Over the last few decades, Central Texas-style barbecue has been enshrined as the best and most desirable barbecue in Texas. And rightly so. The dedication and technique of pitmasters in places like Lexington, Taylor and Lockhart have made the barbecue of Central Texas celebrated around the world. And yet, in this celebration, another worthy and long-storied tradition of Texas barbecue – hailing from East Texas – has been overshadowed. The mission of the Houston Barbecue Project is to revisit, document and recognize the East Texas-style of barbecue as it is embodied in the urban barbecue joints of Houston, Texas. It’s time to put Houston barbecue back on the map.
To properly evaluate the state of barbecue here, we’ll have to visit the majority (if not all) of the barbecue joints in Houston. A cursory review of the various restaurant listing sites reveals the number of joints in greater Houston to be somewhere between two and three hundred. That’s a lot of barbecue places to visit. So I decided to limit (for now) the scope of barbecue joints to those physically located inside Beltway 8.
This could be controversial, if you think about it. One of the knocks against Houston barbecue, and really all urban barbecue, is that city health and environmental codes are incompatible with producing good barbecue. The codes certainly make producing good barbecue more difficult, though it does not necessarily preclude it. But the argument could be made that barbecue joints outside the city limits would have an advantage because the codes are less strict, usually governed by county health codes. County health codes typically follow the Texas state health code, which is broader and more generic than city codes.
But I’ve had a lot of barbecue both inside and outside the city limits, and did not notice an appreciable difference in quality. To confirm I recently made a trip out to the Katy area to sample the barbecue there. It wasn’t any better, and was possibly worse, than barbecue inside the Houston city limits.
The bottom line, based on my experience with urban barbecue, is that the quality of barbecue is primarily driven by economics rather than any regulatory issues. Even if city codes were less restrictive, most barbecue joints would probably still choose the self-contained, automated smokers made by companies like Southern Pride. It’s just easier and more profitable (sadly). With that in mind, the decision to limit Houston barbecue exploration to within the Beltway should still offer a representative sample of the general quality of Houston barbecue.
Once we’ve made good progress on documenting this limited sample of barbecue joints, we’ll expand to the outskirts of Houston, as well as to all of East Texas.
The manifestation of the Houston Barbecue Project, the deliverable as they say in business parlance, will be an online, interactive map and website. This will rightly present Houston barbecue in a geographic context that provides both potential demographic insights as well as a resource for barbecue diners to easily find the location of good barbecue.
In addition to location information, we will collect other data that may reflect on the quality of the barbecue: type of wood and smoker, cost for typical dishes, barbecue type, and how the sauce is handled (on the side or on top?).
Additionally we will apply a version of the much-debated barbecue rating, from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). The rating will be based mostly on our general standard for good barbecue, but unquantifiable values will also be considered. We will evaluate Houston barbecue in the context of all Texas barbecue joints, i.e. the rating for a given Houston barbecue joint will be determined by comparing it to the best places (5 rating) throughout the entire state.
Our sample for evaluation will be the holy trinity of Texas barbecue: beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage. For purposes of comparing apples-to-apples, the application of our general standard will be made to brisket and ribs and will have the most influence on the rating. Every real Texas barbecue joint has some version of beef brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is almost always offered, but there are just too many variations on this dish to be able to compare consistently. Sausage, along with other “unquantifiable” values, will be considered in the rating, but will mostly be featured in the documentation.
This project is in its earliest stages and will change and improve over time. Comments and suggestions are welcomed and encouraged. After all, as Texans, either by birth or adoption, we are all granted the title of self-proclaimed barbecue experts. Let’s go out and eat some Houston barbecue.
The Houston Barbecue Project website is here http://houbbq.com.
You can also read the article “What’s Wrong with Houston Barbecue?” that discusses the background and inspiration for the Houston Barbecue Project.