What’s wrong with Houston barbecue?

Trinity Plate - Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que, Houston, TX
Trinity Plate – Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que – Houston, TX

Houston barbecue sucks.

At least that’s what the self-proclaimed barbecue experts say. I’ll admit to being one of those self-proclaimed experts. For years I’ve lamented the state of barbecue in Houston. Compared to the barbecue shrines of Central Texas, the ‘cue in Houston just never seemed to match up. But I kept going to different barbecue joints in Houston, hoping I’d find something worth eating. After all, every place I go to in Houston is packed with customers – surely they must be doing something right?

Perhaps I’d been seduced by the myth and lore of Central Texas barbecue. I’ve spent many weekends bouncing along the back roads of Central Texas searching for the best barbecue in Texas. I came to realize that I’d visited more barbecue joints located hundreds of miles away than those barbecue joints located right in my own backyard. How could I claim that Houston barbecue was inferior to Central Texas barbecue, or even that Houston barbecue did not rise to a general standard of good barbecue, if I’d only visited a small percentage of barbecue joints in Houston? With that in mind, the Houston Barbecue Project was born.

Initial explorations into lesser-known Houston barbecue joints confirm that Houston barbecue is indeed better than most people think. So, first and foremost, the purpose of the project is to document the current state of barbecue in Houston. How many barbecue restaurants are there? What cuts of meat do they serve? How many are family-run and how many are chains? Do most barbecue joints hew to a certain style of barbecue, or do they just produce generic smoked meat?

Which brings us to a tricky question. Is there a general standard for good barbecue? Or can barbecue only be evaluated within the sandbox of its self-proclaimed style? For instance, should you argue that Central Texas-style barbecue is inherently better than, or just different from, the East Texas-style of barbecue for which Houston is known?

There are certainly fundamental differences between Central and East Texas barbecue. Generally, Central Texas barbecue is known for beef that is prepared simply and smoked slowly, eschewing any extraneous flavors like barbecue sauce. East Texas barbecue is known for pork as much as beef – a tradition rooted in the pig-centric cuisine of the American south – and embraces a sweet tomato-based sauce to embellish the barbecue (more on that later).

However, for the purposes of this project, and at the risk of offending purists that believe it is folly to compare regional styles of barbecue, we will assume there is a general standard for good barbecue. It is essentially: the application of smoke and heat to meat such that the heat cooks the meat properly (moisture is retained and fat is suitably rendered), and the smoke imparts a pleasing and balanced flavor that combines favorably with the natural flavor of the meat.

That definition is, of course, rather dry. While we will use it as a baseline, the true evaluation of Texas barbecue involves values that cannot be quantified: the friendly welcome of the carver at the chopping block as he (or she) takes your order; the cool condensation on the mason jar of Shiner beer in the warm confines of a barbecue joint’s dining room in early summer; lingering in the smoke room of a small barbecue restaurant so your clothes are infused with the fragrance of post oak, resulting in your shirt being hung in your bedroom, unwashed – a source of incense to remind you of your last trip to barbecue nirvana.

Many of these unquantifiable values are what define the regional styles of Texas barbecue. Although our primary goal will be to evaluate Houston barbecue in the greater context of Texas barbecue (which, rightly or wrongly, is associated with Central Texas), we will also document and consider the eccentricities and proclivities of Houston barbecue, mainly as they relate to the East Texas-style. Just as traditions like butcher paper and “no utensils” define the barbecue experience of Lockhart and Taylor, smoked boudin and homemade East Texas hot links are ingrained in the barbecue tradition of Houston neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Acres Homes.

***

Why is it worth documenting the current state of barbecue in Houston and how it relates to Texas barbecue in general? One reason is that barbecue and its history is a reflection of our Texas culture. It’s embedded in the ancestry and traditions of our state. It speaks to timeless issues like race, ethnicity, and urban vs. rural tensions. Often, a consideration of seemingly tangential topics provides the clearest insights into the important issues of our time.

For instance, is the rural tradition of Central Texas barbecue “better” because it reflects a wealthy ranching class of European ancestry that could afford better cuts of more expensive beef? Is the urban barbecue of East Texas – primarily represented by African-American restaurateurs in Houston – somehow unworthy because it derives from a tradition in which barbecue sauce was used to mask the unappealing flavor of older and poorer cuts of beef or inexpensive pork?

Texas barbecue connoisseurs may respond, “You’re overthinking it. Barbecue is just barbecue.” Maybe. But like anything that inspires passion and fervent belief, the intentions of evangelists and experts become complicated, consciously or not, and Texas barbecue is no different. A closer examination is often revealing.

Another reason is that several newer Houston barbecue joints are developing a comingled style of barbecue, combining the best aspects of Central and East Texas-styles. How about some smoked boudin with that pile of moist brisket? With the spectacular success of Central Texas barbecue, it was only a matter of time before its influence spread east. The Project will specifically document this type of fusion, which I call “contemporary East Texas” barbecue.

Finally, a more prosaic reason for the Houston Barbecue Project is simply that Houston barbecue gets a bad rap. Ask the average diner about where to eat barbecue in Houston, and chain restaurants like Goode Company and Pappas always get mentioned. The family-run joints simply aren’t well known among the general population. Making them easy to find is a way to increase the profile of the good barbecue restaurants in Houston.

