First look: Open barely a week, we boot-scooted over to the new Design District BBQ joint Ferris Wheelers
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
When Dallas Voice moved into its current offices about three years ago, we were almost immediately met with a slew of new restaurants, all within walking distance, opening in succession; the trend has continued to do this date.
Joining already established go-tos like Meddlesome Moth to Mama’s Daughter’s Diner, the neighborhood quickly added El Bolero, Flying Fish, Pie+Tap, and one of the most recent, the so-hot-good-luck-getting-a-table Town Hearth.
Probably the first restaurant to start the latest trend, though, was Rodeo Goat, Shannon Wynne’s upscale-but-down-home burger joint, which sits directly across the street from our building. In addition to helping ignite the growth in the Design District, its location was also a shot across the bow of the place next door, an old-school hamburger joint that had clearly seen better days. A comparison of the two seemed almost cruel; hardly more than a truck stop, that restaurant lacked invention, atmosphere, craft. I’m almost surprised it lasted as long as it did. (It certainly didn’t benefit from any foot traffic from my office.)
Into that space has now appeared Ferris Wheelers, itself seeming to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Rodeo Goat to be the avenue’s prime location to enjoy for meats served in a sheet pan at campy hightops sitting on raw concrete floors. The main difference though — and where you can’t really compare the two — is that Rodeo Goat is first and foremost a burger joint; Ferris Wheelers is definitely a barbecue pit. Yes, both have cows in common, but that’s where the similarities and.
Well, not end, but diverge. Both wallow in an aesthetic of corrugated tin and unpolished metal accents, with kitschy signage and retro styling touches (for example, mismatched squirt bottles housed in reused six-pack cartons). Both have gravelly outdoor patios. Both pipe in redneck Muzak. But the menus, both basic and predictable for their segments, feed different appetites.
Foremost, Ferris Wheelers is a smoked meat Mecca (led by executive pitmaster Doug Pickering): Pulled pork, brisket, honey-brined turkey, plus a portmanteau platter that would send a caveman into a seizure. (Meats are also sold by the half-pound.) And it’s conducive to a quick work lunch; at one lunch-rush visit, despite plenty of diners, I spent only 21 minutes between walking in to waddling out.
The mark of great barbecue is that sauce acts as a welcome accessory, not a necessary overcoat. Often, sauces are used like cudgels to mask defects and inconsistencies in the proteins themselves, providing an external source of moisture to dehydrated meat occasioned by a flawed smoking process. My favorite local barbecues — Pecan Lodge, Lockhart, 18th and Vine — are perfectly flavorful even when served naked as a newborn. And so far my experience at Ferris Wheelers is close to those.
The pulled pork sandwich ($9) reveals its countryfied roots: It arrived already crowned by a scoop of coleslaw, the way Southerners like myself routinely serve it. (I’m sure you can ask for the slaw on the side, but why?) The pork is juicy, and the bun — a whole-wheat brioche — stood up unexpectedly to the sloppy-joe-style sandwich.
The daily special on one visit was burnt ends ($12), which to an untrained BBQ patron could sound like cast-off of culinary mistakes; but the opposite is true. They can be prized tips that strike an ephemeral balance between smoky char and succulent pink flesh. That’s what I was delivered, with just enough fat along the periphery to know I got a good cut.
When my server fetched silverware for me that I had forgotten to pick up, he returned armed solely with a fork; as it turned out, no other utensil was required. If there had been a bone, this beef would’ve fallen off of it.
Even so, I sampled the selection of four sauces — two traditional red barbecue blends (sweet, runny, the color of oxblood), and two golds (mustard-based — more savory and usually more viscous variants). The house sauce, a mildly sweet red, certainly provides versatility for most meals. The hot version — basically the same, just with more spicy stuff — is more along my style, though only mildly hot anyway and safe for all but Yankees.
There’s greater difference between the golds. The Carolina is a staple with South Carolina barbecue, which notably emphasizes pork over beef. It’s powerful and aromatic and a saffron-speckled color. The Texas variation basically combines the red sauce with the Carolina, negating some of the savoriness and turning it in less vibrant color. (Of course, you could make that yourself on the plate, mixing the way a child fingerpaints, but you be you.) I probably liked the hot sauce best for the beef, the Carolina ideally more suited for pork.
The menu takes a peculiar, near-fatal turn, however with the preparation of some of the sides (all $3), especially the fried okra. Okra goes with barbecue like a gay kid goes with a family of Christian ministers. But here’s the thing about okra: While I’m a fan, it hovers in the bland realm. That is why it is all but impossible to over-salt the batter, Ferris Wheelers’ kitchen must not have heard that. In texture, the breading is on point — rough and not overly dense, clinging tempura and fried to a hard crisp. But it might as well be wrapped in daydreams: There is no detectable salt, or pepper, or buttermilk, or anything else that might impart a whiff of personality. I could just as easily been loaded up with Novocain and chewing on green bell peppers wrapped in rubberbands. The mac-n-cheese also arrived undersalted, though that could be remedied with a dash from the table shaker (salt clings to the moist cheese easier than to the hermetic pods of okra).
The vibe skews good-ol’-boy, though in Texas, that could describe half the gay bars. The “backyard” — a patio that includes a small, working Ferris wheel, stage for live music and more license plates and street signs than a cattle fence in East Texas — opens at 4 p.m., and making it a good happy-hour spot to straight-people-watch. Sure, it’s a heteronormative honkytonk at heart, but it also has a sign declaring “Put our meat in your mouth.” Backyard or bathhouse, men are men. Bring on the meat!
Ferris Wheelers Backyard and BBQ, 1950 Market Center Blvd. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. (indoors), 4 p.m.–late (backyard). 214-741-4141. FerrisWheelers.com.
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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 6, 2017.