Sunday, November 27, 2016

On The Side: 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown

The 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown has come and gone and it was another top notch event.  This is truly one of my favorite events as it, like the food that is showcased, it crafted with great care.

Instead of just pushing masses of people through the gates, the Houston BBQ Throwdown keeps the attendance low enough to guarantee you’re never waiting in line for more than just a couple of minutes.  This is truly a celebration of Houston Barbecue instead of just a line-waiting extravaganza.  This also allows you the opportunity to meet the faces of Houston barbecue in a casual setting.  It’s very cool to see fellow pitmasters mingling and sampling the offerings of the other booths as the event winds down. They’re of the same community and have the same dedication to elevating the craft of Houston Barbecue.

The whole basis of the Throwdown is to stretch the definition of “Houston Barbecue.”  That in itself guarantees unique dishes that you won’t find anywhere else (well, unless it’s a hit and pops up on the menu at your local barbecue joint).  With all of the novelty, it’s notable that we are two years in and there has not been a dish that has failed to impress me.

This has become a must-do event in the Houston area, even if you are not a barbecue enthusiast.  It is the most laid back event of its kind and is a honestly just a good day to enjoy good food and good conversation.

I just wanted to check in with a brief summary of this year’s event.  If you’d like a more flowery description, take a look at my write-up from last year.  (And if you’d like to see better pictures that do this even justice, head over to Jimmy Ho’s site.)

The event once again featured 14 area barbecue joints.  A few barbecue names from last year were absent at this year’s event (BBQ Godfather, Chopped N Smoked BBQ, Jackson Street BBQ) but some new names were injected into this year’s lineup (Killen’s STQ, Midtown Barbecue, Tejas Chocolate Craftory).

Unlike the presidential election, both the popular vote and the electoral votes count towards the results of the contest that is at the center of the Throwdown.  And this year we saw both awards, the “People’s Choice” and the “Judge’s Choice,” change hands.  Killen’s new STQ brand deservedly took home the judge’s choice with their three beautifully presented items. This year the People’s Choice award actually went to the item that I voted for as Feges BBQ was named “People’s Choice.”

This Year’s Attendees and Their Entries (In Alphabetical Order):

Blood Bros BBQ – Gochujang Beef Belly Burnt Ends with Korean Salad and Pickled Onions

Brooks’ Place [2015 Judge’s Choice] – Brisket and Boudin Stuffed Bell Peppers with a Beef Oxtails Twist

Corkscrew BBQ [2015 People’s Choice] – Smoked Chile Mac-n-Cheese: Creamy Cheddar Mac-N-Cheese, Smoked Hatch Green Chile Topped with Pepper Crusted Prime Beef Rib

Feges BBQ [2016 People’s Choice and My Favorite] – Beef Belly Burnt Ends with Pimento Cheese Grits, Braised Greens, Bourbon Cane Syrup, Pickled Red Onions and Chives

Killen’s STQ [2016 Judge’s Choice] – “Beef Short Rib Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (They went all out with three items at their booth)
Yesterday: Short Rib Tamale, Pork Belly and Brisket Chile de Arbol Con Carne, Queso Fresco and Micro Cilantro
Today: Smoked Beef Short Rib Ravioli, Port Demi Cream, Parmesan, Fall Black Truffle
Tomorrow: Smoked Short Rib Umami, Bonito, Mushroom, Mushroom Powder, Smoked Beef Consume Pipette

Midtown Barbecue – Smoked Prime Rib with Chimichurri

Pappa Charlies BBQ – Short Rib Vindaloo with Paneer Queso

Pit Room – Chopped Brisket Taco with Cheddar Cheese, Sour Cream and Salsa Roja

Pizzitola’s – “Pulled Pork & Waffles”: Smoked Jalapeno, Cheddar and Green Onion Waffle Topped with Pulled Pork, Pit-Candied Pecans and Sweet Pork Sauce

Ray’s BBQ Shack – “Muddy Waters”: Sausage With Shrimp, Crawfish, Crab and Pork in a Pork Casing.

Roegels Barbecue Co – Smoked Pork Belly with Surf and Turf Boudin

Tejas Chocolate Craftory – “Tejas Tostada”: Santo Braised, Smoked Pork Cheek with Pinto Whip, Avocado Verde ‘Cue Sauce, Pickled Red Onion Cilantro on a Crisp Corn Tortilla

The Brisket House – “Beef Rib Ala Veracruz”: Slow Smoked Beef Rib Cut into Cubes, Basted in Veracruz Sauce, Served Over Rice with Fresh Pico de Gallo

Tin Roof BBQ – Smoked Tomahawk Prime Rib Served with Back Pew Milk Stout Au Jus & Horseradish Cream


2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown at Saint Arnolds Brewery
Saint Arnold Brewery serves as a perfect host for the Houston BBQ Throwdown
Line for 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
The line of anxious attendees stretched beyond the train tracks


2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown crowd
The crowd in the brewery
Dishes from 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Clockwise from Top Left: Midtown Barb, Pit Room, Tejas, Pappa Charlies



Meats from 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Clockwise from Top Left: Blood Bros, Corkscrew, Ray's, Feges

Items at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Clockwise from Top Left: Pizzitola's, Brooks' Place, Roegels, Killen's STQ, Killen's STQ

Killen's STQ offerings at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
The three dishes of STQ. From Top: Smoked Short Rib Umami,
Smoked Beef Short Rib Ravioli, Short Rib Tamale

Tin Roof's prime rib at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Tin Roof's Smoked Tomahawk Prime Rib
Beef Belly Burnt End from Feges BBQ
A closer look at Feges Beautiful Beef Belly Burnt End

Killen's STQ at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
The spread at Killen's STQ



Roegel's at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Roegel's crafting their multi-faceted dish

Killen's STQ at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Killen's STQ Booth

Pizzitola's at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Pizzitola's assembling pulled pork & waffles

Tin Roof at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Tin Roof slicing their prime rib

