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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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How well does Texas 'cue travel? Dickey's Barbecue Pit makes its case
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Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

There are only 11 of these United States that do not hold a Dickey's Barbecue Pit somewhere within their borders. So yes, that makes Dickey's a national franchise. But order a serving of chopped beef brisket, and observe the smoke ring - that pink circle that marks true barbecue like a halo signifies divinity. There's something going on here, something worthy that challenges Madison's frequent suspicion of chain restaurants.

The Madison location opened in March of this year, on the front end of Dickey's expansion into Wisconsin. Eau Claire came first, and two more will have launched in Menomonie and Green Bay by summer's end.

Dickey's has been around for a good while - since the 1940s, and as long as or longer than some of the legendary one-roof shops of Tyler or Kilgore, Texas. It is generally classifiable as a representation of the East Texas variety of barbecue. The style doesn't favor a specific animal so much as a preparation: hickory-smoked, rough-hewn meats often served in sandwich form. Sauce is applied last.

At Dickey's, three sizes of sandwiches can be filled with any of nine different meats; platters combining those meats with an even more extensive list of sides are also available.

Beef brisket stands out. The chopped version is cleaved nearly to oblivion, making it an ideal sandwich filling. The sliced brisket is served in big, alluring hunks. Both are smoky and rich, taking well to either coleslaw or sauce. (The former is one of the optional sandwich add-ons; the latter is frankly a little disappointing, thin and boring.) The ribs are a pleasantly messy eating experience.

The pulled pork is just above average, but not quite flavorful enough to stand alone. Better to pull apart one of the pillowy, golden dinner rolls and with pickles, onion, sauce and maybe a few fried onions, fashion yourself a pork bun by way of Dallas. It is better to do this than, say, order a sandwich to go. And it's best to eat sandwiches in-house. The buns are simple things and don't hold up well over a long trip home.

Of the lighter meats, the ham is savory and tender - no gnawing on gristle here. The smoked turkey surprises; Thanksgiving Day on its best day couldn't have produced a juicier or more perfectly cooked bird. Only the slightest taste of what I think is the fuel Dickey's uses to ignite its pit marred the experience. In fact, this is a problem that occurred with a number of Dickey's meats.

There are sausages too, but I'd skip them based on the demerits of the Polish sausage. There was some snap to the skin, but the dominating flavor was black pepper, and the filling was unpleasantly infused with liquid fat, like a soaked sponge.

A discussion of the side dishes provides the best opportunity to mention the sorry state of vegetables at Dickey's. The fried okra is pretty good (very salty, but like all similar sides, fried in small batches, to order), and things made out of potato are reliably comforting. But the side of green beans with bacon was, no joke, the most unappealing dish I've been served in a restaurant, ever. Ashen and totally without structural integrity, these beans were little bits of chopped sadness that made me want to hug a farmer. The ham product referred to as bacon was similarly abused.

Salads, which you might presume to be perfunctory, actually kind of work. It's just iceberg lettuce topped with fried onions, cheese, chopped brisket and ranch dressing, but the smokehouse salad was probably the dish that made me the happiest from start to finish. There are other salads that don't feature smoked meat, but that's not the way to go.

Other high-calorie hits include baked potatoes stuffed with all sorts of meats and crunchy bits, a startlingly fine slice of gooey pecan pie - and I'd be remiss to not mention there's free vanilla ice cream if you dine in. If the smell of meats actually being smoked in-house at this franchise 'cue joint doesn't sell you, then maybe free dessert will.

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