The Barbecue Station at Loop 410 and Harry Wurzbach has been in business for 30 years. It has earned more than 1,800 reviews on Google and has an impressive rating of 4.5 stars out of five.

Folks praise the spot for its meat, the well-marbled brisket, the juicy smoked chicken. Express-News dining critic Mike Sutter agreed in his 2018 52 Weeks of BBQ report, praising the “barbarian war club heft of a beef chuck rib,” calling it “a 5-inch bone with a saddle of marbled meat and a varnished salt and pepper bark.”

So what’s keeping the Barbecue Station from five stars? Potato salad. Seriously.

“People either love it, or they hate it,” said co-owner Stewart Peacock. “We load ours up with chunks of sour pickles and olives, and it’s more whipped with the consistency of mashed potatoes more than it is chunky.”

At it’s most basic, barbecue is meat, heat and time. At some point, there’s nowhere else to go, and the differences between one spot’s good barbecue vs. another’s are minute at best. The tie-breaker for a lot of folks becomes the sides, and none carries more weight and influence than potato salad.

Peacock knows his is divisive. For every one of the customers who hate it, there’s another raving about it. But he will never change the recipe for Mimi’s Potato Salad because it was his grandma’s.

Pretty much any family in Texas and the South has a family potato salad recipe, and it’s that recipe and family history that every restaurant is competing against with its version, no matter the style or how good it is.

“You get judged vs. grandma’s or some aunt’s recipe or whatever you are used to eating,” said Ernest Servantes, co-owner and pitmaster of the Burnt Bean Co. in Seguin. “But if you are a barbecue restaurant, you have to have it.”

Barbecue and potato salad became an expected pairing through decades of Sunday church potlucks in the South. The dish can be made in advance in large quantities, holds up well at room temperature after sitting out for a while and requires just a big bowl and spoon to serve. And most recipes call for a bit of acid, making it a great counterpoint to rich, fatty barbecue.

“It’s not necessarily a barbecue-only thing. Potato salad is an American thing that goes with potlucks and is synonymous with family gatherings … regardless of any season,” Servantes said.

Barbecue restaurants often rely on family recipes for their potato salad, meaning it’s just as personal a dish for the chefs as for the customers they’re serving.

Servantes uses his mother’s recipe, but he replaces her white onions with more delicate scallions. It’s mayonnaise based with a hint of mustard for coloring, plus chopped boiled eggs, diced red peppers and celery, and the restaurant sells about 200 pounds of it a week.

In October, Texas Monthly named Burnt Bean Co. the fourth-best barbecue restaurant in the state. Earlier this year, Servants and Burnt Bean co-owner and co-pitmaster David Kirkland were named semifinalists for Best Chef: Texas in the James Beard Foundation’s 2022 Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists list. And Sutter gave Burnt Bean four stars in his 2021 review.

Still, there are plenty of potato salad critics.

“People will slide us little notes, either in person or online about what we should do to make our potato salad better,” Servantes said. “It really is a Pandora’s Box. But potato salad and beans are our top two side sellers. I’m active in several barbecue social media communities and ask if they are all getting the same flak, and they are.”

San Antonio chef Jason Dady is co-owner of Two Bros. BBQ Market and Alamo BBQ Co. and serves the same mustard-based potato salad — a recipe he created — at both. “We do ours with three different types of mustards, and it’s a top seller for us for sure.”

Dady estimates it’s the second-most requested side on his menu and said the reaction to his potato salad is mostly positive, and it’s rare that he gets knocked in a review for his version.

Jonah “Nano” Perez, pitmaster and owner of the Nanos BBQ food truck, said so far customer response to his mother’s potato salad recipe has been positive, too. He makes about 15 pounds of it per day of service and it runs neck-and-neck in sales with his mac and cheese.

The irony is that Perez said he doesn’t even really like potato salad — even his take on it — but the customers demand it.

“Every day I know I need to come with the potato salad, because it’s so intertwined with barbecue,” Perez said. “It’s one of those things that you have to offer, even if it comes with the judgment. Thankfully, most people seem to like ours.”

(Well, they probably still like their grandma’s better.)

[email protected] | Twitter: @chuck_blount | Instagram: @bbqdiver