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.