The line outside Heim Barbecue snaked out the door, through the side patio, and down the sidewalk for a solid block or so. As the multitudes sweated and salivated, a Fort Worth Police patrol car cruised slowly by on Magnolia Avenue and its loudspeaker blared to life: "It's worth the wait." A few moments later, the car drove by in the opposite direction and the officer got on the speaker again. "Try the bacon burnt ends. Trust me, I'm a cop. I should know."
He's right: He does know, you should trust him, and you should definitely try the bacon burnt ends. They're a signature item at this spot that's been all the buzz among barbecue hounds since well before its early-August opening. And rightly so. These taste-and-texture bombs, little chunks of pork belly that have been cured, smoked, cut up and then smoked again, are chewy and crunchy and fatty, sticky, smoky, sweet and zippy from their rub of brown sugar spiked with black pepper.
They're the work of pitmaster Travis Heim, who with his wife, Emma, has rapidly progressed from backyard pop-ups to a food truck to this brick-and-mortar joint on the edge of Fort Worth's Fairmount Historic District. And while the menu is still written on butcher paper and taped to the wall in homage to simpler times, this is no barbecue shack. It's a gleaming industrial-chic restaurant with tile and brick walls, wood accents, comfortable booths and tables. The food may come on tin trays covered with that butcher paper, but there's also a bar that serves 40-plus single-malt scotches (including an 18-year-old Macallan at $24 an ounce) along with dozens of other bourbons and whiskeys. There's even a little gift shop in the back that sells barbecue gizmos and T-shirts and such.
"Try the bacon burnt ends. Trust me, I'm a cop. I should know."
The Heims have come up in the world, but the barbecue they're turning out is still the low-and-slow real deal.
You'll have plenty of time to study the brief menu, if not to make up your mind, as you stand in line. (The lunchtime wait can stretch to an hour-plus on busy weekdays. For Heim's first few months, the barbecue typically sold out by early evening, but it recently ramped up to keep serving through dinner.) You'd be crazy not to try the bacon burnt ends as long as you're not having blood work done anytime soon. But the beef rib is also great. A Brobdingnagian hunk of meat and bone typically weighing in at 1.5 to 2 pounds, it's been smoked for eight to 10 hours over oak. The result, which looks like something cavemen would beat each other over the head with, is a heavily barked, smoky, salty and peppery hunk of meat that's pleasantly stringy on the outside and unctuously moist within.
The pork ribs, which like the beef ribs come from Niman Ranch, are also dandy. They get the same sweet-and-peppery rub as the bacon, and the moist, tender meat offers just the right slight resistance to the tooth (despite what the chains might tell you, ribs should never be fall-off-the-bone tender). There's good smoked sausage, too -- a dense, juicy beef-and-pork mixture or a highly spiced version with jalapeno and cheddar. If you're not here for the red meat -- well, you probably shouldn't be here at all, but just in case, there's some barbecued turkey breast that's rather on the bland side.
I've left the most important thing for last. And that's because I'm conflicted about the beef brisket, which is, after all, the ultimate test of a Texas pitmaster. On one visit, Heim's brisket was slide-to-the-floor-and-fan-yourself-until- you-recover delicious; a heavenly amalgam of bark, salt, smoke and fat that was tender, moist and shot through with flavor. On two other visits, though, it was merely very good, with a nice salty-smoky outer ring around some blander, more braised-tasting meat. The inconsistency suggests that Heim is still in something of a shakedown mode as it adjusts to the demands of turning out thousands of pounds of barbecue on its three new Oyler smokers.
All of these meats may be had by the pound, and most can be stuffed into a sandwich or served up in a combo platter along with a couple of the sides. Those include a refreshing red-cabbage coleslaw, a punchy and creamy green chili mac and cheese, and savory pinto beans cooked with smoked brisket fat. And there's one real standout among the sides -- the addictive twice-baked potato salad. You can really taste the bake in the baked potato, along with the sour cream, the chewy flecks of bacon and the cheddar cheese. For dessert, there's the obligatory barbecue-joint banana pudding, which is forgettable.
You order all of this from friendly, efficient folks at a counter and then take a pager to your seat. The wait is mercifully brief, though the one drawback is that you don't get to see your meat being sliced to order, which is one of the visual and olfactory pleasures of barbecue. The staff is uniformly cheerful and helpful. Many are wearing tees that say "Rougned Eats Free"; Travis Heim made something of a splash this spring when he offered Rougned Odor free food for life after the Texas Rangers second baseman slugged the Toronto Blue Jays' José Bautista.
When Heim is at its best, it is one of the best -- so good that it demonstrates the truth of the two statements that are required by Texas state statute to be inserted into everything written about barbecue in North Texas. The first is about how there's some tomato-ish sauce, but that good barbecue doesn't need sauce. Heim's doesn't. The second is the bit about how D-FW, so recently a smoked-meat wasteland, is finally climbing into the upper tier of barbecue towns.
Heim has definitely pushed us up another rung or two. So, yep: Trust your local police.
Heim Barbecue (3 stars)
Price: $$ (sandwiches $10-$13; smoked meats $8.50-$10 per half-pound; combination plates $12-$18; side dishes $3-$4; dessert $3)
Service: Once you get to the ordering counter (after what can be a lengthy wait in line outside) things move along briskly thanks to a friendly and efficient staff. When your food's ready, you collect it on butcher-paper-covered metal trays. The one drawback: You don't get to watch your meat being sliced to order.
Ambience: This is no roadside barbecue dive. The coolly modern dining room has walls of exposed brick and glossy green tile, comfortable tables and booths, and a bustling bar. A nice touch: That bar has a window to the patio so you can while away some of your wait in line with a cold drink.
Noise level: Reasonably low
Location: 1109 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth; 817-882-6970; heimbbq.com
Hours: Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Tuesdays
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, including dozens of single-malt scotches and other whiskeys, a well-chosen selection of a dozen mostly local beers on tap, and a handful of wines by the glass
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50