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Farewell to a Barbecue Icon

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Oklahoma City lost a venerable member of the restaurant community last week, when County Line Barbecue shuttered. My relationship with the regional County Line chain dates back 34 years to the original restaurant, which is still open today. As with any loss, reflection is the first reaction.

Until I was 8 years old, pit barbecue held a place in my imagination next to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Living in California until that age, barbecue was a fairy tale my father, a native Texan, told from time to time, speaking in melody about smoked ribs and brisket smothered in sauce that tasted like liquid gold.

We lived in Chula Vista in San Diego County where the only barbecue purveyor was called Love’s but my father dismissed as “Yankee barbecue.” My mother said they had hair in their food, a common ploy she used to dislodge my attention from an unwanted eatery.

In 1976, two years removed from his retirement from the Navy, the motherland beckoned. I didn’t take kindly to the announcement. I was trading Sea World, the Padres, the Chargers, the San Diego Zoo and the Pacific Ocean for little more than barbecue.

When we made the move that fall, the kitchen appliances arrived after we did. So, we ate out the first week. The first night we drove five minutes north on Loop 360 onto Bee Caves Road where we headed west another five minutes and wound our way up a hillside road to a ranch-style house gleaming with neon and stuffed with people.

That place was called The County Line, the first place I ever ate barbecue.
The menu was on a Big Chief tablet like one I had at home. After my glass of coke arrived, I notice my father’s iced tea came in a glass twice the size. And when the waitress refilled his glass throughout dinner, the wheels were set in motion for my conversion from soda to tea. These were the days before free refills on soft drinks that weren’t tea or coffee.

Then came the homemade bread and butter. Then came the brisket, and the sauce, and the ribs, and the sauce, and the sausage and the sauce. The pinto beans were all my mother’s never were, When the cole slaw and potato salad coalesced with the beans, sopping perfection was achieved.

Suddenly, Texas wasn’t so bad.

The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress.
The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress.

We returned to County Line the next night, and the night after that, too. When the appliances finally arrived, we somberly fed on a meal that now escapes memory, probably meatloaf.
County Line became the Cathey family restaurant. Waited on the hilltop an hour or more for a table was no problem for my folks when the weather was right, the Lone Star was cold and chairs could be found on the back lawn overlooking an endless sea of oaks dappled with red cedars.

When I moved to Oklahoma City in 1988, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I learned County Line had a location here.

Set on a bluff overlooking Interstate 44 and what would soon be Remington Park, it was decorated in the same 1940s décor, had the same Big Chief tablets, beef ribs, sauce, brisket, sausage and sides. When my parents visited, that’s where we ate. The County Line was, for a time, my direct line to home.

As years passed and Oklahoma City became my home, the need for that connection waned. Other barbecue restaurants caught my eye: Leo’s, Earl’s Rib Palace, and Bedlam Barbecue to name a few. Iron Starr Urban BBQ modernized the County Line’s fancy barbecue concept. 

I visited the County Line a couple of months ago for the first time in probably two years. The restaurant was mostly empty on a Saturday afternoon, but it didn’t register that the place might be in trouble. I was as blind then as I was as an 8-year-old to thought that the man who introduced me to barbecue on a hillside in Austin would ever weaken or lose his vigor. The view from 4 feet off the ground doesn’t allow for much foresight when it comes to the destructive power of time.

Time did to Dad what it does to all things, most recently the Oklahoma County Line. The beginning of the end tastes bitter, but memory is a natural sweetener.

No one can say for certain whether there’s a place in heaven for restaurants, but I like to think there is. If I’m right, I have no doubt Dad is having a combination plate, a half loaf of bread, extra sauce and an iced tea every night — maybe a Lone Star longneck, if the angels aren’t around.

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Related Photos
 The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress.

The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress.

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4d8ccc5dbbdee86a37693d2287f74e10.jpg" alt="Photo - The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress. " title=" The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress. "><figcaption> The lawn at the original County Line in Austin is now paved and the view now includes signs of progress. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-7ef95e0af95e3e452cc02e013c898b47.jpg" alt="Photo - " title=" "><figcaption> </figcaption></figure>
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