Midtown at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Midtown Barbecue serving their Smoked Prime Rib with Chimichurri

Corkscrew BBQ at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
The folks at Corkscrew assembling their mac & cheese with prime rib

Ray's at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Slicing up the seafood sausage at Ray's booth

Casting my vote for my favorite entry


Happy BBQ fans at 2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Another look at the happy crowd at the Throwdown
2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown
Preparing to announce the winners of the Throwdown
2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown Awards
A look at the hardware that goes to the winners


2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown People's Choice winner
Feges took the People's Choice award

2016 Houston BBQ Throwdown Judge's Award Winner
Killen's STQ was the Judge's Award winner 
We Love Houston mural at Saint Arnold
Saint Arnold's mural fits the scene at the Houston BBQ Throwdown well

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tejas Chocolate Craftory - Tomball

Tejas Chocolate Craftory is an unlikely moniker for a top flight barbecue joint. But even though “chocolate” is in their name, they’ve really built a name in the barbecue world.  

Prior to serving barbecue in Tomball, Tejas owners Scott Moore Jr. and Michelle Holland were solely focused on making world class chocolate from Holland’s home.  Their chocolate was a hit and their success grew their operation until they ultimately landed in Tomball.  With the larger venue, the duo decided to expand their offerings and try their hand at barbecue.  

On October 14, Tejas celebrated the 1-year anniversary of their Tomball location and nowadays the lines that form at lunchtime in this old house in Tomball are definitely there for the barbecue.

THE MEATS

Tejas has all of the typical Texas Barbecue options available on the menu, but also features daily specials and limited run items.

A spread of Tejas Chocolate Craftory's Meats
The spread at Tejas featuring brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, sausage and
the specials of the day: beef short ribs and burnt ends
Tejas has all of the typical Texas Barbecue options available on the menu, but also features daily specials and limited run items.

Two items that often pop up on Saturday’s lunch menu are burnt ends and short ribs.  Both items are in short supply as there are typically just 10-15 orders of each available.  It is definitely worth it to show up a bit before 11am to ensure that you can sample both items as they represent the best meats on the entire menu.  

The burnt ends are simply delicious.  The hefty crust conceals a moist, melty morsel of meat. The smoky meat is as decadent as any of the chocolates Tejas has on display.  

The beef short ribs are much smaller than the monsters that appear on many Texas barbecue menus.  The smaller, half-pound size is more manageable to eat and also offers more delicious, smoky crust and better consistency throughout.

Pork belly, which pops up on the menu with less frequency, is another good specialty offering from Tejas.  The strips offer a duality of firmness and softness – the meat holds together but easily yields when bitten. The nice mix of fat and meat is elevated with an interesting cumin heavy rub.

A serving of barbecue from Tejas Chocolate Craftory
Brisket, ribs, pork belly and burnt ends
The brisket is a standout among the “usual suspects” with its simple salt & pepper rub. The crust is not as significant as you’ll find at some other places. It is a straightforward formula, but the guys at Tejas have figured out how to use the smoke to render this meat into a delicious entrée.  The lean cuts have a thin quarter inch cap of fat.  The slices hold together firmly but are easy to chew – they display a perfect texture.  I actually prefer the lean cuts at Tejas to the slices from the point.  They generally seem to hold a little more smoke and flavor than the moist cuts at Tejas, though any slice from their brisket is going to be outstanding.

Cuts of brisket from Tejas Chocolate Craftory
A couple of slices of the good stuff
The pork ribs, with their cumin rub, fit well into the Texas identity that Tejas embraces.  The cumin offers a little bit of a different flavor than you typically encounter in Texas barbecue and it works.  Over the course of a few months, I have found that the ribs tend to differ from visit to visit.  The texture is usually spot on, but the flavor changes a bit and the rub can overpower the smoke.  

The pulled pork is a bit different as well.  It’s quite good and is very moist, though there is not a lot of smoke on the meat.  The flavor is what is striking. I cannot put my finger on the exact flavors, but if I had to draw a comparison, it would be to pinto bean seasoning.  That might sound bad, but it’s not. This pulled pork really is quite good and would make a delicious sandwich.

Turkey really does not get the respect it deserves on this website, but it would be criminal to not mention this top notch bird.  Tejas’ turkey is one of my favorites.  The turkey is both juicy and smoky and the flavor is punctuated by a heavy amount of black pepper and some more of that familiar cumin.

Tejas Chocolate Craftory's meats
Brisket, pulled pork, turkey and beef short ribs with green beans & carrot souffle
The sausage on the menu is not housemade, but it is very good.  The links are packed with garlicy flavor and the pitmasters take them to the next level with a nice dose of smoke while crisping the casing.

I have not sampled the whole chickens that are a staple of the Tejas menu.  You will also see additional daily specials pop up including Thursday’s smoked pastrami which they use to make a specialty Reuben sandwich.

THE REST

There are other items on the menu in the form of sandwiches, tacos and salads – yes, salads.  I’ve seen these salads around the dining room and my two thoughts are “Who the heck orders a salad at a barbecue joint?” and “Wow, that salad looks good.”  There’s no iceberg lettuce here.  Both salads are romaine wedges, one featuring brisket and blue cheese, the other with smoked turkey and cilantro buttermilk dressing.  

On Saturdays, Tejas also gets into the breakfast game, serving tacos stuffed with eggs, sausage and pulled pork from 8:30 until 10:30.

The sides are not an afterthought at Tejas.  The green beans and pinto beans are worthy, but all of the sides are overshadowed by the carrot soufflé.  The soufflé is creamy with a buttermilk sweetness.  I think it’s more dessert than veggie, but it’s an item that I’m ordering every time.

There are few different sauce options at the Tejas sauce bar.  You’ve got the regular sauce which fits Tejas well with cumin featured over a tangy base with a slight bite.  They have a green tomatillo sauce with a fresh flavor that is probably more fit for their turkey tacos.  Then you get to the most fitting sauce of the bunch – the mole sauce.  What could be more perfect for a “chocolate craftory?”  The mole sauce is good and aptly name, but the subdued nutty flavor is also better suited for sandwiches (namely the pork) than as a stand-alone sauce.