And at the risk of sounding like an elite snob, educating Houstonians about how to recognize good barbecue is also a consideration. I’ve had many conversations that most Houston barbecue is “lowest common denominator” barbecue. It can be argued that the average Houston diner (also the average American diner), whose palate has been desensitized by a typical diet of chain restaurants that traffic in bland food focused on clumsy combinations of salt, fat and sugar, is simply turned off by the strong flavor of smoke and rendered fat that is the hallmark of good barbecue. Acquiescing to the demands of the market, some barbecue joints just devolve into purveyors of pot roast and boiled ribs.

This argument is almost impossible to defend, however. People like what they like and who are we, as barbecue experts (self-proclaimed), to tell them what they should like? For many Houston diners, lowest common denominator barbecue will always be their preference and there will always be barbecue joints to supply this demand. Ironically, many of these types of joints are the most successful; making mediocre barbecue is far less expensive and more profitable than making the good stuff.

No, the audience we are trying to reach are those diners who – maybe because they are too busy to do research or just stuck in a barbecue rut – would prefer to jettison their bland barbecue habits and try something better if they had the opportunity. The Houston Barbecue Project is intended primarily for that audience.

By focusing on what’s great about Houston barbecue, and what makes great Texas barbecue in general, we hope to raise the bar (and profile) for barbecue in Houston. By comparing Houston barbecue to the rest of Texas barbecue and documenting and celebrating those aspects of urban/Houston/East Texas that make it unique, the Houston Barbecue Project intends to bring a better understanding of why East Texas-style barbecue is some of the best in the state, and how it can get even better.

It’s time to put Houston barbecue back on the map.

Check back tomorrow when we will launch the Houston Barbecue Project website and discuss methods for documenting and evaluating the current state of barbecue in Houston. Comments and suggestions for this project are welcome.

This entry was posted in Barbecue, Blog Only, Favorites, Food, Food for Thought, Texas and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to What’s wrong with Houston barbecue?

  1. Now I’m excited. I can’t wait to follow along on your journey. I too have wrestled with comparing BBQ styles, and it’s no easy feat. Just keep eating, and it’ll come to you.

  2. OKBBQEA says:

    I think you may be tilting at windmills Mr. Quixote.

    If you compare Houston BBQ to any other BBQ. Then you will find something wrong with it.

    I compare an apple to an orange and I will find something wrong with the apple.

    I’ve found that no one style of BBQ appeals to everyone yet many different styles of BBQ can appeal to one person.

    Me personally…. I’ve never met a style of BBQ I’ve had a problem with. What I have found problems with is the application of said style of BBQ.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      I too like all styles of barbecue. Unfortunately a lot of the “barbecue” I eat these days is really just pot roast and boiled pork. Just trying to remind people what a basic definition of barbecue is: it has to have a smoke component!

  3. turtle says:

    So what about North Texas BBQ compared to the rest of the state? South Texas BBQ, West etc? I know you are judging east to central and central is your standard of mainstream accepted greatness of which you want to raise the east texas profile up against… but if you are talking about texas BBQ in general maybe a little mention of what differentiate east, south, north and west if there is any? Or is it all just central centric and bad central imitations? I know you only know about central and especially the east and probably feel you dont have enough experience with the other parts of texas but maybe you can do a bit of research and into it and give a little blurb? Hell I guess i just want to hear the differences in BBQ in all its poles from your writing. I enjoy your writing style and how you are sculpting this out… being very level headed, very academic but not snobish and most importantly very educational. Best to you with this.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not aware of a specific North Texas BBQ style. I think most BBQ in that area is a version of Central Texas-style or just generic BBQ. The only documented styles of Texas BBQ I know of are the aforementioned Central and East Texas styles, West Texas style which is best known in the Cooper’s franchises out of Llano, and what is possibly the original style of BBQ – Mexican “barbacoa” from South Texas.

      • Dave says:

        Have to agree; I grew up in Central Texas (Kerrville area), then moved to South Texas (San Antonio). There is no quality Central Texas BBQ south of I-10. On the other hand, South Texas BBQ (which we considered to include more steamed-than-smoked barbacoa, and even more delicious, cabrito) could never be found north of the Balcones escarpment. South Texans can give Central Texans a run for their money on smoked sausages though…

  4. John says:

    Very interested to see your progress on this. I do have to laugh at the “wealthy, ranching class of European ancestry” comment. Please…until just recently BBQ of all stripes was food for the people. When was a tough brisket or shoulder clod or beef ribs for that matter “expensive”? BBQ snobbery is a recent trend that bloomed along with foodie blogs, BBQ pilgrimages to Lockhart/Luling and politicized food writing(all of which I enjoy by the way). For the record, central TX BBQ is the best. Unfortunately, much of the east TX BBQ we see here is mushy and steamed. I look forward to following this project and I hope to learn about some great Q spots here in Houston…it will save a trip to Luling.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      Beef brisket is actually a recent Texas BBQ staple, introduced in the 1970s as I recall. My understanding is in the early 1900s when Texas BBQ traditions were developing, beef was indeed relatively expensive and mostly available to wealthier people on a regular basis.

