Turkey Legs Smothered in Mac and Cheese Are the Latest, Greatest Texas Trend

Many food vendors suffered severe financial setbacks when the State Fair of Texas was canceled last year. One of them was Yoakum Packing Company, which produces the item that has become the symbol for this sort of festival atmosphere: the giant smoked turkey leg. If you’ve eaten a turkey leg from a tent or booth with the Yoakum Packing, Farm Pac, or Hans Mueller name on it, you’ve eaten the company’s cured and smoked drumsticks. Plenty of other vendors also use its product, and according to Farm Pac’s president Glen Kusak, in a normal year that means 70,000 turkey legs are consumed during the State Fair alone. That was a big hit to business, not to mention the other fairs and festivals that were canceled in 2020.

One bright spot for the smoked turkey leg industry in a down period has been the growth in popularity of stuffed turkey legs in Texas restaurants. Turkey Leg Hut, the now famous (or infamous) Houston restaurant, created the dish in 2016. A massive turkey leg loaded with dirty rice and topped with shrimp alfredo sauce has become its signature, and the demand has been incredible. “Turkey Leg Hut is a huge volume, a huge tonnage account,” Kusak says. Pre-pandemic, Turkey Leg Hut owner Nakia Price told the Texas Bucket List that it serves between 2,000 and 2,800 turkey legs per day. The popularity has also sparked a trend, and you don’t have to go to Houston anymore to try one.

In Dallas, you can head to Granny’s Cajun Cooking, which opened late last year. The takeout-only spot is serving fried catfish, po’boys, and gumbo alongside massive smoked turkey legs stuffed with mac and cheese and your choice of chopped brisket, smoked sausage, fried chicken, or fried shrimp. When they say stuffed, what they and every other restaurant mean is that the turkey legs are smothered with a combination of toppings. The legs may be falling-apart tender, but they’re not deboned or actually filled with the ingredients. If you don’t like different foods on your plate mixed together, this trend isn’t for you.

For me, the on-brand choice at Granny’s was the chopped brisket ($19.50). The bottom of the drumstick bone peeking out beneath the mac and cheese was the only evidence of an actual turkey leg under the generous toppings. Well, there was also the enormous heft of the meal(s) barely contained by a styrofoam container. The saucy beef was predictably sweet, but so was the mac and cheese, which was unexpected. The turkey leg beneath was smoky and fork-tender.

Derrick Walker at Smoke-A-Holics BBQ in Fort Worth gets a little more creative with his turkey leg toppings. “I’d never seen anyone put shrimp and grits on a turkey leg,” he said, which is what you’ll find on the Big Grit, one of four stuffed turkey legs ($25 each, or $12 for the Plain Jane) offered at this joint every Tuesday. The Ragin’ Cajun features chicken and sausage pasta with an alfredo sauce, and the Dirty South is stuffed with dirty rice and smoked sausage. I tried the latter, which was packed with flavor. If you’ve had the barbecue dirty rice on Wednesdays at Smoke-A-Holics, this is the same version minus the brisket, or it could also be described as jambalaya without the tomatoes. Either way, the toppings complement the smoked turkey leg well.

Walker prefers to smoke raw turkey legs himself but said they’ve been difficult to source lately. Instead, he’s using cured and smoked turkey legs like those offered by Farm Pac. His secret for getting them tender isn’t really a secret. “Hit it with the Texas crutch and a little butter, and anything will tenderize,” he said, referring to wrapping the meat in aluminum foil to finish the cook. Walker said the special has really caught on. Even on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, when customers likely still had turkey leftovers at home, the joint sold more than fifty legs.

I asked Kusak if this new restaurant trend has made a noticeable difference in Farm Pac’s business. “Absolutely, it’s been a savior,” he tells me. “It’s been really, really quiet around here,” other than the turkeys legs they smoke for restaurants. The other items they produce, like sausage on a stick, are also geared toward festivals. Kusak anticipates business picking up this summer, but in the meantime he had plenty of time to explain turkey leg sizing to me over the phone.

Last year, when creating my own version of the State Fair turkey leg, I procured some turkey legs from the grocery store that weighed about one pound per piece. Those were likely from a turkey hen, the smallest of the four categories. Breeding hen drumsticks are a bit bigger, followed by tom drums from a male turkey, and breeding tom drums are the largest. Farm Pac cures and smokes all sizes, but most of the small ones are for the export market in Asia, where they want smaller turkey legs. The U.S. demands huge ones. Turkey legs in the 30- to 32-ounce range, which come from a 42-pound male turkey, are Farm Pac’s best-sellers in the U.S. market and count for at least 80 percent of its production. I should also note that if you’e eating a cured and smoked turkey leg in Texas, it probably came from Yoakum. That’s where Yoakum Packing was founded in 1947, and a mile and half away is its biggest competitor, Eddy Packing, which was started by a former Yoakum Packing employee in 1953.

