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. It’s hard to imagine how this ou-of-the-way place (which isn’t en route to any major towns) 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. In fact, it’s the place where I found my prized antique cast iron pan! Jefferson really is a gorgeous place to visit, particularly when you can escape to the tranquility of nearby Caddo Lake. Caddo is the largest natural lake in the South, straddles the border between Texas and Louisiana and is one of my favorite places on the planet. Look at how gorgeous it is:
Time to talk meat! Sitting right in the middle of town under one of only two stoplights is Joseph’s Riverport BBQ, run by local-born Stephen Joseph. With a population just over 2000, there are only a handful of eateries in town including a ubiquitous pie cafe and burger shack, so Jefferson is pretty lucky to have a BBQ joint, and a great one at that.
I first met Stephen via Twitter, and his friendliness and hospitality translated seamlessly through his keyboard. Like so many of the BBQ joints in smaller remote towns, business is about serving the local community and a ton of hard work. They don’t get to enjoy the rockstar fame and lines out the door that come with being in the bigger cities.
His is a tough story peppered with both hardship and determination. Riverport actually burnt down completely in 2012, 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.
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. He’s also eschewed the traditional East Texas flavor profiles for his brisket, leaving a healthy amount of fat on and seasoning in Central Texas style with a simple salt & pepper rub.
All the usual suspects are here – pulled pork, dark-barked brisket, generously proportioned pork ribs with a sweet finish. Riverport throws a curve ball when it comes to the sausage – after struggling to source a traditional “hot guts” beef based sausage he really liked, Stephen chose taste over trend and introduced a smoked pork & sage number, which reminded him of the ones he used to eat as a kid. As much fun as it is comparing the BBQ staples from place to place, it’s even better when you come across a scarcely seen item like pork chops, or prime rib or even a refined sausage!
The sides are also well worth the drive, with fried okra and the most moreish hot water cornbread, which if you haven’t had it before is nothing like traditional cornbreads. It comes out looking like a serve of fried green tomatoes, little cakes of cornmeal, water, sugar, salt and lard which are coated in cornmeal then fried. Freshly baked pies and cakes (made in-house, of course!) will satisfy those who need a little sweet at the end of their meal.
It would be a crying shame to come all the way out here and neglect to order their most famous menu item – the swamp fries: a serving of crisp fries which are then concealed under a mountain of chopped brisket, onion, jalapeños and cheese.
Marion County (of which Jefferson is the biggest town) is one of the poorest counties in Texas and this picturesque little town can be rather quiet during the week between weekend tourists traffic. It’s not always easy to operate a small business under these circumstances, but Stephen and Riverport keep plugging along, and another day dawns with the smoke rising out of the chimney and towards the sky.
When it comes to a meal at Riverport, the sense of satisfaction is twofold – the enjoyment of a great plate of barbecue, but also contributing to the support of a hardworking small-town American business.