Friday, June 19, 2015

A Guide to Houston-Area BBQ

In light of a recent “Essential BBQ list for Houstonians" firestorm on social media, I’m compelled to try and rectify what was at the very least some short-sighted and misguided information.

There are literally dozens of BBQ purveyors in our city; some are not so good, but others are doing very well. You will undoubtedly have your favorites, possibly based on relationships or a personal experience with one or another. It doesn’t help that a social media publication puts out a list that disregards many of the hard working people and places that have done so much to bring the Houston BBQ up to its current highly-respectable level.

If you’re new to Houston, you need a place to start if you’re looking for good BBQ. I would never begin to characterize this list as “essential”; this is just a 'map' of sorts to get you started, and a way to get a good representative sampling of the variety in BBQ that the greater Houston area has to offer. It is intentionally not numbered or ranked, and it is in no particular order.* 

Pappa Charlies Barbeque
Roegels Barbecue Co.
The Brisket House
Brooks' Place
Corkscrew BBQ
Killen's Barbecue
Gatlin's BBQ
Ray's BBQ Shack
Jackson Street BBQ
The Pit Room
Southern Q BBQ & Catering
Virgie's Bar-B-Que
El Burro & The Bull
Lenox Barbecue & Catering 
Pizzitola's BBQ 
Triple J's Smokehouse
Fainmous BBQ
Tin Roof BBQ
Tejas Chocolate

I’m often asked “what’s your favorite BBQ in Houston?”, or “who is the best?” Honestly, I don’t have an answer for either of those, and I doubt I ever will. I love the variety of the styles of BBQ we have, and the different methods of cooking being utilized. I’m often in the mood for a different taste of BBQ, and the multiple options I have to choose from please me to no end.

Your Houston BBQ experience should be your own. If you don’t have any idea where to begin, start with these and make it so.

- Scott

*The list represents those who have a regular, physical presence at a particular location as of the date of this posting. "Pop-ups" are not included, but should not be disregarded should you discover information about them.

All photos copyright Scott Sandlin, Texas Pit Quest. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Texas Sausage Trail - 500 Miles of BBQ, v. 2.0

After 10 stops in one day on our last trip, this one was a piece of cake.

Another weekend Texas back road BBQ trip with @BBQBryan and @HoustonFed is in the books. We were able to hit 7 stops on day one, and 4 more on our second day, 11 BBQ stops in all. Many were new for us, but we did include a few favorites from past trips as well.

On this trip we set out to tackle what has been referred to by others as "The Texas Sausage Trail," the US 90 corridor between Houston and San Antonio, south of and roughly parallel to I-10. Many of the BBQ joints on this route are known for sausage made in-house (thus, the "Sausage Trail"). We set out early on the morning of May 30, heading west from Rosenberg, and eventually stopped in San Marcos for the night. Sunday morning, May 31, we made a Lockhart and Bastrop run before heading back home to Houston. The smaller towns along these back roads form the backbone of our Texas heritage, and are alive with nostalgia and interesting history. In a way, it's much like what you might find along the remnants of Route 66.

One of the highlights from the trip was this spread from Kreuz Market in Lockhart:

Kreuz Market - pork chop, two kinds of sausage, clod, brisket

We had a little more time for exploring on this trip, and in this case we spent some of it wandering through the expansive wood stack yard at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, one of the oldest operating BBQ establishments in the state:

In the stacks at Smitty's Market, Lockhart

My son, Joey, joined us this time, and of course he was sporting favorite bacon socks for good luck:

Can't go on a BBQ road trip without your lucky bacon socks

Day 1: Vincek's Smokehouse - East Bernard, TX

Vincek's was a first time destination for each of us. A full-time meat market and bakery in East Bernard, TX, it's a place that you can tell is a significant and integral part of this small community of about 2,300. The pork ribs were good here, as well as the brisket, on which we noticed a well-balanced, flavorful rub. Good sausage here, and it was a good place to start our trip for the day.

