Lenox Barbecue & Catering

Still Smokin’!

Lenox Barbecue History

A little history… In the old days, a barbecue pit was a hole in the ground. Hot coals were placed in the hole, and squirrels or mutton or venison cuts were suspended above it. From this simplest of beginnings, four different styles of Texas barbecue have evolved, cowboy, meat market, East Texas, and Mexican barbecue. Each has its own style and each is associated with a major immigrant group. Germans and Czechs owned the Central Texas meat markets. The West Texas cowboys were mostly Anglos. And the East Texas style is associated with Southern blacks.

The barbecue tradition began in cattle ranches along the border where Mexican ranch hands were given part of their pay in less desirable cuts such as the head. The ranch hands cooked cows’ heads, wrapped in maguey leaves or canvas, buried in pits. From this tradition we get barbecue and tongue tacos. Nowadays, the head is usually cooked in a water bath in a conventional oven. Although it started out as a barbecue style, barbecue isn’t really barbecue anymore.

Cowboy or open-pit barbecue is the style that most resembles that original hole in the ground. This style was once practiced all over the state. Hugh trench pits were dug for all kinds of major civic celebrations. “Great American Barbecue” reads a broadside from an 1860 political rally thrown by the American Party in Austin. ” All citizens of the state are invited to attend.” Among the featured speakers was the Honorable Sam Houston. When the soldiers were welcomed home from World War 1, town officials ordered barbecue pits dug in city parks. Ranchers would donate cattle and sheep, and the meat would be cooked in the open trench pits for up to 24 hours. The meat was cut into two- to three-pound pieces, which were handled with pitchforks. Marinades were mixed in buckets and applied with mops. The “invite the whole state” barbecue tradition continued as late as 1941, when Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel was inaugurated, and the grounds of the capitol building in Austin were trenched for pits.

Every now and then, it’s worth the effort to experience barbecue as it used to be. The little restaurant once known as the Lenox Cafe was originally located a block away at the corner of Harrisburg and Lenox Street. It was here that barbecue, first met modern technology.

In the late 1940s, this area of town was known for its gambling dens. It was around that time that Leonard D. McNeill won the Lenox Cafe in a game of craps. McNeill had never run a restaurant before, but he had some big ideas. It was the era of the giant Texas barbecue, and McNeill was soon competing with the biggest.

While West Texas cowboy-style enthusiasts fought over the world’s largest barbecue title, the future of barbecue technology was being shaped in Houston. Leonard McNeill could cook mountains of barbecue in open pits just like his contemporaries, but unlike them, he could also see there wasn’t any future in it.

It was becoming unfashionable to cook in unsanitary outdoor dirt pits. Eventually, a more modern method of barbecuing had to be found. With one giant step, McNeill took barbecue straight from a hole in the ground into the era of mechanization.

McNeill bought an enormous bread rising oven from Rainbow Bread. The oven had a rotating mechanism inside that moved the loaves through a timed cycle. McNeill converted this machinery into a wood smoke rotisserie that could cook 3,000 pounds of meat at one time.

Today, the old Lenox Bar-B-Q restaurant where McNeill got his start is run by Erik Mrok, whose father was a friend of McNeill. The restaurant uses three rotisserie of a type patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. Oyler, a barbecue restaurant owner, also started tinkering with a smoker rotisserie made from a bread rising oven. Whether he was working independently or in cooperation with McNeill is unknown.

From their slow hickory-smoked brisket, ham, chicken, ribs, and links to their delicious fresh coleslaw and potato salad, Lenox continues to serve up a darn good plate. Menu items include chicken fried steaks, hamburgers, beef stew, gumbo, chili, and the biggest Texas-sized stuffed potato that you have ever seen. Try us, you won’t be disappointed.