Fort Worth Pitmasters Have Perfected Smoked Chicken Salad

When Lady & the Pit closed in Fort Worth in 2019, I lamented the loss of owner and pitmaster Natasha Smith’s fried pork chops, pineapple cream pie, and that smoked chicken salad. The rest of the barbecue was fine, but the tender strands of smoky pulled chicken, barely held together by a sweet dressing, was the best of the smoked meats. A New Year’s Day announcement from the restaurant’s long-dormant Facebook page got me excited. Smith wrote, “Location established. We will remain on the east side. More details coming soon!!” The smoked chicken salad will be back, she confirms, as will most of her old favorites. She didn’t have anything to share yet on an opening date. But in the time that Lady & the Pit has been away, Fort Worth has become home to a smoked chicken salad boom.

In November, Tulips FTW opened as Fort Worth’s newest music venue during a rough time for music venues. Eventually, once COVID restrictions are no longer necessary, it will have a capacity for six hundred people. Meanwhile, the bar opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays and even earlier on weekends. I stopped in during a quiet Friday lunch hour to get a smoked chicken salad sandwich to go. I didn’t taste much smoke flavor, but the sandwich, built on toasted sourdough, was carefully prepared. Leaves of lettuce were crisp, and salt and pepper were sprinkled over the tomato slices. Pecans and grapes fancied up the chicken salad a bit, and two good pickle spears on the side were a nice touch. It sounds like an odd place for a chicken salad sandwich, but I can’t wait for the next one once I’m ready to attend live shows again.

Technically, it’s smoked “ticken” salad at Smoke-A-Holics BBQ, a barbecue joint on Fort Worth’s east side. A sign above the ordering counter describes it as “50% turkey, 50% chicken, 100% delicious.” It comes in eight- and sixteen-ounce containers, with a sleeve of club-style crackers on the side. Chunks of celery and sun-dried tomatoes are visible, along with parsley and green onion. The chicken is shredded and the turkey is chunked, so there’s a bit of textural variation. I liked it and asked co-owner Derrick Walker where he got the idea to serve it. “I guess it is kind of a Fort Worth thing,” he said. “The first two people I knew that were selling it was Big Boyz and Carpenter’s,” he added, pointing me in the direction of both restaurants.

I had heard of Big Boyz BBQ and must admit that I chuckled a bit when I saw the early announcements for last year’s opening, which leaned heavily on a specialty of smoked chicken salad. I thought it was a strange feature item for a Texas barbecue joint, but I didn’t know the humble dish had made owner T.J. Ragster a minor celebrity in Fort Worth. While he was in the hospital for a procedure last year, Ragster couldn’t help but laugh when he was recognized. “I heard one of the nurses say, ‘There go that chicken salad man!’”

The local health department had a harder time catching up to Ragster while he built up his brand selling chicken salad from the tailgate of his pickup truck. Starting in 2018, Ragster would announce a pickup time and location on Facebook, and show up with coolers full of original and spicy smoked chicken salad in pint-size containers. “There would be massive lines” waiting for him, he tells me. As his popularity grew, he had to post a note on the front door of his house that warned, “You will not be served any food at this door.” A health department official curious about his Facebook page came looking for him at home but found only the note. Ragster told him the note spoke for itself and left it at that. One night, a security guard for a nearby building called the police because of Ragster’s huge crowd. When the police cruiser arrived, the security guard approached it to thank the officer for responding—and the officer apologized and got in line. He was there for some chicken salad of his own.

The business’s early days pushed the limits of Ragster’s home kitchen. “It was a mess,” he says. A used food truck broke down in just a month. While searching for restaurant properties, he sold containers of chicken salad out of a few area barbecue joints, including Jack’s Soul Food and BBQ, Berry Best BBQ, and the Sausage Shoppe. Eventually, Ragster found the former Wilson’s BBQ location on the east side of Fort Worth. Thankfully, it had a drive-through, which is the only way Big Boyz BBQ has served food since opening last June. The pandemic has kept the dining room closed entirely.

Big Boyz serves a full barbecue menu, but Ragster said the smoked chicken salad is still the most popular item. A half-pound container of either original or spicy comes with a half sleeve of club-style crackers for $6. The chicken is ground rather than chopped. “It’s too much to do by hand,” Ragster explains. The salad is dense, not soupy, which the first hint that it’s more meat than mayonnaise. (Like bread crumbs in a crab cake, a good chicken salad requires just enough mayo to bind the loose ingredients together.)

