It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday. After a health scare and close bout with COVID-19, my husband and I found ourselves staying with family in Fort Worth — around four hours from our home in Houston. Texas Monthly’s anticipated barbecue list had just come out, and at the top of the list was Goldee’s Bar-B-Q, a relatively new spot opened by five 20-somethings just up the road. What better way to cement our newfound freedom than to enjoy some top-notch barbecue while we were there?
“Let’s go,” I said excitedly, but my husband, a native Texan, looked at me like I had two heads.
“Now?” he said, looking at the time.
We’d be waiting in line for hours, he explained. There’d be no guarantee that we’d get barbecue if we arrived so late. Plus, it was cold, and we needed lawn chairs to wait in line.
Lawn chairs? This was getting ridiculous, I thought. A quick trip to get some brisket was turning into a full-blown project, but we needed a game plan, he said. Waiting for barbecue — especially a top-rated place — takes planning.
So, that night, I set my alarm, and on a frigid Sunday morning in Fort Worth, we packed our Snuggies and the lawn chairs, too, and headed for Goldee’s — two whole hours before it opened. Upon arriving, there was already a line, and an open Yeti cooler full of cans of Goldee’s golden ale welcomed those waiting, braving the chilly weather for a taste of 2021’s No. 1 Texas barbecue.
For some Texans, waiting in line for barbecue is a nuisance — a tradition they’re willing to avoid by forgoing a visit for weeks, or even months, until the lines die down. But for others, the act of waiting in line for barbecue is a rite of passage — an expectation when trying the best of the best — and one of the purest, most distilled forms of food culture and community within the Lone Star State.
Collectively members of the line had traveled thousands of miles, all waiting to see whether Goldee’s — and Texas barbecue in general — was worth the hype.
At these Texas smokehouses, particularly those praised by major publications like Texas Monthly, the lines are part of the territory, owners say: Closing hours are based on when the food sells out, and unless folks arrive early, there’s little guarantee they’ll get what they came for. Of course, there are some workarounds: Guests can often skip the line by purchasing a full brisket that costs upward of $150.
That morning, there was already a cast of characters gathering in expectation of a meat feast: a podiatrist who traveled just 15 minutes, a group from the United Kingdom, and a barbecue business owner from Oregon. For Ben Bacher, owner of Expedition BBQ in Alaska, it was the second time visiting Goldee’s in three weeks, where he volunteered at least 12 hours of cooking in exchange for learning the ins and outs of Texas barbecue — skills that he’d no doubt take back home to Alaska.
Another man had trekked an hour from Palmer — his fifth trip after several unsuccessful attempts thwarted by long lines and sold-out barbecue, or, in one case, because the restaurant was closed.
“This is the closest I’ve ever been,” he told us while standing no more than 20 people from the door. “The other times have been packed.”
Goldee’s co-founder Jonny White, 27, and his four partners are still getting used to the fanfare.
The group, who all lived in Austin before moving to Fort Worth to open their spot, got their start working at other popular barbecue joints throughout Texas, including Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, the now-closed Freedmen’s Bar, Truth BBQ in Houston, and 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio. Before establishing their own lauded smoked-meat destination, they too traveled to hundreds of barbecue places, waiting in line to try the best of the best, not knowing that they’d one day open their own, White says.
“It wasn’t until we were 21, and we all had jobs at different barbecue places, that we felt like we knew a lot about barbecue in general,” he said.
White says before the Texas Monthly article, the barbecue joint was largely dead — selling maybe six briskets a day. The five owners opened to modest fanfare in 2020, naming the spot after the gold Ford truck that pulled their pit. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing them to serve barbecue curbside for a year.
“It was the worst timing ever,” says White, adding that his crew was just getting their footing, building their name and a brand within the community. But after a year and a half of grappling with the pandemic, their luck changed. Vaccines emerged, helping more people feel comfortable venturing out to their local businesses in person, and in October 2021, the Texas Monthly list was published.
The announcement came as a surprise to the partners.
“We didn’t get a heads-up,” says White, who saw a leaked list the day before its official release. “It was wild. We just started laughing, and we were really happy. ... We were just ready to start working.”
But they couldn’t have prepared for the response. On the first day of service after publication, around 300 people flooded the restaurant, swamping its 35-spot parking lot and snaking out onto the streets.
“It was really scary. People were walking on the two-way road, parking way down the street. It was nuts,” White says. Suddenly, the 10 briskets Goldee’s sold per day quickly increased to around 50. To the dismay of locals who would come by every weekend, lines populated by people from around the world became a mainstay. Even today, months after the article’s debut, Goldee’s draws upward of 200 people to Fort Worth, traversing a two-lane country road until they reach the makeshift “BBQ” sign. White says the barbecue joint sells out daily by 3 p.m. during the week, sometimes earlier on the weekend.
Goldee’s works to make the line as comfortable as possible with free beer, water, and succulent samples of burnt ends — amenities that pass the time and make things feel like they’re moving faster, says White. But the owners are also adamant about sticking to the mission of serving the freshest food possible, all cut to order to avoid the meat drying out and oxidizing, he says.
Goldee’s owners also go the extra mile, serving the meats to customers themselves. A cheeky sign says “no meanies” at the front. “We want to talk to every customer and make sure they’re having a good time,” White says.
After two hours in line, a couple of beers, a sneak peek at the pit room, a teasing sample, and several conversations with people who traveled far and wide to be there that day, we finally reached the finish line, and the barbecue was top-notch — tender and savory brisket, toothsome ribs with a hint of sweetness, creamy jalapeno cheddar grits, and juicy sausage. But we left with more than just full bellies.
By the end, we had taken selfies with new friends, exchanged information and shared plates with people in line, and traded cooking tips and barbecue experiences. Though planning for this barbecue took some work, it’s clear that the experience at Goldee’s is about more than eating. It’s about the camaraderie in the line, and how this place had inspired people all over the world to travel here to trade barbecue notes and sample what’s deemed the best.
And what White says is true. “For the good barbecue, you have to wait in a pretty long line.”