And yes, of course there are chocolates.  These handcrafted chocolates began as the focus of Tejas and now, while they aren’t necessarily an afterthought, they have become more of a dessert.  The variety is ever changing and features some standard 70% single origin chocolates as well as less traditional flavors like margarita and old fashioned.  The chocolates are rich and fittingly close out an indulgent meal.

Chocolate from Tejas Chocolate Craftory
A sample of the decadent chocolate truffles available at Tejas.
The third “craft” item advertised on Tejas’ exterior is the craft beer.  The options include your typical Houston area cans like Saint Arnold and Karbach.

Tejas Chocolate Craftory's choice chocolate
The selection from the chocolate display case.
The 1907 home that houses Tejas Chocolate Craftory is a great place to dine.  The house has been well restored with an inviting interior.  If the weather beckons, there is also adequate seating on the front lawn or on the back porch with views of the smoker.

Tejas Chocolate Craftory's smoker
The large smoker fills the smokehouse out back
The service at Tejas Chocolate Craftory is excellent. If you arrive early, which I have already encouraged for Saturdays (gotta get those special items), you will be met with friendly conversation as service switches from breakfast to lunch.  Dining at Tejas guarantees good food and friendly service in an inviting setting.

Tejas Chocolate Craftory in Tomball, Texas
Tejas is a quaint spot to enjoy some good food
THE VERDICT

With a year in the books, I am excited to see what Tejas can achieve in year two as they continue to perfect their craft and experiment with new projects.  From the meats to the chocolates to the sides, everything that Tejas creates is done with skill and care.  Every item sampled from this menu is impressive and the beef items are spectacular (especially Saturday’s burnt ends and beef short ribs). 

Tejas Chocolate Craftory became an instant hit in Tomball and their following will continue to grow as people learn of this destination barbecue restaurant.  Tejas will be making their first appearance at the 2nd Annual Houston BBQ Throwdown and their unique style is sure to be a standout, even among the biggest names in Houston Barbecue.


Address: 200 N Elm St, Tomball, TX 77375
Phone: 281-892-1700
Hours: Wednesday - Thursday: 11AM - 6PM; Friday: 11AM - 7PM; Saturday: 11AM - 5PM 
(Saturday Breakfast8:30AM - 10:30AM)
http://tejaschocolate.com/

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Corkscrew BBQ - Spring

[I visit Corkscrew Barbecue more than any other barbecue joint on my list and enjoy introducing people to my local favorite. I’ve visited Corkscrew’s new location with first-timers a few times over the last month. I was shocked when I realized that in all of my visits, my wife had never actually visited Corkscrew herself.  I thought it would be fun to turn this long past due review over to her and let her describe her first visit to Corkscrew Barbecue. And along the way, I'll butt in with some notes in blue.]

Behind every true BBQ Adventurer is a cast of characters and accomplices. And on this trip, that included me, his wife! You didn’t think he could sample all of the meats on his own did you?

This week I am coming out of the background to share my view of a recent BBQ Adventure. I usually don’t know what venue he will ask me to try with him or what grade level we are about to taste. My only hesitation to accompany him on an adventure is when we visit a place with no set reputation and I worry about wasting a meal on less than “B” level BBQ and am left unsatisfied with my meal and wanting our 40 plus dollars back. This weekend, however, I knew exactly what we were going to get and was quite excited to finally try a local favorite in their new home.

Corkscrew BBQ started out as a trailer behind a shopping center on Sawdust Road in the South Woodlands/Northwest Spring area. We discovered this local gem before Texas Monthly named them one of the tops in Texas.  Even before earning that title, the line for lunch required a significant time investment.  As such, I never had the luxury to leave my office to accompany my husband there for lunch. He would graciously bring me brisket, ribs, and brisket tacos to try, but you know the meats never taste as good as when it is freshly sliced before your eyes. Even so, I have been a huge fan of Corkscrew only eating it as a take away meal or at various BBQ festivals.

When Corkscrew moved even further away to its new brick and mortar location in Old Town Spring last October, I thought I would continue to have to rely on festivals and leftovers to get my fix. However, we finally had a weekend at home and set out early one Saturday to visit the new locale.

On this day we drove into Old Town Spring to find a Crawfish Festival in full swing. We were worried that Corkscrew would be inaccessible due to the hordes of vehicles parked on every street, but we managed to maneuver the historical community and festival pedestrians to find parking on the road bordering Corkscrew. As we stepped inside, we were met with the beautiful aroma of smoked meat. No hint of stinky crawfish in this place! We found out place at the back of the line, which had nearly reached the entrance.

We discussed how much brisket, ribs and pulled pork we should order, and eventually settled on our amounts. I also insisted on sides because I feel I need a palate cleanser between my meat courses. When we got to the counter however, we had to recalculate as they still had a few beef ribs available [beef ribs are only available on Saturdays]. Pulled pork was pitched to make room for a honking, glistening, Flintstone sized beef rib. In addition to the beef rib, we ordered pork ribs and a mixture of moist and lean brisket. We completed our order with some mac-n-cheese, cole slaw, sweet tea and some Oak Cliff craft soda.

The crowd was turning over quickly so we easily found a seat despite it being peak lunch hour. We were shortly beckoned to the pickup window where our meats were waiting.

THE MEATS

As much as I enjoy side dishes, they were quickly forgotten as we dove into the brisket and ribs.  The brisket was smoky with perfectly rendered fat per usual. The lean slices had a dark crust with a uniform quarter inch layer of fat along the slices.  The moist slices were a bit more flavorful thanks to the delicious layers of fat.  The pork ribs were simply seasoned and had a firm, but proper chew. There was a lot of smoke on the maroon colored ribs.  The main event, though, was the beef rib. It was delicious. It glistened with tender, moist fat and the meat easily pulled from the bone. The beef had a deep smoky flavor.  It was well worth the purchase. The meat today certainly met the high expectations we hold Corkscrew to.

