You know when you go that it probably won’t really be Texas barbecue. You know something won’t be quite right, and even if it is, it won’t be your Texas barbecue. Where you see the smoker outside the restaurant. Where the sauce is just perfect, and the side dishes make your mouth water, and the desserts are cobbler or banana pudding. Where the employees know your “usual” and ask about your family. But you’re hopeful, maybe even a little desperate for something that’s familiar and comfortable.
You immediately decide to forgive them for the sign—almost school-girlish white letters spelling Sweet Cheeks and a shocking, hot pink Q, of which the tail is a curly pig tail. It’s cute, and it’s alright for Boston, but it lacks the rustic grit you associate with the best barbecue. But like I said, you forgive them immediately when you step inside and breathe in: smoked brisket. It smells like home, you think, and you grin like an idiot while they lead you to a long communal table where you’ll sit with your group and with other patrons. They bring you drinks in Mason jars and explain to your cohort that Texas barbecue is a little different. But you know. Better than the waiter does, probably. You admire the wood pile prominently displayed—is that Mesquite? I think it’s Mesquite. You forgive them again for failing to serve Dr. Pepper.
There are bottles of sauce on the table, which you smell and find to be a little too . . . sharp. Too much vinegar? But when you taste it, it’s not bad. Acceptable, even. You order a chopped brisket sandwich with confidence, and potato salad. You can hear a twang, more distinct than usual, in your own voice.
And then you wait. You begin to notice how clean and modern the design is, how city it is. It smells like Texas, but it looks like Boston. They’ve neglected to use barnwood anywhere. There are no antique farm tools. And not a single taxidermied animal or neon sign adorns the walls. It’s bright and airy and nice. And wrong.
But the sandwich comes, and the brisket is as tender and flavorful as any you’ve ever had. The potato salad—made correctly, without mustard—is good enough, but it doesn’t really matter because the brisket is perfect. Good enough to hide the so-so sauce. Good enough to make Texas proud. Too good to stop eating when you’re full, so you stuff yourself. And don’t regret it. And even though you pay nearly twice as much as you would pay for the same sandwich back home, it’s worth it. It’s not a bad price for Boston, anyway.
Then you sit and laugh and have a good time, feeling just a little out of place. Why? You realize gradually that there are no cowboy hats in the place, no Wranglers, and the only pair of cowboy boots are on your own feet. In the aftermath of a delicious meal you begin to feel a little small and alone, just for a minute, because this is not home.
The next day, all you want to eat is that brisket, to have back that moment of feeling close to home even if it would be followed, bittersweet, by a longing for flatland and big sky and blooming wildflowers.