The sausage blew my mind.
It’s a beef sausage Ian Timmons owner and pit master makes with brisket trimmings in a pork casing. I can’t even remember what kind he said it was and I keep staring at this photo to see if I can remember, but the only memories I have of it are purely visceral and profound ones. The snap of the casing, the tender smokey filling. The creaminess of cheese and the velvety unctuous juices. It reminded me of the first time I had Foie gras or marrow bones. Or when my grandad showed me what 120mph feels like. It was down a back road and I couldn’t peel my 10 year-old head forward from the seat back and my guts were in my throat. Then I cried. Then I laughed. My grandad just grinned. Look, I know it’s just a beef sausage, but I’m telling you as soon as I tried it I knew things; things like 2021 is going to be a much better year, and yes, we’re all going to make it, as humans, as Americans, as democrats and republicans, even. That’s what I remember about the sausage. And I cried, then I laughed, and Ian just just stood there grinning.
It’s easy to fuss over BBQ these days. Traeger has made everyone a pit-master and Texas Monthly has made everyone a connoisseur. Hickory or oak, wrapped or unwrapped, oven-finished or blasphemy you fool! BBQ has become hip, it’s been ‘third-waved’. It’s taken more than a few pretentious steps away from its working-class heritage. This is not the case at Tom & Bingo’s.
Or so it would appear at a casual glance.
Tom & Bingo’s Hickory Pit is a BBQ joint ripped straight from the early 1990’s, long before this current BBQ boom. It’s the kind of place your grandpa took you on a Saturday for lunch after a trip to the hardware store. It’s the kind of place where customers know each other and old men say things like, “Your wife let you out of the house like that?” to other old men who look the same. In short, it’s the kind of place that makes the world seem smaller than it is, but in a good way. If BBQ nowadays is supposed to be something more than chopped beef, pulled pork, ribs, and smoked sausage, neither Tom nor Bingo got the memo. The accompaniments are just as spartan. Potato salad, coleslaw and those tiny bags of chips that kids get alongside their peanut butter and jelly sando in their sack lunch. Actually, I’m not even sure kids have sack lunches like that these days. Do they? Or am I just caught in a nostalgia food loop rn, walloped there by Tom & Bingo’s grandad vibes? Anyway, these are the kind of chips you laugh at when you rip them open because there are only seven and you require at least twice that as a grown person who pays the taxes you owe.
I got chips there the first time I went because I’m generally not big on classic potato salad and cole slaw. What can I say, I’ve been bougied by BBQ’s fusion sides these days. I’ve been on the mac and cheese, the loaded baked potato salads, the green Chile cheddar grits, and the growing lists of other ‘que sides— usually modern takes on old school basics. Ordering the chips was a big mistake because I’ve come to realize Tom & Bingo’s potato salad and cole slaw is some of the absolute best in town.
The Potato Salad & Cole Slaw May Be The Best Around
The coleslaw has a nice brightness to it as well as a little horseradish bite that tries to sneak by unnoticed. The slaw isn’t bathing in thick mayo either. It has just the right amount of creamy fat to coax the pepper and vinegar into their rightful place on your tongue. It’s a perfectly well-balanced side with crisp carrots (I think), cabbage, radish (don’t quote me), and Granny Smith apples. It’s tart and sweet and it’s peppery and smooth — and like I said, it maybe the best in town.
Likewise the potato salad is its own unique version of a classic. It’s mustardy and creamy. It too has a little kick to it that I’m not sure if grandad would go for. I think it may come from a unique and stealthily applied ingredient: olives & pimentos. This potato salad is so well-balanced and complex. Its mustard comes in a little spicy, but then it has just the right amount of fatiness to knock it back to something mellow and nostalgic.