      • P.M. Summer says:

        I believe you are correct in that Houston gets a bad rap on BBQ. The inverse is that Central Texas gets far too many free passes.

        But as for brisket, I believe you are mistaken and its 1970s appearance. I have a 1946 Pearl Beer pocket calendar/notebook I purchased at a gun show some years back. Penciled in it is the proposed menu board for an unknown BBQ joint (with prices!), and a recipe for BBQ sauce. Brisket (sliced beef) is featured prominently, both as a dinner plate and lunch sandwich.

        I grew up eating sliced brisket (beef) sandwiches at Red and Sonny Bryan’s, the EZ Way, and Bob White’s Barbecue in Dallas… in the 1950s and ’60s. Brisket was always equally featured with spare ribs.

        Have a great hunt!

        Mind you, brisket wasn’t exactly a choice cut in the 19th century, or perhaps even through the post WWII years. Too tough and stringy. Hence its appropriateness for long, slow cooking.

  5. Dfwdean says:

    I’m no expert, and I actually have no single definition of BBQ that clouds my judgement. But I do know Great BBQ when it hits my mouth and tingles my taste buds. Sauce or no sauce, I actually leave that to the person creating the dish to determine, after all, I am there to eat their BBQ and not expecting them to only make it my way.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      As long as a very basic definition of barbecue is followed, that is, some smoke component and the fat is suitably rendered, I’m usually happy!

  6. Looking forward to following this! Great project!

  7. chef randy hudson says:

    looking forward to haveing my b.b.q. joint reviewed….time and temp with great smoke will make the difference. ( randys smokehouse) 15104 hwy 3 houston …bring it on!!

  8. ChristopherAnn says:

    Oh boy. I’m really looking forward to this. I sure hope you can find some brisket in Houston that is at least in the same ballpark as those iconic Central Texas joints. Especially with gas so high, it sucks having to drive to (take your choice): Taylor, Luling, Lockhart, Lexington, etc. Now, even Austin has great barbecue, since Franklin’s opened. Why not Houston? It’s such a puzzle why those places can turn out such wonderful, top tier barbecue brisket, and nobody in Houston seems to be able to.

    I’m going to be following your journey enthusiastically.

  9. J.C. Reid says:

    I’ve been impressed by the moist brisket at Lenox BBQ. Not on the level of Franklin, but pretty good for Houston.

  10. GirlFromTexas says:

    I still love Goode Co, for the ambiance as well as the food. Houston BBQ, however lacking, still provides more options than DFW BBQ

  11. Dancing Bear says:

    I will be very interested in your findings! I was born in Lockhart, which I consider the Capital of the BBQ Universe, grew up in and around San Marcos and lived in Houston twice. I was glad I could drive to Lockhart in just a couple of hours if I wanted great BBQ because I never found any in Houston that came close. Goode’s was bearable, but a pale substitute to Kreuz Market (and now Smitty’s). I live in Northern VA now, and at least can go to Hill Country BBQ in D.C., which is pretty good–it’s a mixture of Smitty’s and Gruene Hall. Virginia BBQ is predominately pork with awful vinegary sauce.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      There are better places than Goode BBQ in Houston, in my opinion. I will be listing them on the map. I am interested in trying Hill Country BBQ in DC or NYC.

  12. Mary N Pape says:

    Too bad you’re using Houston and not towns in real East Texas for your comparison. If you notice, the Barbecue joints from Central Texas you’re using for your comparison are not in a major city. I grew up in San Antonio, lived in Houston for 40 years and now live in Onalaska, which is in East Texas about 100 miles north of Houston. Maybe you should consider using the term Houston Barbecue and not East Texas Barbecue if you’re not going to survey places in Deep East Texas.

    • J.C. Reid says:

      I’ll definitely get to deep East TX eventually. Unfortunately, other than New Zion I’ve never heard of a BBQ place in East TX worth visiting. Any recommendations would be appreciated.

  13. rindy gremillion says:

    saltlick, cooper’s, hard 8 and other’s already listed are hard to beat. but do like some h-town and suburbs BBQ as well. good luck, can’t wait to follow your eats.

  14. E.J, says:

    In the woodlands there is a place called Corkscrew BBQ that does pork right. East Texas BBQ is pork you need to give them a try also to a lesser extent Pitmaster in the woodlands. You may want to come out to a small Texas BBQ cookoff and hang out with some of the pitmasters and see the love that Houstonians put into their BBQ.

  15. Michael_D says:

    Plantation BBQ in Richmond. Lovely little trailer nestled under pecan trees and the master behind the smoker, Lolo, smokes the meat for hours on end. The brisket+potato+egg with salsa or 3-meat (fajita+sausage+brisket) breakfast tacos are an epiphany. In fact, I’m going there tomorrow morning :)

  16. s h a w says:

    JC, will you give Going’s Barbeque in Baytown a try? A friend of mine served Going’s ribs several times in our gatherings. It’s above average to my taste. But I never visit it by myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>