201 N Polk St
Jefferson, TX 75657
Jefferson is a real gem of a place. This small East Texas town is a beautifully preserved collection of historic shopfronts and Victorian mansions, having been a major port for the steamboats from New Orleans in the mid to late 1800s. The oldest hotel in East Texas can be found here, with claims to famous guests like Presidents Grant and Hayes and Oscar Wilde. Seeing how out of the way this place is these days (not exactly en route to any major cities), it’s hard to imagine how it was once such a bustling hot spot.
The main industry of the town these days is tourism, and now the streets are lined with “ye olde” candy shops, general stores and antique malls. It really is a gorgeous place to visit, particularly when you get to escape back to the tranquility of nearby Caddo Lake afterwards. Sitting right in the middle of town is Joseph’s Riverport BBQ, run by local-born Stephen Joseph. With only a handful of eateries in town including a ubiquitous pie cafe and burger shack, Jefferson is pretty lucky to have a BBQ place, and a great one at that.
I met Stephen via Twitter, and his friendliness and hospitality translated seamlessly through his keyboard. He was kind enough to give me a tour of his premises once I made the 6 hour journey from Austin. Riverport actually burnt down about a year ago, and only reopened a few months back, but the first thing Stephen did was re-order another custom pit from A.N. Bewley in Dallas. It’s a traditional wood fuelled pit (hickory and red oak in this case) with a clever cast concrete firebox, which retains the heat beautifully and also prevents further heat loss by sealing the fire in with the “plug like” door. Air is introduced via a flue system that is thermostatically controlled. So, when the fire drops below temp, the flue is opened to introduce more oxygen and bring the heat back up. It’s still an art figuring out where the dial should be set, and the fire still requires manual re-fuelling.
To a purist like myself, this flue system is probably the only form of mechanical intervention I will accept when it comes to BBQ. I empathise with the need of a small business owner to multi-task, and a small helper tool that lets Stephen tend to other jobs instead of constantly babysitting the pit is OK by me. It’s still a hell of a lot different to flicking on the switch of a gas or electric oven that has a smoking compartment. That, my friends, is not what I consider to be BBQ, but I’m getting carried away… you can read more about my opinion on different smokers here.
You know you’re in a small town when you see specials like “4 BBQ sandwiches and drink for $20″ or “3 meat plate with 2 sides for $10″. This is food for the townsfolk, not just the tourists. I don’t know how he does it, but Riverport is the most reasonably priced BBQ joint I have ever been to.
Between three of us, we shared pork ribs, brisket, potato salad and sweet potato fries. I also ordered a side of hot water cornbread, which I’d never had before. It came out looking like a serve of fried green tomatoes, and turns out it’s little cakes of cornmeal, water, sugar, salt and lard mix that is coated in cornmeal and fried. Can’t go wrong with that. The brisket was sensational with a dark thick bark and pronounced smoke ring, but still tender and moist. The pork ribs retained a sweet sticky laquer and pulled cleanly away from the bone. Joy!
El Jeffe ordered the rib sandwich, which turned out to be 7 ample pork ribs with two slices of white bread, all for $8. Being a native Texan, this man has eaten his fair share of BBQ, and yet he sat there shaking his head in happy disbelief at how generous the portion was. He has since been back to buy ribs by the rack to feed his camp guests, but I can’t yet confirm if he tried to throw them in the smoker at the Boathouse and claim them as his own (sneaky!)
While I was there, Stephen told me that Marion County (of which Jefferson is the biggest town) is one of the poorest counties in Texas. Since Jefferson relies so heavily on tourism, this picturesque little town can be rather quiet during the week between weekend visitors. I visited Riverport on a Wednesday lunchtime, and whole dining room was full up with locals. It was so fantastic to see a small town really supporting their own – Stephen said that it’s this local support that keeps him in business.
So, good on you, Jefferson. Thanks for keeping a great pit master in business for the rest of us to enjoy too.