This décor may be the birthplace of tetanus. The wooden floor boards beneath us appear to be cracking and pulling apart from one another.

We are served in a cafeteria fashion. We pull old plastic trays and assorted cutlery from the end of the ordering line. Slowly, one side step after another, we move closer to the All-American indulgence awaiting us. From behind possibly the dirtiest sneeze guard known to man, we see it. Sitting out on a cutting board, ham, sausage, brisket, turkey and countless other meats glow with an almost angelic aura.

Cue the choir.

Past the meats is a hot bar of serve-yourself sides, a countertop of desserts and a fountain drink machine accompanied by sweet tea spouts. If you are eating barbecue with any drink other than sweet tea, you are clearly not of this land. We understand you are new here and did not know any better. Consider this your warning.

For this troupe, the order consists of a brisket and smoked sausage combo plate. Joining our entrée are two sides near and dear to any true southerners heart, potato salad and macaroni.

I sit across from Stephen. He has joined me on one of these tasting trips before, but that doesn’t change the fact that he looks uneasy as I stare him down during his first bite. I’m looking for any micro-expression that may give me a hint to what he is going to say. Stephen opens his mouth to speak, “its fff-,”“fucking awesome,” I shout a little too loud for a public setting, hoping to beat Stephen to the punch. “It’s fatty,” Stephen corrects me with a chuckle, “I was going to say it’s fatty.”

Brisket is undoubtedly going to have a fat line in it, that’s how it stays so moist and succulent. The next bite seems to be more to Stephens liking, “the smoke on it is awesome, it’s moist, pretty tender, a pretty good brisket.” I stare down Stephen again. He knows I didn’t just pay for his meal for a statement as general as, “a pretty good brisket.”

“The smoke ring penetrates thick into the meat, nearly a quarter of the way through it,” Stephen says. “The bark is not as crisp as I would like, it definitely leaves me wanting more with the texture. Aside from that, the meat is juicy, flavorful, but the temperature is just barely lukewarm.”

This sounds like a fairly mediocre review to me, but there is something in Stephen’s grimace that tells me he’s holding back a major upside. He continues to fork brisket into his mouth.

“What really makes this meat pop is the sauce,” Stephen continues as he moves between his side dishes.

“The meat is very good, very good, but nothing to really write home about. The barbecue sauce though, it’s a total game changer.”

Stephen’s actions may have been louder than his words as he applied seemingly gallons of the condiment to every item on his plate. “It’s good on the brisket, it’s good on the sausage, it’s great on the potato salad, really cuts the creaminess, and it makes the macaroni salad that I personally don’t like, bearable.”

Pre-saucing, the pace of Stephen’s meal was not noteworthy, but a half bottle of barbecue sauce and six minutes later, the plate was wiped clean. That’s not a random number. I pulled out my phone and started timing once I noticed he picked up speed.

After more than a handful of paper towels, Stephen is ready to score his meal.

The Meal: Combo Plate with two sides (potato and macaroni salad)
The Price: $9.75
The Verdict:
Meat Quality: 7 out of 10
Smoke Quality: 7 out of 10
Sauce Quality: 10 out of 10
Sides Quality: 6 out of 10
Overall Value: 9 out of 10

Final Score: 7.8 out of 10

Stephen’s final thoughts:

“The sauce is really what held it together, it was sweet and spicy, thick and smooth. The brisket and sausage were both good, but I preferred the sausage. The potato salad was incredible, 10 out of 10, I had to deduct points for the mac salad though. Who even likes mac salad?”


Prine’s Barbecue

Just mere blocks away from The Branding Iron is the next stop on our barbecue tour, Prine’s. Prine’s Barbecue sits at the corner of Burnett and 13th Street. Prine’s is open 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.
The building is located off the beaten path in numbered streets of downtown Wichita Falls. On three sides there are residential houses, and across the way is an old elementary school that has since been made into apartments. Approaching the restaurant, we notice that it is wrapped in the same pale yellow brick as The Branding Iron. Prine’s is smaller than what you would expect for a barbecue joint, which may be because it’s a carryout only establishment. Outside you can see the old brick pit-smokers that look as though they have been charred for millennia, a aesthetic nice touch for anyone hoping to find true authentic barbecue. We get no smells from the outside; we have apparently missed the morning smoke.

