The Swinging Door is still smoking

24 Mar.,2023


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Steve Onstad stood in the empty, newly built 800-square-foot shack on FM 359 in Richmond and wondered what he was going to do with the place. The year was 1973.

When he was a kid, his family had moved from Houston to Richmond, where his father, Ward, bought up real estate in an area of farms and cattle ranches that was primed to become a bustling bedroom community of Houston.

His family got word that a big suburban development was going in across the road from land they owned, so this structure had been erected with plans that it would house a furniture store to service the new homes opening nearby.

But then the development project got canceled. Onstad was stuck with a building on a dusty, desolate stretch.

A few days later, a local farmer stuck his head in the door and asked, "Y'all got anything to eat?"

"Well, what do you want?" Onstad asked.

"How about a barbecue sandwich," the farmer replied.

"Come back in two weeks," Onstad said.

The Swinging Door opened on Labor Day in 1973.

Onstad had never owned a restaurant, but he patronized a famous barbecue joint in nearby Fulshear, Dozier's Grocery. He hired the welder who built that spot's pits, a man named Roy Helwig, to replicate them for Swinging Door. At the time, Dozier's used direct heat pits, which consisted of a length of steel pipe closed at both ends, with charcoal placed on the bottom and wire mesh grills above where the meat was cooked.

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The Swinging Door

3818 FM 359, Richmond


Closed Monday and Tuesday

"It really wasn't my style of cooking," says Onstad, who later came to prefer the more traditional smokers with an "offset" firebox on one end so the smoke and heat flowed across the meat rather than cooking it from beneath.

The Swinging Door burned down about a year later. Onstad didn't have money to rebuild, so he recruited neighbors to help out with promises of future barbecue once he reopened.

For the new restaurant, he hired the same welder to build the smokers, but this time he designed them himself.

The welder had two pieces of pipe and asked if Onstad wanted two offset smokers. Onstad had another idea.

"I thought it was more efficient to have the firebox in the middle with the two pipes on each side," Onstad said. Over the years, he built three original smokers with central fireboxes.

At the time, he had no idea how to cook on them. Fortunately, he had another contact in the barbecue business.

Years earlier, Onstad's father owned a furniture store in Houston. He was friendly with another family that owned a furniture store on Market Square: the Pappases. Onstad's father mentioned to one of the brothers - Onstad thinks it was Pete - that his son was opening a barbecue joint. Pete recommended they contact his nephew, Greg Pappas, who owned a soda-machine business and worked at the family barbecue joint on Pierce downtown.

Onstad had Greg install soda machines at his rebuilt restaurant, and Greg invited Steve to come train at their restaurant (which today is still Pappas Bar-B-Q).

By the mid-1970s, Steve had turned The Swinging Door into one of the Houston area's most famous barbecue joints. Bum Phillips, head coach of the "Luv ya blue"-era Houston Oilers, lived nearby and brought players and coaches there every Thursday for "strategy sessions" (mostly beer drinking).

Local oil companies were flush with cash, and Onstad cleared two nearby fields so executives could fly their helicopters in for business lunches.

Later, during the "Urban Cowboy" craze of the 1980s, Onstad added a dance hall that became a famous destination for Houston's jet set who didn't want to bother with the crowds at Gilley's in Pasadena.

Today, the dance hall is used mostly for special events. The concrete slab of the original building is still visible just as you enter the current restaurant. Onstad is still cooking a full menu of traditional Texas barbecue on those custom-built, central firebox pits.

The suburban development that originally drew Onstad's family to the area is now booming. The neighboring farms and cattle ranches are being replaced by tract houses and McMansions.

I asked Onstad if he might someday sell his rambling barbecue empire to any of the steady stream of developers that pass through.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said. "I love this place, and I love what I do too much."

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