Smoked pork hocks, dried sausage and jerky in the meat market at Vincek's

Tasty brisket, ribs, chicken and sausage

Austin's Bar-B-Q - Eagle Lake, TX

Austin's Bar-B-Q in Eagle Lake operates two offset trailer smokers at an old gas station property in the center of town. Sausage and brisket were the only meats available at the time of our arrival, so we had a little of each. The sausage had good flavor and texture. We had been looking forward to the brisket based on past reviews by others, but we'll have to write it off this time as just being too early/not done. Hopefully we'll be able to give it another chance in the future. 

At least the sausage was pretty good

Novosad's Bar-B-Q & Sausage Market - Halletsville, TX

Novosad's has operated in Halletsville since 1959

Novosad's has a good selection of meat products from the local area, and you can't beat their price point as evidenced by the menu boards below. Here we selected the moist brisket, sausage and pork steak. The pork steak was particularly memorable, a good balance of smoky and salty. I really regret not picking up some extra for later. The Czech/German style beef sausage had great peppery spice, finer grind, slightly loose pack, and was very juicy. By this, our third stop of the day, we were beginning to understand how this route has become known as the "Texas Sausage Trail."

Menu boards at Novosad's

Fatty brisket, pork steak, beef sausage

Gonzales Food Market - Gonzales, TX

Gonzales Food Market

We came with high expectations to Gonzales Food Market based on reports by others, and were not disappointed. We picked out lamb ribs, fatty brisket, beef sausage and an interesting take on the beef rib, a cross-cut style. The lamb ribs had a great flavor, and the brisket had a nice rub with good spice, tender and moist throughout. Their all-beef sausage was a finer grind, also with a bit of a looser pack, and had great snap and juice. Great sausage. Ronnie Killen said Gonzales Market was "his first bought sausage experience." For the sake of tradition, I like to imagine there's a little Gonzales Market influence in the style of the links he makes for Killen's Barbecue in Pearland.

One of the meats that really caught our eye was the cross-cut style beef ribs. We picked up just a couple of these beefy nuggets to try, and immediately our wheels started turning about the possibilities these might offer. With a little experimentation on rubs and pit time, these might be a unique offering for a BBQ joint interested in providing a beef rib experience for their customers that's more palatable in price (and size!) than the 1-1/2 to 2 lb. plate ribs. They could easily be made part of a 2 or 3 meat plate special as well.

Good prices at Gonzales Food Market

Brisket, sausage, lamb ribs, and cross cut-style beef ribs (upper right)

We don't always drive and eat non-stop, and on this trip we had the luxury of a little extra time to visit some of the Texas historical attractions along the way.

Clockwise, from top left: "Come and Take It" cannon in Gonzales, TX; Caldwell County courthouse, Lockhart, TX (1894); Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, TX (1909);
Lavaca County courthouse, Halletsville, TX (1897)

Pioneer BBQ - Nixon, TX

The other B and the Q were in the shop :-)

This was our 5th stop of the trip, and one we we've been looking forward to for quite some time. We've been seeing some extremely good looking photographs from Pioneer BBQ on their social media posts, not to mention some really high marks and reviews by others, and couldn't wait to try it for ourselves. Located about 27 miles south of I-10 on Highway 80 (south of Luling), we would have to say this place is definitely worth the diversion if traveling between San Antonio and Houston. 

Order counter at Pioneer BBQ

We had to splurge a little here and ordered more than our usual, including a side AND dessert. Right away we could tell this place was something special - the moist brisket was cooked perfectly and had a really nice rub. The sausages were removed from their holding warmer, and finished on a flat top with a little sauce - a unique method, but it turned out great. Just enough time for the sauce to caramelize a little bit, but not so much sauce that it overpowered the flavor of the sausage either. We were also able to sample their Scorpion Sauce, a habanero-infused BBQ sauce that provided a nice kick to an occasional bite. I especially liked it with their pork spareribs. For the side, of course we selected the Firecracker Corn (who could resist with a name like that). A fresh kernel cream corn, with heat from jalapenos, poblanos and pepper, but not too much cream. Just enough to temper the heat a little.

It's hard to believe Shawn Collins and his fiancee Amy have only been running this place for a little over a year. Pioneer BBQ should be a shoo-in the next time the TMBBQ Top 50 list is published.

