Thursday, March 3, 2011

Landmark Lost

Grams is a little sad this morning. South Texas lost the landmark Joe Cotten's Barbecue in Robstown, Texas last night. I heard from a friend around 6:30 last evening that Cotten's was ablaze. We were just starting our monthly bunco game when the news came. As the evening went on, several of us received text messages and it wasn't long before we knew it was a total loss. This landmark Texas tradition is only about 7 miles from my home. We know the Cotten family and we've eaten there many times. I'm going to miss it.

Image from LBJ Library
Joe Cotten's Barbecue was not only a landmark, it was legendary. Growing up in South Texas, I remember stories of governors and wealthy Texas oil men dropping in to Cotten's for lunch. And by dropping in, I mean their helicopters would land in the median of Highway 77 and the governor or the millionaire would climb down and dash across the highway for lunch. I remember hearing about President Lyndon Johnson and Governor Bill Clements eating there. And we were often hearing that celebrities like Bill Haley, Willie Nelson, Roger Staubach, and, more recently, Tony Romo had stopped in at Cotten's to eat. It was widely known as a favorite dining place anytime celebrities or politicos were in the area.

It was a place where the community met. I never went there without seeing several people that I knew. Their banquet room was the site of my son's annual high school basketball banquets.

Cotten's didn't have a menu and they didn't take checks or credit cards. In recent years, they did have an on-site ATM so you could get cash. They also didn't have plates. Your dinner arrived on butcher paper placed right on top of the red gingham-checked vinyl tablecloth.

What they did have was personal attentive service. The waiters were not what you expected to find in a roadside barbecue joint. They were nattily clad in black trousers, maroon jackets, white shirts, and black bow ties. Some of those waiters have worked there for many, many years. And I'm sad to think that they're waking up this morning without a job to go to. They could rattle off the menu in about 15 seconds, kept your iced-tea glass full, and brought refills on your meat. The waiters would say "If you leave hungry, it's your own fault."

Cotten's also had an owner who was almost always there to greet you. Cecil Cotten and his brother Kenneth would stop by the table to say hello, ask about the kids, and see if there was anything you needed. Kenneth's son played basketball with our son, so we were acquainted. They always made us feel special and welcome.

The food was basic and delicious. It was a barbecue restaurant and that's what they served, barbecue, good ol' Texas style barbecue ... beef brisket, available lean or stringy, pork, sausage, ribs, chopped beef, beans, potato salad topped with a green olive, jalapenos, onions, and tomatoes. I loved the lean beef brisket with potato salad and tomatoes. The tomatoes stand out in my memory. They were always large, firm, red, thick-sliced tomatoes. I was told that they were locally grown, but I don't know how reliable that information was. At any rate, the tomatoes were always awesome. And, every meal started with a pot of cheddar cheese spread and crackers. Delicious!

They also had an unusual barbecue sauce. This was not your thick, sweet, bottle-style barbecue sauce. It was more of a barbecue salsa ... a mix of tomatoes, onions and spices, a little on the thin side as barbecue sauce goes ... served warm and delicious!

Virtually everyone in the area has eaten there. Hunters and business-men timed their travel so they'd pass through Robstown at mealtime so they could eat at Cotten's. College kids returning from school would insist on a trip to Cotten's while they were home. Our out-of-town guests would often ask if we could go eat at Cotten's. They'd never been there, but they'd heard of it and wanted to experience it. And, in my opinion, eating there was just that -- an experience. It was part of our local Americana and I, along with the entire community, will miss it.

This restaurant was a pillar of the Robstown community. Joe Cotten first opened it in 1947, originally in downtown Robstown. They moved to the Highway 77 location in 1966 and have been a South Texas institution ever since. The family took over running the restaurant when Joe died.

Our local news reports this morning that the family says it plans to rebuild, pending discussions with their insurer. That's good news.


  1. Sounds like my kinda place. I love BBQ!

    Have a great day, and...Happy Saturday Sharefest!

  2. Cotten's sounded like a really wonderful place. It's so sad when those vintage eateries -- so rich in history and so enmeshed in the community -- meet their demise.