I’ve been to a lot of barbecue restaurants, near and far, old and new, but I’d never been asked this question before, not until my fourth visit to the new brick-and-mortar location of Heim Barbecue: “How many bones do you want?”
I was in the process of ordering the restaurant’s special that day, a beef rib. At most places, you order beef ribs by the pound. At Heim, you get it by the bone.
Minutes after I ordered, out it came, this monolithic slab of meat that looked like it had been pulled off of a brontosaurus. One bone, just so you’ll know, is enough for two.
For many people in Fort Worth, Heim Barbecue is speaking a new language. Here, you order beef ribs by the bone. Here, there’s “moist” brisket, and then there’s “lean” brisket. Here, food is served on butcher paper, not plates. And here, fat is a good thing. Like, a really, really good thing.
Longtime barbecue chasers already know these ropes. But for a city raised on Angelo’s and Railhead and Cousin’s, Heim is new turf.
A year ago, the owners — pitmaster Travis Heim and his wife, Emma — set up a four-wheeled barbecue business on the Near Southside, parking the right food truck in the right place, where just about every other type of cuisine had emerged and found an audience. What timing, too, right in the middle of a local, regional and national barbecue renaissance.
Word in the community spread quickly of Heim’s Central Texas-influenced ’cue, but it spread quicker through Fort Worth, a city that loves to support its own, to look inward for talent. Ten-minute waits turned into hourlong waits until demand necessitated that a brick-and-mortar be built.
And there it now stands on Magnolia Avenue, in the old Mijo’s Fusion spot, decked out in rustic-industrial decor, outfitted with attractive and comfortable booths and community tables, usually with a line of hungry barbecue lovers meandering out of its front door.
Don’t let the line scare or fool you: It moves fast. You can have lunch here, through the week at least, in an hour or less; on weekends, you may want to bring along a book or a friend.
As it was at the truck, the menu is scribbled on butcher paper and is composed of barbecue essentials: brisket, pork ribs, two kinds of sausage, pulled pork and turkey, all smoked the low and slow method over oak, outside, in a triplet of Oyler smokers. Specials, including beef ribs, come and go per Travis’ whim.
Those beef ribs ($20 a pound), from Niman Ranch, are among Heim’s grandest achievements. Each bone contains between a pound and 2 pounds of silk-tender meat, sheathed in a jacket of blackened, peppery crust. Plumes of steam rose each time we tore off a piece of meat. We saw people take the 10-inch bones home, either for their dogs or personal trophies: “I ate this and lived.”
Regular pork ribs were good too, each brandishing plenty of soft, rich meat and tufts of fat, glazed in a sweet and peppery rub.
Going from a two-person operation to a full kitchen staff may be affecting the brisket ($10 for a half-pound). On some occasions, the moist or “fatty” brisket was spot-on — tender and peppery, outlined in crust and buttery, soft fat. Other times, the meat was slightly dry and the fat undercooked. Lean brisket, however, was consistently good, if not as dynamic as the fatty cuts.
I did love the chopped brisket sandwich, served open-faced and containing so much finely chopped meat that I couldn’t see the bottom bun. I’m hoping the future will bring better things for the turkey sandwich. Unlike brisket, whose flavor is derived from meat, fat, crust and smoke, turkey is sort of a one-trick bird. The meat was smoky and moist, but, offered with bread only, the sandwich itself was one-dimensional.
The restaurant doesn’t make its own sausage, at least not yet, but offers two very good specimens: a spicy jalapeño and cheddar link and a milder but richer pork and beef mix. Both were plenty juicy: When I cut into one of the links, juices sprayed across the table, narrowly missing my friend.
Heim is one of the few barbecue joints you could visit and not eat any of the main dishes, because the sides are so good. Absurdly rich mac and cheese comes studded with green chiles, slightly torturing you with each bite. Clever potato salad is more of a mashed baked potato, loaded with butter, sour cream, grated cheddar and gummy bits of bacon. Comb through the pinto beans and you’ll find a nice surprise: tiny pieces of fatty brisket.
The best side dish remains the bacon burnt ends ($6 for a half-pound), bite-size pieces of pork belly, cured and double-smoked, glistening in a sticky rub of pepper and brown sugar. You’ll eat them like chips and salsa, mindlessly.
Smartly, there’s a booze element to Heim, too: The bar is stocked with more than 150 varieties of whiskey from around the world. Never seen that at a barbecue joint either.