Excellent plate from Pioneer BBQ - brisket, ribs, sausage and Firecracker Corn

To end this memorable visit, we did something we almost never do - ordered dessert. Amy tempted us with her smoked peach cobbler (alas, no Blue Bell), that had spent at least a little time in the smoker. You could pick up the smoke in the upper crust, but it wasn't so much that it overpowered the dish. This cobbler reminded me much of what my grandmothers made while I was growing up, with alternating layers of pastry crust and sweet peaches.

Smoked peach cobbler

City Market - Luling, TX

The ORIGINAL City Market, Luling, TX

Lined up on a Saturday to get into the smoke room

When you go to City Market in Luling, you get sausage, and then maybe other things. But definitely sausage. This is a sausage that you'll remember, and they sell plenty of it to go. Whenever I'm headed this direction, there's always someone who will ask me if I stop in Luling for them and pick them up some.

Having been to City Market before, we zeroed in on two links and two slices of brisket for this visit. Sausage had a great pop and the juices ran clear. That familiar beefy flavor with a little garlic and pepper was there. City Market sausage is still a Texas classic, and you can take comfort in its consistency and quality.

So much history on this chop table in the smoke room

Brisket, sausage, slice of cheddar, add a couple slices of bread and you have
a Texas ploughman's lunch

Hays County Bar-B-Que - San Marcos, TX

Our final stop on Day 1 took us to Hays County Bar-B-Que in San Marcos, which is operated by our friend Jesse Miranda. Our families joined us there, including Bryan's wife Leslye, his sister Cheryl and her husband Ernesto. Other BBQ friends from the Austin area were also able to meet us, including John Brotherton and his wife Brenda, Jimmy Ho and his wife Amber, and Robert Sierra, his wife Cynthia and daughter Savannah. Live music was provided on the stage outside, and the Pink Heals organization was hosting a fundraiser and celebration on this evening as well.

We were able to pick up some brisket, turkey, pulled pork and jalapeno cheese sausage. My family especially enjoyed the smoked turkey, and I was happy I chose the sausage and brisket. Hays Co. Bar-B-Que was a great way to wrap up our first day of this BBQ road trip. We had a great visit with friends before settling into a local hotel for some well-earned rest for the evening.

(To support or donate to a worthwhile organization that helped feed the victims and first responders from the recent floods in Hays County and Wimberley, please visit Operation BBQ Relief. Operation BBQ Relief is a 501(c)(3) disaster response non-profit organization that provides hot meals to the communities and first responders impacted by disasters.)

Brisket and jalapeno cheddar sausage

My wife Susan, a cancer survivor, was able to sign the Pink Heals police car at the special event Hays County BBQ was hosting for the evening.

Day 2: Smitty's Market - Lockhart, TX

Smitty's, at least it's present location, is one of the most legendary BBQ destinations in the state. There has been BBQ served here for over 75 years. The walls, equipment, pits and furnishings are a testament to the legacy of what this place has meant to Texas BBQ history for generations. When you go to Smitty's, your first priority should be a ring of their sausage, and then some brisket or clod, and pork ribs if you're so inclined. That legendary sausage ring was what we were after here. Great snap and flavor, juicy and just enough spice. I had to pick up two more rings to take home.

It's hard to imaging how many fires have burned here

Two kinds of sausage and fatty brisket

Hallowed hall of BBQ history

Black's Barbecue - Lockhart, TX

Black's Barbecue, Lockhart

Black's original location in Lockhart has been a favorite for many years. They earned the top spot on the Texas Monthly Top 50 list twice, and are still one of the consistently best bets to recommend for a stop to anyone headed through Lockhart. They have several different meat choices and side options. We chose two kinds of sausage links and some fatty brisket just to hold us over for a while. My favorite was the original beef sausage, and the brisket had excellent bark and flavor. Can't very well go wrong with a stop at Black's.