The chicken salad loosens up a bit once the chill is knocked off, when it becomes great for dipping, especially with those crackers. Big Boyz also serves it on a sandwich or as one of the meats on any barbecue plate. It’s on the sweet side, so if you can handle a bit of burn, I’d suggest getting the spicy to balance it out. Ragster uses only smoked chicken breasts in the mix, and there’s a good dose of smoked flavor. If you’re searching for the perfect smoked chicken salad, Big Boyz is a great place to start.

Ragster’s reputation preceded him when he first met Katrina Carpenter of Carpenter’s Cafe at a Fort Worth Walmart. They were both trying to buy cases of mason jars that had gone on sale, and she said, “You’re that smoked chicken salad man,” Ragster recalls. They talked for two hours, mostly about chicken salad. If you’re looking for the best smoked chicken salad in town, it’s between these two, and I can’t pick a favorite. Ragster said he doesn’t see it as a competition. “Everybody doing it is different,” he says. “I’m trying to make sure this stuff is good so you’ll buy it, and my lights won’t get turned off.”

Carpenter echoed Ragster’s sentiments. “I just try to keep ours as authentic and original as possible,” she says. “We try to give you the best bang for your buck to keep you coming back.” The lunch box at Carpenter’s Cafe is just $12 and includes a smoked chicken salad sandwich (I suggest getting it on a croissant), chips, a pickle, iced tea, and a small dessert. There’s more to Carpenter’s than chicken salad, but as she points out, “The menu is built around chicken salad.”

The chicken salad is built in her husband Travis Carpenter’s trio of smokers. He uses pecan and hickory wood for the smoking, and even does some briskets for their “fry day” Friday special of loaded brisket fries. For the chicken salad, Travis smokes only chicken thighs, then mixes them with unsmoked chicken breast meat. If it was all smoked meat, “it would be entirely too rich,” says Katrina. The Carpenters won’t disclose the ratio, but even with just a fraction of the chicken smoked, some customers insist there’s bacon in the chicken salad.

If the chicken salad at Big Boyz is best for dipping, the chunky variety at Carpenter’s is meant for a sandwich. Katrina says they hand-chop all the ingredients. “I don’t believe in a lot of shortcuts,” she says. They tried an industrial chopper and pre-chopped vegetables but went back to the cutting block when the texture wasn’t right. I can tell what she means when I get the crunch of the fresh celery in every bite. The downside: all that preparation also means they can’t quickly whip up a fresh batch. “Once we sell out of that for the day, it’s gone,” she says.

I asked both Ragster and Katrina Carpenter for the chicken salad recipes, fully expecting the shut down I received. Carpenter just laughed, and Ragster insisted that only he and his mother know the recipe. Still, they did offer some advice for my own recipe development. “I would never use Miracle Whip,” Ragster says, insisting that real mayonnaise is the right base for the dressing. Katrina says eggs are a popular addition in many chicken salad recipes, but not hers. She also said to make sure all the vegetables going into the salad are dried off before chopping so you don’t add extra water and make a soggy chicken salad. I used their advice to make my own recipe for chicken salad, but it’s not an attempt to imitate either version. It is, however, a simple way to use up any portions of leftover smoked chicken—or even smoked turkey—that might be sitting in your refrigerator.

smoked-chicken-salad

Here’s an easy smoked chicken salad recipe to make with your barbecue leftovers.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Smoked Chicken Salad

330 grams smoked chicken*
60 grams celery (1 stalk, halved lengthwise and finely chopped)
30 grams pickles, finely chopped
80 grams mayonnaise
10 grams sugar

20 grams pickle juice or apple cider vinegar
Chopped fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon, or cilantro
A few dashes of your favorite barbecue rub
Juice from 1/8 lemon
Salt to taste

  1. Debone the chicken (if necessary) and pull, chop, or mince it. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, celery, and pickles.
  2. Combine the mayonnaise, sugar, and pickle juice, and mix well. Pour the dressing over the chicken/celery/pickle mixture and mix again. Add herbs, barbecue rub, and lemon juice, and mix again, adding salt as needed for taste. I like to let the chicken salad spend a few hours in the refrigerator before eating. Enjoy.

*Be sure to weigh the amount of chicken you use to get the correct ratios for the dressing. The quantities are shown by weight because I swear to you that it is so much easier to cook using a scale when measuring is necessary, and it’s time you bought one.

Texas Monthly