The Wikipedia article on Eastern New Mexico describes the region as “mostly characterized by flat featureless terrain,” even likening it to West Texas: “Like much of the Llano Estacado region, Eastern New Mexico is largely agricultural and resembles West Texas in geography, culture, economy, and demographics.” While Eastern New Mexico may not be back-dropped by spectacular mountain ranges or bisected by the murky Rio Grande, it’s got an enchantment all its own even if the Wikipedia writer can’t see it. It’s also got something else the Rio Grande Corridor, for all its population centers and cultural diversity, can’t match. It’s got long-standing barbecue traditions that, not surprisingly, have their roots in Texas. By comparison, barbecue along the Rio Grande Corridor is a fledgling chick learning to fly.
Eastern New Mexico is home to Smokin’ On the Pecos, the New Mexico State Barbecue championship held every year in Artesia. The winner of this prestigious event–sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society–is an automatic preferred qualifier for the world barbecue championship. Artesia is the middle jewel in a three city diadem that includes Roswell to its north and Carlsbad to its south. These three cities constitute New Mexico’s “Barbecue Belt.” Drive this route during mealtime and you’ll pass several barbecue restaurants, most smoking to overflow crowds. One of the very best is Danny’s Place in Carlsbad, named the Land of Enchantment’s best barbecue restaurant in 2015 and 2016 by Thrillist.
Two and a half hours north of the Barbecue Belt lies Tucumcari, with its abundance of nostalgic, neon-spangled vestiges of Route 66 and something even older–the world’s largest collection of spectacular full-scale bronze dinosaur skeletons. More recently, it’s not antiquities that have been drawing visitors to this respite along the open stretch of loneliness that is interstate 40. Savvy diners from across the fruited plain have been making pilgrimages to partake of some of the very best barbecue in the country. That’s not just my opinion.
In March, 2018, Watson’s was named one of the 50 best barbecue restaurants in America by no less than Yelp. Watson’s ranked 35th in Yelp’s meaty pantheon of the best barbecue under the spacious skies. On 112 reviews (as of 19 November 2018), Yelp reviewers have bestowed a lofty five star rating. Not even a Russian judge could find fault with Watson’s B-B-Q. Todd H., a reviewer from Indiana may have put it best: “Nearly every single review of this place is a five star. Would you like to know why? It’s because six stars isn’t an option.”
Just a month prior to being named one of the best barbecue joints in the country, Watson’s was named New Mexico’s representative on Thrillist’s list of best small-town restaurants in the country. As an aside, urban America doesn’t hold exclusivity when it comes to great restaurants. There are terrific eateries throughout rural America. They may not get the publicity of their big city brethren, but some are every bit as good…or better. Within the Land of Enchantment, restaurants such as Deming’s Forghedaboudit, Peñasco’s Sugar Nymph Bistro, El Rito’s El Farolito and Carlsbad’s Danny’s Place have garnered much-deserved attention from national press.
When I asked Johnny Watson if he realized how famous his restaurant is, he demurely brushed off my compliment. He related that when Thrillist called to apprise him that his restaurant had made its list, he thought someone was playing a prank on him. Only when barbecue aficionados from across the fruited plain started showing up in droves did he realize just what an honor had been paid to his eponymous restaurant. Read the aforementioned reviews on Yelp and you’ll see many of them come from outside the Land of Enchantment’s sacred borders: Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, California, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Washington and more.
Johnny and Stella Watson didn’t set out to open and run a barbecue restaurant. Though John, his father, had a passion for barbecuing, Johnny always told himself he’d never run a barbecue restaurant. It wasn’t until the economic downturn a few years ago that Johnny determined he needed a new influx of business. Diversifying his business not only resulted in the launch of Watson’s B-B-Q at the back of his ranch supply store, but the addition of Watson’s Cowtown Donuts & Bakery. Donuts are baked, not fried. You can also find white, wheat and sourdough breads baked daily.
Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Johnny has lived in Tucumcari since 1966. He and Stella have owned and operated the Tucumcari Ranch Supply for more than three decades (circa 1982). Barbecue and donuts not withstanding, to call it just a “ranch supply” business is more than a bit of a misnomer and a vast underselling of what this store means to the community. It’s an old fashioned town and country store, the likes of which have survived only in rural America in this age of internet shopping. As with rural general stores, it’s more than a place to conduct commerce. It’s a hub of the community.
The Tucumcari Ranch Supply carries a varied inventory of hardware items, animal and pet food, animal health products, western clothing/hats/belts and jewelry, Route 66 items, tack, gifts and home decor. The store also offers food items (dips, salsas, jams, and soups to mention just a few) and other products produced in New Mexico. They are the retail dealer for Tucumcari Mountain Cheese which is manufactured in town. Moreover, if you need livestock market reports for Amarillo, Dalhart, Clovis, Clayton and Roswell, you can find them on the store’s website.
There’s something to see everywhere you turn at the store, including several mounted exotic animals (a moose bagged in Alaska, a standing bear that could look me in the eye, a cougar killed in nearby Montoya, a two-headed lamb, a longhorn steer and just for gullible tourists, a jackalope). Don’t forget to ask Johnny about the caged mongoose. On a not so serious vein, you’ll also espy hilarious signs and slogans, including some double-entendre material for adults: “where every butt gets a good rub,” and “you can’t beat our meat” being just two of them. License plates festoon the walls and where you don’t find a license plate, you’ll see the scrawled names of many of the guests who’ve dined at the restaurant.