Inside, the small building is more reminiscent of a shabby lakeside gas station than a restaurant. A grocery aisle sits awkwardly to the side with a mismatch of assorted candy and loaves of bread. In front of us is the counter to order from, and a sheet of glass separating us from yet another assortment of sides. To be completely honest, I have already counted this place out in my mind, aside from the pit-smokers visible from the street, this place lacks any charm.

We order our food and stand by, awaiting our order. To even the playing field, we decide to recreate our previous meal. Brisket and sausage paired with potato salad and macaroni salad. At Prine’s, all items are served by the pound, so our order was a quarter pound of each.

After a few minutes of waiting, our order was ready. We took our food, served to us in Styrofoam boxes, out to our vehicle to begin the tasting. I would like to make something very clear; my first impression of Prine’s was so wrong. I could hara-kiri out of sheer embarrassment. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. I know you have a phone. Back to the point, it was good, better than good, but I didn’t gather a group of people and shell out clams to write only my opinion.

It was Randal’s turn to comment. He has a pretty even temperament, but when someone is staring at you with a face covered in barbecue sauce, the giggles can get the better of anyone. Yes, you Randal, like a little girl playing tea party with her imaginary friend Pam. The world knows now. Anyway, once his composure is reclaimed, Randal is less shy about playing food critic.
“The meat, is heavenly” Randal said. He is less shy, I didn’t say he’s a poet.

“The brisket is on the next level, it has a way better bark than Branding Iron. Terrific smoke, it just melts, like, I could drink the brisket.” We all take a moment to talk about how the compliment just ended up sounding gross.

“Personally, I think this brisket blows the last one out of the water. The sausage is about the same, and the sauce isn’t as good, but the cook on the beef makes up for that.”

He isn’t wrong. While still delicious, the sauce at Prine’s is a lot thinner than the sauce at The Branding Iron. It still has the right amount of spice and sweet, nothing bad about it at all, but the sauce just falls a little flat with its low viscosity.

Randal barely slows down to breathe, let alone speak. I know I’ll have to wait for him to finish off the foam container before I get much more feedback. He finishes, sets his plastic fork down, and says, “Ready,” before jumping right back into his critique.

“I kind of feel that I’m in the same boat with Stephen and The Branding Iron macaroni salad. Prine’s mac is edible, but it’s not winning any prizes from me. The potato salad is pretty good, I’ve had better, but I wouldn’t turn this one away. Overall, the brisket wins. Everything else is good, but the brisket wins.”

The Meal: 1/4lbs brisket, 1/4lbs sausage, 1/4lbs potato salad, 1/4lbs macaroni salad
The Price: $10
The Verdict:
Meat Quality: 9 out of 10
Smoke Quality: 9 out of 10
Sauce Quality: 7 out of 10
Sides Quality: 7 out of 10
Overall Value: 9 out of 10

Final Score: 8.2 out of 10

Randal’s final thoughts:

“The brisket wins. Is that long enough? I feel like I’ve already said that. The barbecue was great, the sides were good and the sauce was ‘eh.’ I’ll be coming back, maybe try some other meats, but you cannot lose with the brisket.”


Texas Best BBQ and Burgers

Our final stop has a more convenient location. Near the intersection of Maplewood and Southwest Parkway is a small strip mall that houses Texas Best BBQ and Burgers. There isn’t any reason your everyday shopper would be at this strip mall. There is a specialty bike shop, a custom T-shirt printing shop and a party outlet store. There are more storefronts nearby, but most of them are forgettable. Texas Best BBQ and Burgers is open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Before I get into the long and short of our experience, let me start with this bit of information: I hate the term BBQ. It is barbecue. Barbecue is a word, and an art, and something that should be respected enough to spell out in its full length.