It was really these two items that got me curious about Tom & Bingo’s. The more digging I did the more I found that this nostalgic sense I had was more than I had initially assumed. I’ve been in Lubbock for nearly five years and haven’t once stopped at Tom & Bingos because it just looked too much like all the other pre-2000s ’que joints, like a certain highly-overrated place on HWY 82, and Amarillo’s own handful of Frito pie BBQ stops. These are generally the kinds of places that serve their ribs and brisket pre-sauced and soggy from stainless steel steam tables. These are the kinds of places that peddle in pure nostalgia and get by on a previous generations’ more relaxed expectations of what barbecue could be and how much it should cost. These are places that don’t serve sliced brisket and even if they did, you wouldn’t want it. The chopping of the beef is actually a doled kindness, to the meat and the customer, to mask dryness, toughness, and blandness that belies the real potential of meat cooked slow over fire. This isn’t what Tom & Bingo’s is about, and I’m performing daily penance for ever considering it, for judging the book by its cover.
It’s the kind of place your grandpa took you on a Saturday for lunch after a trip to the hardware store.
I asked Ian about this, about why he tricked me and maybe countless others for so long into thinking this place was trapped in an era where BBQ was far less fussed over than it is now. He’s owned the place for three years now and he belongs to the legacy of the original Tom and Bingo, although not by blood. His father-in-law, Dwayne Clanton, was the son of Tom and the second owner which makes Tom & Bingo’s a third-generation endeavor, rare for restaurants and craft commerce in general in 2020.
I asked Ian, “Why are you using hickory, man?” Don’t all these new ‘Texas-cue’ joints make oak the hip thing, now?“
”Why does your menu and vibe seem so old school, while your whole approach to the items definitely isn’t?”
“You clearly have a perspective and a philosophy you’re driving at, but why?”
Ian made it clear he pays homage to the Tom & Bingo legacy. It’s something that hasn’t always been so easy. Apparently the Tom & Bingo’s of yesteryear (the Tom & Bingo’s I was not particularly interested in, by the way) was a sandwich spot only, so people found it a tough pill to swallow when the menu was expanded. How, I can’t honestly say because there are literally seven things on the menu – and on Tuesday’s it’s down to only one. It’s as anti-Cheesecake Factory as it comes. It’s old school. While I’m a little miffed about the absence of beans on the menu, I think Ian’s perspective and execution in his legacy-bearing approach has carved a true sweet spot for himself. He’s able to limit his focus to the food in an almost Jiro Ono type of Japanese minimalist fashion. He’s a slave to excellence, and any student of excellence knows it’s far easier to excel with fewer items to focus on. Ian’s near perfect execution is honestly pulling all the most threadbare pieces of what appears to be, for most passersby on 34th, a fading heritage brand into a new kind of modern relevance. Ian would be the first to tell you that even his family has been apprehensive about the changes under his tutelage. It’s easy to see that in a third-generation BBQ tradition, changes to the menu could easily be misinterpreted as an attempt to over-write the legacy.
The Brisket Cheese Burger
Speaking of the limited menu, I was bummed to discover on my first trip that the Brisket Cheeseburger is the only item on the menu on Tuesdays. But I’ve since bought two more in the following weeks. Two out of three times the burger has been juicy and extremely flavorful. One time the meat seemed a bit drier and maybe a tad overworked because it was slightly more dense, but I consider this a fluke as two out of three have been excellent. It comes with sweet caramelized onions and a spicy chipotle mayo that’s too damn good. The burger is definitely a sleeper hit, and when it’s good it may be in Lubbock’s top five. It’s actually no bigger than your average Memorial Day backyard burger, but its smoked beefy and succulent flavor punches far beyond its weight-class.
Tom & Bingo’s BBQ Sauce
The bbq sauce at Tom & Bingo’s is semi-famous apparently— and for good reason it’s tomatoey and acidic. There’s a sudden sweetness to it, which I don’t normally like in my sauces. But this one has enough tanginess to make it settle into something really well-balanced. It too seems to have a subtly building kick, like any Texas BBQ sauce should. Even my hot sauce fiending friend, aka Oppenheimer, noticed a slowly building heat over the course of our meal together. Neither of us could tell where it was coming from, but we were firmly and splendidly in its grasp by the end of lunch and we loved it.