As in much of Texas, the wood of choice at Watson’s is mesquite. Fortunately (though many people in Tucumcari wouldn’t use that characterization) is blessed (again, not a term locals would use) with an abundance of mesquite. Johnny has a large pile of mesquite root wood which he allows to dry for as long as two years before deeming it ready for use. He’s also got a pile of mesquite from Oklahoma. Make sure you spend a few minutes at the store’s yard where you’ll find several vintage vehicles.
Watson’s B-B-Q has one of the most unique smoking processes you’ll ever see. It starts with vertical tank-like contraption used solely to incinerate mesquite wood until its coals are literally red hot. Those coals are then transferred to a more conventional smoker with metal grates on which meats are smoked the traditional low-and-slow way. From years of use, the metal grates are seasoned with the mesquite-imbued deliciousness of mountains of meat which have graced that unique smoker.
Watson’s B-B-Q is available Monday through Friday from 10:30 to 4:30 and on Saturdays until 3:30 or until the boss gets tired. We happened to visit on a rare slow day though by the time we arrived (2PM), all the donuts were gone. Daily specials on the menu include a Smoke House Burger, albeit one that’s charbroiled not smoked (though Johnny promised he’d explore smoking a burger once he finds the time). Specials also include a unique pita bread-based po’ boy stuffed with brisket or pulled pork, an old-fashioned Frito pie and a Smoke House Burrito made with brisket or pulled pork.
Available by the pound are brisket (sliced or chopped), pulled pork, ham, turkey, smoked link sausage or pork ribs. Because you’ll want to try a little of everything, you can order one meat, two meat, three meat or four meat plates that include a large sugar cookie, a slice of homemade bread and two sides (potato salad, coleslaw, pinto beans, mac and cheese or chips). Also on the menu are a number of sandwiches, including some which pair two meats. It’s a carnivore-pleasing menu that’s easy on the wallet, too.
Under the shadow of the golden bear where we sat, Johnny delivered my three-meat-plate: brisket, pork ribs and sausage with pinto beans and potato salad on the side. It’s easy to see why Watson’s has garnered such wide acclaim. All three meats were competition worthy though Johnny indicated he won’t ever compete as it would leave the store short-staffed and would compromise service quality. The pork ribs have a great bark (a term which Amazing Ribs.com describes as deep dark, rich, sweet, chewy, crusty, jerky-like rind suffused with incredible complex flavor). They’re also meaty and absolutely delicious.
One mark of great barbecue is that it’s able to stand up on its own with no amelioration (sauce) needed. In fact, you wouldn’t want sauce on those ribs. That holds true for the brisket, as moist and tender as any brisket you’ll find. You’ll quickly discern the rosy pink hue on each piece of brisket…and as barbecue addicts know, in the world of barbecue, the smoke ring is one of the most sought-after properties of smoked meats. The smoked sausage (two links) is terrific with a spice profile that really sings. It was my favorite of the three meats. One of the must-have sides on the menu is the potato salad which has a creamy sweetness you’ll appreciate.
For my Kim, the three-meat platter included smoked turkey, brisket and pulled pork. Slab-sized slices of turkey were her favorite, tryptophan be damned. Because of the smoke and longer cooking time, smoked turkey is oh so much more flavorful and tender than a roasted turkey. Is it any wonder savvy diners have their Thanksgiving turkey smoked by their favorite barbecue restaurant? The pulled pork is characteristically a little fatty, but that just means more flavor. Now, Kim did enjoy the sauce with all three meats. Johnny admitted he uses a commercial sauce which he doctors with select spices to enhance. She loved the mac n’ cheese.
Served with each barbecue plate are a slice of housemade bread and a large sugar cookie. Housemade bread is so much better than the store-bought white bread so many barbecue restaurants serve. That’s especially true of this bread. If Watson’s hasn’t run out, you’re well advised to pick up a loaf (which would go great with Tucumcari Mountain Cheese, by the way). The sugar cookie, roughly the size of a manhole cover, is also delicious though by no means should it be considered your dessert. Not at Watson’s!
For dessert, you’ve got to have cobbler. New Mexicans will love the green chile cobbler, a curiosity out-of-state tourists just don’t get. Have it a la mode if you’re not New Mexican heat tolerant, but have it. It’s one of the best cobblers in the Land of Enchantment even if volcano-eaters like me would prefer it be even more piquant. My Kim had the cherry cobbler and was blown away by the sheer number of cherries amidst the crumbly crust.
Dining at Watson’s BBQ is much like dining at Johnny and Stella Watson’s home. They’ll make you feel right at home as they feed you some of the best barbecue you can find. Watson’s BBQ is one of those rare restaurants you wouldn’t consider too far to drive to from anywhere in the Land of Enchantment.
502 S. Lake
Tucumcari, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 16 November 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Brisket, Pulled Pork, Smoked Turkey, Sausage, Ribs, Green Chile Cobbler A La Mode