Corkscrew BBQ's spread of brisket, pork ribs and a big ol' beef rib.

[A few editor's notes on the meats that we didn't order today: Pulled Pork has been a staple of my Corkscrew order from the beginning. It is, in fact, my favorite example of the meat that I have found. The pork is smoky with a pleasant amount of bark mixed in. The mop is less vinegary than most southern takes on this meat and it gets a nice boost from some subtle spiciness. The flavors complement each other and the meat is perfectly moist. The sausage is a very flavorful choice as well. It has a nice garlicy taste with a touch of appropriate heat from the jalapeño and black pepper.  I’ll also add that the turkey is a great option.  We aren’t talking deli meat here – this turkey is the real deal. As for the barbecued chicken, which like the beef rib, is only available on Saturday – I’ve heard great things, but actually have yet to try it.

Corkscrew also carries a menu of interesting combination sandwiches and tacos.  The tacos are a hit and come dressed with their popular green chile ranch. To round out the menu, Corkscrew offers baked potatoes and, believe it or not, a salad option.]
Four meats at Corkscrew BBQ: Brisket, ribs, sausage, pulled pork.
Another recent Corkscrew visit including orders of sausage and pulled pork.

THE REST

Corkscrew's new location has a large, fenced in outdoor area leading to a wraparound covered porch. Many of the outdoor fixtures are re-purposed items from their previous location on Sawdust. There is plenty of space to sit outside to eat or wait for your posse. The interior is quite large as well.  The line inside was separated from the dining area by a waist high partition so we could spy on the diners’ plates without crowding their space. To the right of us was a wall sized chalk board with the day’s menu and room where patrons could draw and write messages to distract from their hunger pangs.

The exterior of Corkscrew's brick & mortar location

Though the ordering is done at the counter and you retrieve your own tray, Corkscrew employees roam the space to clean tables and offer drink refills as necessary. We found the employees all to be very friendly and helpful.

Corkscrew's inviting interior

The parking area is not paved, so be careful when you venture there not to park in mud if it’s been raining recently. You may have to drive around the block to find parking or use one of the nearby lots (some are pay lots).

We were very pleased with our trip to Corkscrew’s new locale. The new space allows them to bless more people a day with their delicious BBQ. The only down sides I see is that they aren’t closer to my home and their parking lot cannot contain the crowds they draw. Corkscrew is definitely the main event in Old Town Spring these days.

THE VERDICT

As I mentioned in my intro, Corkscrew is one of my favorite spots in the area and there's a reason I use it as a springboard to introduce newbies to really good Texas barbecue.  Corkscrew really does everything well.  And they are so consistent with their barbecue that regulars can see a picture of their meats and immediately identify it as a Corkscrew product.

The brisket tends to be the big draw at Corkscrew (deservedly) and Saturday patrons are spoiled by top quality beef ribs. However, I will reiterate my love for their Pulled Pork - don't forget about this oft overlooked meat on your visit to Corkscrew.


Address: 26608 Keith St, Spring, TX 7737
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday: 11AM - Sold Out

Saturday, May 14, 2016

On The Side: The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail

If you discuss great barbecue destinations in Texas, the conversation will typically begin in Central Texas around the barbecue hubs of Austin and Lockhart. Some might mention Dallas or Fort Worth as barbecue destinations and I have written with admiration about the burgeoning reputation of Houston as a top-tier barbecue city. But even with Houston, which has an assortment of exquisite barbecue, it has taken a while to garner that respect and claiming Houston as a barbecue destination is still a contested opinion.
Victoria is a city that would have seldom come up in these barbecue conversations. That’s why I was surprised when I first saw talk of “The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail” pop-up on social media a year ago. Still @coastaltxbbq received an instant follow from me on Twitter and I was obligated to do a little more research on this barbecue trail. Since then, I have stayed engaged with the happenings of the Trail through social media.  


Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Explore Victoria Visitor Information Center to chat with Joel Novosad and Bridgette Postel. Joel serves as Marketing Manager at Explore Victoria and is the man behind the social media and online presence of the Barbecue Trail. It was a joy to discuss the convergence of two of my interests; Marketing and Barbecue, while Joel and Bridgette were able to provide some anecdotes about the Trail.

The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail rolled out in May 2015 with seven stops; some I had visited (Mumphord’s Place, McMillan’s Bar-B-Q), some I had heard of (Aunt Jo’s BBQ, Uncle Mutt’s Bar-B-Que) and some I had not heard of at the time (KB’s BBQ, Quality Packers Smokehouse, The Fire Pit). The Trail was the brainchild of former Explore Victoria director Anthony Cordo who stressed the history and families these barbecue joints represented as well as the meats. Since the rollout, they have also added Buffalo Creek Barbecue to the Trail with plans to add more in the very near future. The payoff for visitors (other than a few plates of smoked meats) is an enticement as old as time: Offer people a t shirt and they lose their minds.  Submit three receipts from any of the listed joints to the Visitor’s Center and you will receive your own Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail shirt. 

The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail shirt
Three Stops Scores This Free Shirt
The creation of the Trail was very well calculated. Barbecue is something that Texans will travel for (as is the premise of my website) and this trail gives them an agenda and a reason to visit Victoria.  Victoria’s proximity to Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi offers an easy trip for protein seeking Texans. If barbecue isn’t your only objective, the Trail offers three itineraries which mix in local sights and activities. Meanwhile what if a non-Texan walks into a Texas tourism information center with thoughts of that iconic Texas barbecue on their mind? There is only one pamphlet distributed in the state on the topic, so they will be handed information on The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail. If anyone Googles “Texas barbecue itinerary” to plan a trip, the top result will send them to coastaltexasbarbecuetrail.com.  The Trail has also landed in publications like "Food Traveler" which named it one of the best barbecue scenes in the nation. Through this branding, Victoria has quickly (and brilliantly) positioned themselves as a barbecue destination to anyone seeking. On my visit to the Explore Victoria Visitor Center, I was shown pictures of people modeling their shirts in far-flung places like Switzerland. They also had pictures of a couple that visited the Barbecue Trail as part of their anniversary.

The concept of the Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail has succeeded in not only bringing attention to local barbecue joints and to Victoria in general, but it has also served barbecue seekers like myself by presenting us options that we may have missed otherwise. For example, Quality Packers Smokehouse originally appeared on my radar thanks to the Trail and last week, before swinging by the Explore Victoria office, I had the opportunity to check out the family run business. QP Smokehouse turned out to be a tremendous option and scored with all three meats that I sampled – brisket, pork ribs, and the housemade sausage. The Limon family is putting out some very good barbecue that deserves the press and I was pleased to have been directed there. QP Smokehouse would be notable barbecue in any of the “barbecue cities” I previously listed – but it is located in Victoria as a testament to why the Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail is such a good idea.

A plate of the good stuff at Quality Packers Smokehouse
Quality Packers Smokehouse is well worth the trip
This commitment toward an identity in barbecue goes beyond pamphlets and social media.  This September at Bootfest, Victoria’s preeminent annual festival, the city will be launching a new attraction: the “Bootfest Barbecue Street.” This will be an entire street dedicated to barbecue and will feature local Trail joints and include competitions in multiple categories. This move shows that they are incorporating barbecue into the very identity of the city. Whether it is by their own merit or just good marketing, Victoria, Texas is now known as a barbecue destination. They have a nice collection of barbecue stops for a town of 65,000. I’m not claiming that Victoria has the most impressive barbecue scene, but they are the best marketed. 

With this marketing, Victoria is also improving the perception of South Texas barbecue and perhaps enticing more pitmasters to open up shop in this market. Expansion plans are already underway as QP Smokehouse looks to move to the iconic Corral Steakhouse location that went out of business last May.  Lupe Limon of Quality Packers is also looking to branch out from the family shop and set up his own barbecue trailer. As the second year of the Trail progresses, we could soon be looking at 10 stops on the barbecue itinerary. While this growth may not be a direct result of the city’s marketing efforts, you can bet that the Trail will cover it and give us a tangible way to chart the city’s progress as a barbecue destination.

Victoria is carrying the torch for South Texas barbecue. As a born and bred South Texan, I am very aware that we do not have a strong pedigree when it comes to Texas Barbecue and I am proud of what Victoria is doing. There is no doubt that you will see this idea replicated elsewhere (a similar Craft Beer Trail has already popped up in New Braunfels) as Victoria has established themselves as a best practice.  But marketing can only sustain for so long. The bar has been set and scrutiny has been invited. As a self-proclaimed barbecue trail, it is now up to the public to determine if this trail is indeed worth traveling. In my opinion, it is a trip worth taking. I can attest that there are some jewels on this agenda. I would suggest beginning your trip with McMillan’s and Quality Packers which are can't miss stops in the area. As for myself; although I already have the t-shirt, I still have some work to do if I want to complete The Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail – which I fully intend to do.

As always, Twitter is the best place to follow my travels (@BBQAdventurer).  You can also monitor the ever-popular Barbecue Roadmap as I chart my stops. I hope to see y’all on the trail, whether it’s in the Gulf Coast or elsewhere in the great State of Texas.

Friday, April 29, 2016

la Barbecue – Austin


John Lewis is still the name many associate with La Barbecue (along with LeAnne Mueller of course, who owns the place and is the “LA” in “La” Barbecue).  Lewis was named the first pitmaster for the rebranded business in 2012 after LeAnne parted ways with brother John Mueller and the name “JMueller BBQ”.  Lewis became synonymous with La Barbecue for not only perfecting the meats they served, but also for crafting his own custom pits.

As Lewis helped build the brand of La Barbecue, he was also building his own brand.  In 2015, Lewis decided to spin that brand off and become a Texas Barbecue missionary in Charleston, South Carolina. Esaul Ramos was named Lewis’ successor at LA Barbecue after personally being trained by Lewis.  Ramos held the position for a little under a year (Esaul Ramos now has his own venture in Lytle). 
Enter the new guy: Dylan Taylor.  Taylor took over head pitmaster duties early this year at the age of 21.  Like his predecessor, Taylor was also personally tutored by John Lewis on the craft of smoking meats.  La Barbecue may have a fresh face behind the pits, but their expectations unquestionably remain sky high.  A few months into Taylor’s reign, I decided to visit one of my favorite joints and see if he has been able to meet the daunting challenge of maintaining the tradition of one of the most popular names in barbecue.

La Barbecue has been a bit nomadic in recent years, but they now sit in a nice, new trailer in a lot on East Cesar Chavez after nixing the idea of opening a brick & mortar.  The lines can be among the most lengthy in The City of Barbecue, but they tend to move more quickly than the other guys.  On this visit, I was in luck as I was met with an unseasonably short line for such a beautiful spring Thursday.

THE MEATS

After less than a 10 minute wait, my order was placed and the meat was quickly sliced and plated on a butcher paper adorned tray at the pickup window.  My order was a few pounds of pork ribs and brisket along with a hunk of a beef rib.

The gorgeous meats glistened in the spring sun showcasing their black, brown and pink hues. They certainly looked the part of the celebrated La Barbecue meats.  This type of spread is exactly what you want to see when you’re enjoying a plate of barbecue beneath the Austin sun. 

A three meat spread at Austin's La Barbecue. You can't go wrong here.

The slices of brisket came both moist and lean. Both cuts featured a thick crust flecked with coarse black pepper.  The moist slices had to be handled with care as they tried to melt between my fingers.  The lean cuts also held a strip of fat that melted away as the meat held together just firmly enough to make it to my teeth before yielding completely.  Healthy doses of salt, pepper and smoke elevated this choice brisket to the next level.  This was the phenomenal brisket that we expect from La Barbecue.

The pork ribs at La Barbecue are a little more wet than the average rib coming off the pits in Central Texas.  The soppy glaze gave the ribs a bit of a sweet flavor along with the present pepper and pleasant smoke. I am personally not a huge fan of the sweet notes the ribs hit and it is a different note than you’ll find with any of the other meats.  The texture, however, was spot on for pork ribs – holding together well enough but revealing pleasantly moist meat with each bite. The pork ribs are good, but in my experience they fail to match the brilliant bites of beef that La Barbecue routinely provides.

A lot of fuss has been made over La Barbecue’s beef ribs.  These ribs are the gargantuans that first timers can’t help but take a selfie with.  But they are more than just a novelty as La Barbecue has, since their inception, routinely put out ribs that can nearly approach the perfection that Louie Mueller produces.  Today’s rib was no slouch.  A firm black crust sat upon a moist hunk of meat featuring veins of perfectly rendered fat.  Each impossibly tender bite of the rib proved that this piece of meat had been prepared with love and patience as the ideal texture persisted throughout.  The only weakness of this hunk of meat is that the salt was distributed too heavily in my opinion.  The overwhelming saltiness distracted from the natural flavor of the beef and made me thirstier with each bite. Still, this rib was excellent and La Barbecue’s beef rib remains one of my favorites.

Though this visit consisted simply of this three meat set, I have found on previous visits that the turkey is outstanding and the housemade sausage (John Lewis’ recipe) is one of my all-time favorites.  Pulled pork and a variety of barbecue sandwiches also appear on the menu along with La Barbecue’s take on a Chicago style hot dog.

THE REST

Sauce is available on the communal picnic tables, however it typically remains untouched by the patrons as the meat begs to be eaten as is.  It’s a tangy, vinegar-based sauce that I simply tasked as a bread accompaniment. There were no sides on my tray today, but rest assured that La Barbecue has suitable sides on the menu including their signature spicy Chipotle Slaw and Potato Salad.

I mentioned that La Barbecue has moved around quite a bit before settling in what seems to be a permanent location at Aztec Food Park.  La Barbecue also set up a brand new, shiny trailer in the new location.  It’s a bright yellow trailer featuring the Austin and BBQ-centric artwork that comprises La Barbecue’s brand.


Dining is done on the communal tables in the gravel lot of the park.  If you wait in line during the weekend, you’re bound to make new friends to dine with anyway. From Fridays through Sundays you’ll also be able to partake in the tradition of free beer while you wait.  La Barbecue’s legion of covered pits sit adjacent to the picnic tables and beg to be viewed.  I wandered across the parking lot to check out the pits and learned that the newest addition, a mammoth pit, came courtesy of John Mueller.

It’s worth noting that the one mainstay of La Barbecue has been general manager, Ali Klem.  With all of the changes that have occurred within the last year, she has maintained an important role in keeping La Barbecue running.

THE VERDICT

La Barbecue has been the picture of consistency throughout its history. If there was any concern that La Barbecue would be anything less than spectacular, rest assured that Dylan Taylor knows what he is doing behind the pit.  All meats are the quality you expect from one of the heavyweights of Texas Barbecue.  The beef continues to be the star of the trailer – in both brisket and rib form.


Address: 1906 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
Phone: 512-605-9696
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday: 11AM – 6PM

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jackson Street BBQ - Houston


Jackson Street BBQ might be a new pin on the map of Houston BBQ, but with Greg Gatlin and Bryan Caswell at the helm, they are certainly not newcomers to the scene.  Caswell’s Houston flagship REEF has earned him multiple culinary accolades, including a James Beard nomination.  Meanwhile, Greg Gatlin’s name has become synonymous with Houston barbecue since he opened his original barbecue joint in 2010.  Together, these guys are looking to give Houston a new barbecue experience.

Jackson Street furthers its Houston identity by sitting in the shadow of a Houston landmark: Minute Maid Park. This plays into the Jackson Street identity as the restaurant fuses a sports bar concept with their smoked meats.

THE MEATS

The usual suspects appear on the menu at Jackson Street with options of Brisket, Ribs, Sausage and Chicken.  The specials rotate and have featured a venison sausage as well as a burnt end biscuit on my visits.


The St. Louis style ribs are small, but meaty.  During my first visit, I found the ribs to be a little too firm, requiring quite a bit of tug to free from the bone and more chew than I like.  It seemed to me that they could have used a little more time on the smokers that were visible from the dining room.  Upon first taste, the meat did however feature a heft of smoke. The rub applied is quite sweet and these ribs surprised me by diverging from what I’d expect at Gatlin's other place.  Still, the ribs seem to be a  fan favorite as they were sold out before noon during my last visit.

I have been blessed with fatty and lean cuts of brisket on each of my visits to Jackson Street.  Jackson Street slices their brisket rather thinly, resulting in rather fragile cuts.  The fatty slices feature well rendered fat and nice moist bites of beef.  The smoke lends plenty of flavor to the well prepared meat.  The bark is not substantial, but does feature a rather heavy hand of salt.  The meat from the lean end pleases as well, but does not quite hit the flavor heights of the fatty cuts and has been a bit too dry in my experiences.

Jackson Street BBQ sources its sausage through Ruffino Meats (of Bryan, Texas).  Their standard German link holds a garlicy profile and a touch of spiciness and meets expectations for a Texas BBQ joint.  The venison sausage, also good, was more mellow than I would expect from a venison link.  Both sausages were smoky and snappy and prepared as well as they could be.

The jewel of my visits was actually a menu item described by the Specials board as “Burnt Ends on a Cheddar and Jalapeño Biscuit.”  What’s not to like there?  This biscuit is typically offered after 5PM, but was a welcome daily special on this visit.  Admittedly, this item isn’t all about the meat as it ventures into “The Sides” territory of this review.  Leave no doubt: the burnt ends are fantasticly smoky and meaty treats.  But the biscuit itself really takes this item to the next level.  It’s a brilliant pairing, placing the meaty bites inside a fluffy home. The oversized biscuits are truly some of the best I’ve had and are also good on their own.

THE REST

The menu features a variety of sides that includes Fried Mac and Dirty Rice along with the usual spread of Beans, Cole Slaw and Potato Salad.  However, my recommendation is the Collard Greens.  These greens are executed perfectly.  They’re fresh, flavorful and feature flecks of meat for your further enjoyment.  Along with the biscuits, the greens prove that, even with all of the meaty options Jackson Street delivers, sides are certainly not an afterthought – this is Bryan Caswell’s territory after all.

The sauce, while wholly unnecessary, can be dished out at the condiment bar.  It’s a thick concoction that features a depth of flavor around an apple cider vinegar base.  It’s a pleasing sauce and is a unique option, but during my trips, the meat and even the bread (biscuit!) remained untouched by the stuff.

Jackson Street occupies the unmistakable red building adjacent to Minute Maid Park.  The red carries through the doors to trim in the dining room and the menus over the serving line.  The service line moves quickly as the friendly staff makes it easy for even a BBQ novice to assemble a memorable sampling of meat.  Jackson Street also boasts a respectable draft list featuring Houston brews from 8th Wonder, Karbach and Saint Arnold, making this a good spot to stop before a ballgame.  Jackson Street offers free 90 minute parking for barbecue patrons, but also has a nice deal on parking for Astros games.  They’ll give you parking in their lot for $50 while granting you a $50 credit toward your meal - very cost effective if you’re looking to spend $50 for dinner anyway.  The dining area inside is large and accommodates patrons with bar seating, four tops as well as long communal tables.  The dining area further flaunts Houston pride with a neon Texas flag and a brightly lit “HOUSTON” sign.


THE VERDICT

Jackson Street is off to a great start in establishing itself as a Houston destination.  Jackson Street embraces the Houston barbecue culture that continues to evolve and pushes it even further.  The brisket sets the high mark for the standard meat options and is some of the best around.  The supporting cast of meats and sides is notable and rounds out a terrific meal while the rotating specials keep the menu interesting.  However, it’s the burnt end biscuit that, when available, might be Jackson Street’s crowning achievement at this point.  It fittingly fuses flavors from the two partners together and offers one of the best bites that can be found anywhere in the Houston area.



Address: 209 Jackson Street, Houston, Texas 77002
Phone: 713-224-2400
Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11AM - 7PM; Sunday 11AM - 3PM
http://jacksonstbbqhouston.com/

Monday, November 16, 2015

On The Side: 2015 Houston BBQ Throwdown

The first annual Houston BBQ Throwdown went down last Sunday at St. Arnold’s brewery.  The challenge to local pitmasters was to fuse the flavors of Houston with the tradition of Texas Barbecue, all in one bite.  Fourteen area pitmasters took the challenge and showed up to a sold out crowd on Sunday.

This was a different take on the traditional Barbecue Festival and was a departure that I wholeheartedly welcomed.  It is quite possible to get brisket fatigue at most barbecue events.  But at the Throwdown, there were spreads of dishes that deviated from the norm in every direction.  Each dish was exciting and different.  And most impressively, there were absolutely no duds at the event.

The BBQ Throwdown was framed as a competition with awards going to the People’s Choice and to the Judge’s Choice as selected by a lineup of all-star judges (Alison Cook, Patricia Sharpe, Wayne Mueller, Greg Gatlin, and Robert J. Lerma).  Winners were named, but in all honesty, there were no losers.

Houston-area pimasters in general seem open to experimenting with their proteins.  This kind of event was perfect in capturing the cultures of Houston along with the playful nature of our barbecue proprietors.  Fusing Texas barbecue with flavors of other cultures is exactly what garnered acclaim for Blood Bros. BBQ pop-up events.  We have seen that Pappa Charlies’ Wesley Jurena isn’t afraid of melding flavors in unique ways as evidenced by a masala rubbed brisket he debuted on my recent visit.  This event also introduced me to Chopped N Smoked and their team that brought Lebanese flavors to Texas Barbecue, something I had never encountered.

There were also the more obvious, but entirely appropriate booths that drew from a Mexican influence with tamales and tacos and those that brought some Texas soul food.  The Brisket House made the Texas State Dish even more Texas-ier with a Beef Rib and Brisket chili.

The pitmasters needed little prompting to take the concept of the Throwdown and run with it, but an award, prestige and cooler full of briskets provided a little extra motivation.

A stipulation of the contest was that entries be something that they could feasibly put on the menu of their business.  So there is some hope that these dishes wind up as a daily special at a few of these joints.  And some of the entries, like BBQ Godfather’s godfather sandwich and Feges’ pig wings, already appear on the menu from time to time.


As for the flavors, here is the list of attendees and their dishes (alphabetically):

Blood Bros. BBQ – Pork Belly and Pig Ears on a Roti
The abundance of flavors worked well together on this bite. The flavors were unique as was the variety of textures from the crispy pig ear and soft pork belly
   
BBQ Godfather – The Godfather Sandwich
This sandwich featured Smoked Beef Rib with Candied Pork Belly and Sauteed Mushrooms.  It was the most “gourmet” item on the menu as the preparation went well beyond the smoking. Smoke, earthiness, sweetness and a garlic herb-iness provided a symphony of flavor on a picturesque bite.

Brooks' Place – Smoked Oxtails and Cabbage - Judge's Winner
The cabbage was well prepared, but the oxtails were clearly the focus of this Southern dish.  I’d never encountered oxtail like that. The perfectly tender meat sat on a bone that dripped with perfectly rendered fat.

Chopped N Smoked BBQ – Brisket Kibbeh
These guys were an unknown to me and served a dish unfamiliar to me.  I love trying new dishes and meeting new people, so this was the best of both worlds.  This Lebanese meatball came with a sauce that was completely different than you would expect at a barbecue competition and it absolutely worked.