Let’s get back to the point.

We pull up to the lot of Texas Best BBQ and Burgers. Immediately it is different than our other two stops. First off, it is not a stand-alone building. Secondly, the walls are made entirely out of glass. Before entering, I can tell you there is plenty of natural light. Lastly, the décor does not seem out of the 1940s. Andy Griffith did not hangout at a spot like this. Inside the lines of the tables, counters and molding are clean and sharp. By no means is this restaurant modern in design, but by comparison to the previous two, it’s space age.

We are greeted at the counter, and to the right we see a lengthy list of menu options, at least double from where we had just travelled. We see burgers, steak-on-garlic, chicken fried steak and pulled pork. Not only does Texas Best stand out in style, but they also stand out in options. I’m more of a swine man myself, I prefer the pulled pork to the brisket any day, but to maintain fairness we order brisket and sausage, again. Maybe next time pulled pork, maybe next time. We try to pair our meal with sides as similar as possible. Potato salad, yeah, they have that. Macaroni salad, not an option, but what is? Macaroni and cheese! At last, this beautiful noodle has found its rightful mate.

While we wait for our food to arrive, a waitress walks by and offers us deep fried biscuits. Done. I am assured this place is a winner, we can go home knowing we did a thorough job.

Our food arrives quickly. We return to the front to serve ourselves from the sides bar. No one is around to make sure we don’t take more than we have paid for. I assume we ladle out mounds of mac and cheese and potato salad on the honor system; little do they know that all’s fair in food and war. I take an extra half scoop of mac and cheese, don’t judge me.

The time has finally come, it’s Addison’s time at the bat. Have you found that everything is funny when you are put on the spot? That must have been what was happening, because Addison was laughing before I even pulled out my recorder. I don’t judge her, you have to have a sense of humor to get along in the group. She is slowly working on the brisket and mac and cheese. Honestly I get a bit impatient, the rest of us are have nearly emptied plates, while she leisurely picks at her food.

“Get off my back, I like to enjoy my food,” she snaps at me. She’s right, barbecue is life, and everyone has their own journey. Who am I to say what pace she should move at? After several more minutes she has acquired enough information to make an argument.

“The mac and cheese is delicious.” Again, she is right. “I was getting burnout on macaroni salad.”

I think the whole table can agree with the statement.

“I like the meat more than the first place we went, and the mac and cheese. The potato salad and sauce aren’t as good.” Addison is methodic with comparisons. Where the rest of this outfit is composed of artists, she takes the scientific approach.

“The meat isn’t as good as the second place, and the potato salad isn’t as good, but the sauce is better, and they have mac and cheese.” Addison said. “I think the mac and cheese takes the win for all sides of the day, but otherwise this place is second in everything else.”

There is disagreement among this group with the last statement, but everyone is entitled to their opinion.

The Meal: Combo Any Two Meats with two sides (potato salad and macaroni and cheese)
The Price: $8.99
The Verdict:
Meat Quality: 7 out of 10
Smoke Quality: 7 out of 10
Sauce Quality: 6 out of 10
Sides Quality: 8 out of 10
Overall Value: 9 out of 10

Final Score: 7.4 out of 10

Addison’s final thoughts:

“I don’t think Texas Best BBQ and Burgers stacked up against the other two place, but it did offer a few things they lacked, like the mac and cheese, and the fried biscuits. I’d never had fried biscuits before, and I would come back for them. Texas Best isn’t my top pick, but I wouldn’t be opposed to eating it again.”

Just by the numbers, Prine’s is the overall winner of this tasting, but after a group discussion, it was determined that all three restaurants shined in different departments. The Branding Iron had the best sauce, and potato salad. Prine’s had the best meat. And Texas Best BBQ and Burgers had the best, well, the only mac and cheese, and fried biscuits. So don’t be afraid to try all three and choose for yourself.

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