The pulled-pork sandwich is another shape-shifter on the palate. Initially you get all its easy sweetness. But by the second bite, that sugar is giving way to hearty hickory smoke. Ian says, “hickory is like oak on steroids,” and I think it is almost perfect for anchoring the helium balloon bounce of a pulled-pork sandwich. Too many times, pulled-pork is too delicate to stand up to good bread, slaw, and sauce—its airy lightness is almost one-dimensional. But hickory smoke gives it a solid backbone… and a firm handshake. Just like you wanted to be known for when you were growing up, but surprisingly everyone just told you how soft your hands were and you didn’t really know why because you never put lotion on or anything. In fact you hate lotion. Or maybe that’s just me. It probably goes without saying, but if you get the pulled-pork sando, be sure to get the slaw to adorn it. Most times I like my pulled pork to have some real chunky chonk to it. Too many places pull it into oblivion like a wadded web of meat strings on a bun. I hate that… Tom & Bingo’s does a nice middle of the road pull. They get it down to some stringiness, but they leave some juicy chunks in there too. Generally I don’t advise in eating pulled-pork west of the Mississippi. But if you’re going to do it anywhere, do it at Tom & Bingo’s. It’s really solid. So damn solid I forgot to snap another pic of it before I chowed the whole thing down.
I got a ham sandwich at Tom & Bingo’s, too. You might ask why I would do such a thing. It’s because I’ve made my way to the bottom of their menu in a few short weeks. Truth be told, I’d get the ham sandwich again, maybe even before I’d try the chopped beef sandwich. I haven’t tried the chopped beef yet even though they’re famous for it, because I’m convinced anyone can do a chopped beef well. Buccee’s can. United can. Maybe even your high school cafeteria could. The chopped beef sandwich’s pre-sauced, pre-chewed essence is designed to cover for a multitude of BBQ sins. Chopped beef sandwiches are like BBQ insurance, and you don’t need it here because the sliced brisket is as juicy and tender as any place around.
The Luxurious Spare Ribs
I also tried the ribs. They too are excellent. Sometimes with spare ribs, especially at the beginning of a restaurants’ lunch run, you should plan on having to chew them off the bone some and even have to pick stuff out of your teeth. They just don’t always get done and tender enough by noon. Not the case at Tom & Bingo’s. I got ribs on a Friday at noon and they were they kind that you could pull whole chunks clean off the bone from. They had a nice peppery dry rub and were oh so meatily luxurious. And you already know how I feel about the sausage. I’ll never go to Tom & Bingo’s again without getting the sausage.
This Could Be My Favorite BBQ Shop
I think I’m ready to call Tom & Bingo’s my favorite BBQ place in town. It may not have all the new paint and decor, or the neovintage design aesthetic of some of the other quality places in town. It doesn’t have a cafeteria sized selection of desserts to chose from, either. But I’ve never waited in a line for longer than ten minutes either. On the surface Tom & Bingo’s got left behind about 15 years ago, they just haven’t noticed it yet. But underneath that storied surface is a pit master with a hell of a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Pressure to keep the Clanton legacy alive, while not offending its traditionalists. Pressure to compete with other shiny new school shops. And pressure to get the word out that there’s some of the best damn BBQ I’ve ever had inside that dusty unassuming little hut.
I asked Ian what he thought his father-in-law might say about all the changes he’s pursued. He said, “I think he’d be a fan. He’d be proud, but I can tell you he probably wouldn’t have liked or agreed with the steps along the way.”
Nobody would be talking about it if it weren’t for Ian’s steady tending of the flame and I think it’s just getting to be red hot again over at Tom & Bingo’s.
Not my video, but I concur with the scientific findings: