WRITTEN BY STEPHANIE L. ROBERTSON
People don’t have to travel 800 miles to get smoky, mouth-watering, genuine Texas barbecue.
Chuck Wagon BBQ on Madison Boulevard is well-known for tender brisket that customers
would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else this side of the Mississippi River.
The difference is in their recipes, rubs, sauces and cooking process.
“We brought brisket to Madison,” said Mike Holley, who owns Chuck Wagon BBQ with his
wife Frances, who is originally from Madison. The two met when he was stationed in Madison,
and they have been married almost 50 years.
The cowboy-hat-wearing, blue-eyed father of three learned how to cook authentic Texas grub
when working as a petroleum engineer on western oil rigs. The volatile nature of the oil industry
provided him with ample opportunity to start a mobile barbecue business. During lay-offs, he
would go on furlough to operate his restaurant out of a trailer – before food trucks were cool.
“I’d go and set up on corners, and the grocery stores would let me set up in their parking lots,
and I’d sell barbecue,” he said.
Later his family moved to Madison. The Holleys opened Chuck Wagon BBQ on Valentine’s
Day 2008 at its current location. Initially they had to order brisket out of Birmingham because
raw brisket wasn’t available here.
“We had trouble breaking the market open because people had tried brisket before, and it was
kind of dry,” Mike said. The trick, he explained is to cook it like a Texan. “The difference is off-
set cooking. When you’re cooking brisket, you need a firebox, where your fire’s in one area and
you’re just cooking with smoke and heat. Most people cook it right over the coals, which causes
brisket to get dry and tough. It’s a delicious meat if it’s done right – tender and flavorful. We
also use a different wood.”
Chuck Wagon BBQ uses a blend of hickory, pecan and mesquite wood to fire up their barbecue.
“Mesquite is what we used in Texas, just because that was what was available there,” Mike said.
In addition to brisket, Chuck Wagon BBQ offers tangy ribs, chicken, pork, sausage, sandwiches,
crunchy Texas toast and tasty sides. “We’re one of the few barbecue places that has sausage,”
Mike said. “In Texas, that’s common – brisket and sausage.”
The restaurant’s velvety macaroni and cheese is its newest addition. “We put bacon in the mac-n-
cheese,” Mike said. “In the restaurant business, if you want anything to be better, add cheese or
Diners can rack up the temperature with Chuck Wagon BBQ’s famous dipping sauces. Choose
mild sauce for no heat, medium with a little siracha for a bit of a kick or hot for a real barn-
Mike attributes much of the restaurant’s success to hard work, friendly staff and strong values.
“The man that I kind of look to as my mentor told me three things: make it good, get it to ’em
fast and keep the place clean. Everything we do surrounds those three things. We’ve had
amazing customer reviews. We’re very proud of that.”
The Holleys also eagerly give back to the Madison community. For the past three years Chuck
Wagon BBQ has offered a free Thanksgiving buffet for veterans, active duty military,
firefighters, police officers and first responders.
There’s a reason the Holleys often hear people say they go to Chuck Wagon BBQ directly from
the airport. AL.com recently selected Chuck Wagon BBQ as 2018’s No. 1 barbecue restaurant in
Madison County and the seventh best ribs in the state.
“We’ve had a 4.5-4.8-star customer rating for over 10 years,” said Mike. “Yelp, Urban Spoon,
Trip Advisor – all of them have voluntarily sent us certificates for our customer average for over
five years. That is a really good record with them, but we’ve had it for 10 years straight.”
The rustic building that houses the restaurant is about 1,000 square feet. Mike built all of the
furniture himself from upcycled wooden fences. People can’t miss the little old building at 8982
Madison Boulevard. There’s a chuck wagon in front, and BBQ is painted prominently on the
restaurant’s red tin roof.
Visit www.chuckwagon-bbq.com for business hours and a complete menu. Call 256-772-5179
for catering. One of the Holleys’ children recently opened a Chuck Wagon BBQ in Huntsville,
so diners might want to check out that location, as well.