Two kinds of sausage and some very good moist brisket

Kreuz Market - Lockhart, TX

Kreuz Market has been at this location in Lockhart since 1999, but is famously fueled by the same fire from the pits of its previous location since the 1920s. The sausage here is the stuff of legend, so we picked up one of the originals, plus a jalapeno cheese, identified at Kreuz by its red tie string. Of course we picked up some brisket, as well as some shoulder clod and a thick slice of their smoked center-cut pork chop. The brisket was moist and tender, the sausage was excellent as usual, but the stand out for me this day was the pork chop--juicy and full of flavor, and the darker muscle (longissimus costarum?) along the end of the rib was one of the better tasting bites of our entire trip.

Turning briskets on the pit at Kreuz

Sharpening the knife in the pit room at Kreuz

Brisket, sausage and smoked pork chop

From the pit room, looking back at the entrance to Kreuz Market

Southside Market & Barbeque - Bastrop, TX

Southside Market & Barbeque, Bastrop

Ordering counter at Southside Market

We all had some great memories of the bites we had from Southside Market at the 2015 Houston BBQ Festival, especially the Southside Sausage Slammers. These are cheddar stuffed jalapenos, wrapped with Southside breakfast sausage, then wrapped with bacon and slow smoked. This treat has everything going for it. Southside wasn't in our original plans for this trip, but the memories of these Slammers made them a topic of conversation during the whole trip, so we added Southside as a final stop. (Thanks, Travis, for the behind-the-scenes tour!)

I don't want to let this post get by without finishing where we started this conversation - with sausage. We ordered a piece of Southside's all beef sausage, and were totally blown away. This was the sausage we had been looking for the whole trip. Perfection in texture and juiciness, and the casing had just enough strength to hold it together. I would highly recommend this sausage to anyone, and will be making a point to stop in for a sausage wrap anytime I'm in the vicinity.

Southside Sausage Slammer - yes, it's as good as it looks

Cooler at Southside Market

In the end, we turned 482 miles just as we pulled back into the neighborhood (for that effort we're allowed the luxury of rounding up to 500). Andrew, Bryan and I survived another extreme BBQ road trip, and only had to turn around twice this time because we weren't paying attention. 

If you're interested in joining us on part or all of a future trip, or meeting us somewhere along the way, just contact any one of the three of us on social media (Scott, Bryan or Andrew) and we'll put you on the list to receive details.

- Scott

All pictures (c) Scott Sandlin, Texas Pit Quest. All rights reserved.

Vincek's Smokehouse, 139 S. Dill St., East Bernard, TX 77435, (979) 335-7921.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. Sunday, 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Monday. Facebook page

Austin's Bar-B-Q, 515 E Main St., Eagle Lake, TX 77434, (979) 234-5250.
Hours: Thursday through Saturday, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Sunday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Monday through Wednesday. Facebook page

Novosad's Market, 105 S La Grange St, Hallettsville, TX 77964, (361) 798-2770.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Gonzales Food Market, 311 Saint Lawrence St., Gonzales, TX 78629, (830) 672-3156.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Pioneer BBQ, 213 N. Nixon Ave., Nixon, TX 78140, (512) 781-3005.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 7:30 pm. Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday. Facebook page

City Market, 633 E. Davis St., Luling, TX 78648 (830) 875-9019.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Hays County Bar-B-Que, 1612 South IH-35, San Marcos, TX 78666, (512) 392-6000.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Friday and Saturday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Smitty's Market, 208 South Commerce, Lockhart, TX 78644, (512) 398-9344.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. Saturday 7:00 am to 6:30 pm. Sunday, 9:00 am to 6:30 pm.

Black's Barbecue, 215 North Main St., Lockhart, TX 78644, (512) 398-2712.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Friday and Saturday 10:00 am to 8:30 pm.

Kreuz Market, 619 North Colorado St., Lockhart, TX 78644, (512) 398-2361.
Hours: Open every day, 10:30 am to 8:00 pm.

Southside Market & Barbeque, 534 Hwy 71 W, Bastrop, TX 78602, (512) 575-9037.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. Friday and Saturday, 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. Drive-thru 6:00 to close. Breakfast, 6:00 am to 10:00 am, drive-thru only.