Corkscrew BBQ – Prime Brisket Taco with Texas Caviar and Green Chili Ranch – People’s Choice Winner
If Corkscrew is serving brisket tacos, count me in.  Their exemplary brisket was topped with Texas Caviar, a mixture of corn, peas, tomato, onions and cilantro, then dressed with a jalapeño ranch sauce.  What’s not to like?

Feges BBQ – Smoked “Pig Wings” – My (Other) Favorite
This pork shank was meaty and well smoked. A healthy dose of black pepper combined with a delicious jalapeño mustard glaze to provide huge flavor with a nice bite.  It was near perfection for Feges.

Jackson Street BBQ – Cheddar Kolache (Klobasniky) with Smoked Brisket
As a nod to my Czech roots, I refuse to refer to a meat pastry as a “kolach,” but I will by all means partake in eating them.  This buttery and cheesy bread held a great bite of brisket.

Pappa Charlies Barbecue – Masala Rubbed Short Rib Burnt End with Cider Sriracha Slaw served on a Ritz
A very good burnt end benefited even more from the intriguing flavor of masala. He crowned the bite with some sriracha slaw, giving us two good bites in one.

Pit Room – Smoked Brisket Tamalito – My Favorite
Along with being my favorite item of the day, John Avila served up one of the best presented dishes at the event.  The smokiness of the meat permeated through the masa in this slice of tamal.  It sat in a house roasted chile colorado sauce that beats most I’ve had in authentic Mexican restaurants.  It was topped with fresh crema and burnt end bits and specs of habanero and salsa verde. This was a wealth of flavors all in one bite.

Pizzitola’s Barbecue – Brisket “Burnt Ends" Tamale in a Hickory Smoked Masa with Pork Sparerib Spiked Queso
Pizzitola’s was handing out whole tamales which I appreciated. I also loved the concept of smoked masa though it didn’t hold together as well as you would hope.  The sparerib spiked queso was an absolute winner as well.

Ray’s BBQ Shack – Smoked Oxtails
Ray’s was the 2nd booth offering up oxtails.  These were a little less smoky and a bit more sweet than Brooks’ offering but provided another nice take on the classic dish.

Roegel’s Barbecue – Smoked Lamb and Collard Greens
The smoked lamb was a generous portion and was lightly seasoned, allowing the natural flavors to shine through.  Lamb is a protein that not a lot of pitmasters try their hand at, but I wish they would.  Results like this are delectable.

The Brisket House – Beef Rib and Brisket Chili
Chili was one of the dishes I was looking for.  It begged to be featured at this event and The Brisket House did the Texas classic justice by injecting beef rib and brisket into a chunky chili base.

Tin Roof BBQ – Brisket Stuffed Shrimp Brochette and Dirty Rice with Beef Rib
This was a perfect concept for the Throwdown. This dish naturally combined jalapeño, cheese, brisket and shrimp into a perfect portion and had people raving.


Overall, I was very pleased with the event and the selected winners.  I wavered between about six places before performing my civic duty and casting a vote for the people’s choice award.  I was very pleased to see Brooks’ Place and Corkscrew take home the hardware.  They are two of the best places in the Houston area and served two of the best bites today.  I am glad their hard work continues to pay off.

As I mentioned before, there was not a bad bite at the event and I was satisfied by the end of the day.  This was a nicer feeling than the gluttonous misery that follows most BBQ Festivals.  The plates were well portioned and the manageable attendance allowed for quick queues.  This was not the kind of event where you spend most of your time waiting in line.  Instead, I had plenty of time to focus on the meat and leisurely talk to other attendees.  The people to food ratio was spot on.

St. Arnold provided a great backdrop for the day as a Houston institution in its own rite.  St. Arnold also provided free drinks for all of the attendees.  By all accounts, this will be an event that happens again (and again).  It will be interesting to see if St. Arnold is the permanent home or if it will make stops at other Houston institutions/breweries.

The Houston BBQ Throwdown reinforced the fact that Houston’s barbecue scene is here and demands to be respected.  There is no stopping the growth of Houston-area barbecue as it weaves into the culture that makes the Bayou City a diverse and unique city.


Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Lines moved quickly and efficiently through the event.
Pizzitola's tamales at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Pizzitola's was handing out whole tamales to attendees
A spread of selections from Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Brooks Place, Jackson Street, Pizzitola's, Feges, Brisket House, Roegel's
Pit Room at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Pit Room offered up delicious flavors as well as a picturesque presentation
Beautiful food from Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The food at the Throwdown was a delight to all senses
BBQ Godfather's booth at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
BBQ Godfather served up their Godfather sandwich
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Houston BBQ Throwdown was all you can eat and drink thanks to St. Arnold
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Chopped N Smoked; Pit Room; Pappa Charlies; BBQ Godfather
Ray's BBQ Shack at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Ray's BBQ Shack serving up smoked oxtails
Corkscrew BBQ at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The Corkscrew Crew preparing their popular brisket tacos.
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Blood Bros; Ray's BBQ Shack; Corkscrew
Saint Arnold was the backdrop for Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Saint Arnold provided the backdrop for the Houston BBQ Throwdown
Corkscrew BBQ won the People's Choice award for Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The Buckmans of Corkscrew BBQ celebrate their People's Choice award
Brooks Place was the judge's winner of Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Trent Brooks was awarded the Judge's Choice for the best bite of the day



*All Grades Are Based Solely on the Quality of Texas BBQ Offered at the Joint. We Aren't Looking for Burgers or Catfish!

My Grading Scale:


A = This is some of the finest BBQ you'll find anywhere. It is worth a roadtrip in itself along with any required wait.
B = This is very good BBQ, even if it is over an hour away, consider making the drive.
C = This is just average BBQ but it's worth a stop in a pinch.
D = This is a poor example of Texas BBQ. Even if it's the only place around, skip it. Apologize to any non-Texans that have eaten here.
F = This is not only a bad Texas BBQ, it is probably not suitable for human consumption.

 
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