Murray's passes the exacting "brisket test" and steers the barbecue-driven to Cooper, Texas.
Though he’s made a name in Northeast Texas as one of the best barbecue pit masters around, Rick Murray came to running a Delta County ‘cue business the long way.
“I used to install dairy equipment. I worked five counties and three states,” says Murray. “When I was out working, I would stop and eat at all the little roadside barbecue places. That’s how I figured out that the best barbecue was the pure wood-smoked kind.”
Inspired by what he’d found, Murray built his first pit and used it to cook up meat for his family’s annual Independence Day bashes in the ’80.
“People really liked the meat and I liked making it. Finally, I decided to quit installing the dairy equipment. I had a building, so in late ’86 I got started with the new business.”
When his joint opened outside of tiny Cooper, Texas, word spread quickly that it was a good place to eat. I know this because a family friend tipped my parents off to Murray’s remarkable, melt-in-your-mouth brisket early on. I went off to college in ’89, and my parents used to bring me a pound or so. I prized those paper-wrapped slices of brisket more highly than anything (even the rolls of quarters Mom brought for my laundry). It was a taste of home. The meat was so good, in fact, that I’ve spent over twenty years in search of something comparable. If such a thing is out there, I haven’t found it yet.
Having reviewed a new Texas barbecue book recently that stopped short of exploring the more off-beat, back roads ‘cue that I grew up on, I’d been wondering if Murray’s meat was as good as I remember. So a few weeks back on a rare trip to my hometown of Paris, I stopped in on Murray at a little after eleven A.M. on a Tuesday. From my spot near the front entrance I spied a dog walking around a large pit stored in a shed off the side.
Inside the metal building, Murray’s place was already starting to fill up with folksy, hard-working fellas joking around. I ordered half a pound of brisket to sample in the car (a.k.a. “the brisket litmus”) before deciding if there was a story to be told. I paid cash (credit cards aren’t welcome) and made my way back to the parking lot to have a taste.
Having explored almost all of the iconic Texas barbecue joints over the years, I can tell you that none of them holds a candle to what you can still find in Murray’s vibrant red-and-white metal joint on the side of Highway 19 near Cooper. From the first bite, my mouth filled with a satisfying smoky taste. The meat was tender, ever so slightly moist. Perfect. The thin sauce was good but superfluous. Though there are the traditional sides on offer, Murray’s brisket is best enjoyed alone. For this reason his ‘cue is more akin in my mind to the Central Texas barbecue tradition, where a meal often consists of just meat and bread. That said, Murray uses hickory wood, which is typical of East Texas and Southern pit masters. In short, Murray’s brisket is a bridge between two regional ‘cue traditions and thus remains in a class by itself.
Having finished my snack out on the gravel, I headed back inside to ask the burly pitmaster if he’d agree to be interviewed. The place is tiny, so I had an audience of a few customers during our encounter. Thankfully, Murray quickly and cheerfully agreed to chat via telephone. He also volunteered to step out from the counter so that I could snap photos of him. This prompted a helpful good ol’ boy from a booth to shout, “You can find a picture of him down at the post office, you know. Just look for one of those ‘Most Wanted’ posters.”
If Murray’s wanted for anything these days, however, it’s his ‘cue.
“The barbecue business is big and our catering is really good,” said Murray when we talked again long-distance. “I’m only open five days a week, and we close around five or six in the evening. I couldn’t do that if people weren’t coming out here regularly. There’s no Wal-Mart out here [to draw traffic], but people that know me will be in here. So, yeah, I guess I’m a destination type place. On Canton weekend we get a lot of traffic, especially folks from Oklahoma. And then there’s the commuters from Paris to Sulphur Springs.”
Murray also counts among his loyal customers “rock haulers, construction guys. The gas pipeline companies have been real good to us. But it’s not just guys. We get a lot of gals, too.”
These days Murray has two big pits that hold 300 to 400 pounds of brisket, hot links, turkey and ham. (I’ll go ahead and confess to never making it past the brisket myself. See, for me, if the brisket litmus goes right, I don’t want to eat anything but the beef.)
“I designed those pits myself, and everything’s one hundred percent wood fired. That just gives me the most control,” he said. “Typically I’m making ten to fifteen briskets a day, but you know I’m committed to the product. I’m pretty picky. I ain’t gonna put it out if it’s not good. What’s the point?”
Murray believes it’s his commitment to quality that’s made his ‘cue place a local favorite for over two decades. “Hey, I’ve got the oldest food business in Delta County. That Dairy Queen has had two owners since I opened. That’s something, right?”
You bet, Murray. Keep on cookin’.