Kusak traced the smoked turkey leg’s position as America’s festival food to the Minnesota State Fair in the seventies. Of this new trend of stuffed turkey legs, he said, “It’s certainly a growing business segment that we haven’t seen before.” Turkey Leg Hut proudly says it is the originator, and I was curious about the claim. There are so many versions available these days, it’s hard to believe that the first one was served in 2016. But besides some recipes where chefs literally debone and stuff a turkey leg, there’s no mention on Google of stuffed turkey legs until 2016. I checked for “loaded” and “smothered” turkey legs and found some recipes for turkey legs with gravy, but nothing else. The first documentation of a stuffed turkey leg of this genre that I could find was from Instagram user @thowed3 on June 30, 2016. He posted an image of a turkey leg stuffed with dirty rice inside the Caddy Shack bar, where Lynn and Nakia Price had set up their first location of Turkey Leg Hut.

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A mac-and-cheese-smothered turkey leg at Turkey Leg Paradise in Dallas.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

I tried that groundbreaking leg from Turkey Leg Hut on a dreary Tuesday afternoon last month. I stepped up to the food truck parked across the street from the restaurant for a shrimp-alfredo-topped stuffed turkey leg ($30). It was an over-the-top presentation and an incredibly rich dish, just like it’s supposed to be. It feels like an indulgence, especially when you eat it from an aluminum tray on your car trunk while surrounded by people eyeing your parking spot. But when I took a big bite and closed my eyes, I began to understand the hype. I want to return to the Turkey Leg Hut for the full post-pandemic experience to surround myself with the massive mimosas, a hookah bar, and a large crowd, where the excess of a turkey leg covered in cream sauce matches the atmosphere.

Dallas has its own viral turkey leg sensation. In February 2019, Corey Bradley of Turkey Leg Paradise posted a video, which now has over 1 million views, of a customer picking up his turkey leg as the meat fell off the bone. The video caused sales to skyrocket, and Bradley eventually opened a Turkey Leg Paradise brick-and-mortar location in the Cedars neighborhood. The menu has widened, but the turkey legs are still the main attraction.

Bradley said his turkey leg fascination started with his generous mother. In 2018, he was single, driving a school bus, and eating out for most of his meals. His mother, Sandra Thomas, noticed his empty freezer and stocked it with a half-dozen turkey legs. He smoked them for July Fourth and sold them to his friends. “With the money I made I bought twelve more,” Bradley said, and sold those. A few months later he brought them to a bar where he worked security. “It hit when everybody tasted them,” he said.

Bradley’s batch of turkey legs kept growing, then he sold 120 of them in 45 minutes. “I went and bought two more smokers,” he said, and then a food trailer he dubbed Corey’s Catering. He opened the brick-and-mortar later that year. During halftime of a football game, he went up to the front of the restaurant and promised to give the turkey leg away for free if the meat didn’t fall off the bone. The bone came away clean, and the crowd erupted. Now that’s their motto. Just as the caption reads in that first viral video: If the meat doesn’t fall off the bone, it’s free.

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You can hardly find the turkey leg beneath the mac and cheese and chopped brisket at Granny’s Cajun Kitchen in Dallas.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Unlike most stuffed turkey leg purveyors, Turkey Leg Paradise starts with raw turkey legs. Bradley said, “I think that’s what separates me from the competition.” He developed a rub that goes under and over the skin, and the legs are smoked with pecan in a specially designed offset smoker. How long they smoke is a secret. “There’s a fine line between it falling off the bone and being dried out,” Bradley explained.

Turkey Leg Paradise offers nine flavors and three different toppings for the turkey legs. Bradley prefers Texas sweet heat (which isn’t hot because he doesn’t like spicy food) and honey-glazed lemon pepper, which I can vouch for. I’ve also tried the turkey leg smothered—Bradley intentionally avoids the inaccurate “stuffed”—with spicy mac and cheese ($17), which was just a standard mac and cheese sprinkled with spicy seasoning. I’d stick with the flavored leg on the next visit.

Bradley said he’s smoking a few hundred turkey legs a week, which is down from nearly one thousand before the pandemic. “I don’t feel like we’ve hit our full stride yet,” he said, but he’s happy to still be riding the trend. Back at Farm Pac, Kusak is thankful for stuffed turkey legs when it comes to his profits, but he’s also a fan who throughly enjoys a visit to the Turkey Leg Hut himself. I wondered if this stuffed turkey leg trend could have an impact on the Farm Pac offerings when fair season ramps up again. Will we see stuffed turkey legs at this year’s State Fair of Texas? “You might,” he said, probably imagining all the State Fair tickets he’ll be counting in October.

Texas Monthly