Monday, July 30, 2012

Katy Trail Ice House

DALLAS: Katy Trail Ice House
3136B Routh St.
Dallas, TX 75201
Open: BBQ only Sat & Sun at 11:00-til

For both myself and the ownership at Katy Trail Ice House, three visits to their restaurant have been an education. Months before they began selling barbecue they contacted me about consulting with them. I didn’t have time, but I was happy to sit with them and talk about what makes great barbecue and sent them a few tips on how to achieve it. At that point, I wasn't sure if they were really serious about aiming for excellence. On my way out the door, they handed me a gift card and said thanks. I work just up the street so the funds were quickly dispensed over a few happy hours. Fast-forward to May and they had started up the barbecue menu.

When they first asked me to come in, they’d already secured a large steel smoker with an offset firebox. It was built by local welder Everett Klugston (this was his first smoker ever produced) and it was a monster. A little too big to hide from the health inspector in its original uncovered configuration in an Uptown parking lot. The smoker is hard to locate these days, but I have feeling that’s by design. The first thing I told them to do was hire a real pitman who would be dedicated to making great barbecue, not just an hourly worker who might add a log every hour or so. They brought on Eduardo Flores who has worked his whole life in one kitchen or another. He brought the right passion if not commercial barbecue experience. This was is his first gig as a pitman. Instead of letting him find his own way, he was asked to recreate the barbecue of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. I admired them for shooting for such a high quality target, but the reverse engineering of the sausage caused a short-lived local ruckus and seemed more like an unfair marketing ploy to me. They’ve since backed off the sausage reincarnation (which is the least of the four cuts offered at Franklin in my opinion), and are still working with a local supplier to get an acceptable recipe. In three visits over ten weeks, I never did find the elusive forcemeat.

Brisket from first visit

Some familiar elements of Aaron Franklin’s brisket were there on the first visit. The crust was heavy with coarse black pepper and plenty of salt, the surface was black and a line of fat was perfectly rendered, the smokering was deep and the meat was on the verge of falling apart. The depth of oak smoke was missing, and the heavy mix of rub ingredients that included sugar along with the liberal use of a basting spray (which had bourbon in it) throughout the cooking process was washing out the smoke. Wrapping the meat with 1/3 of the cooks still to go probably had a negative effect as well. This was the Louis Vuitton bag that you get in the subway station. After a quick glance and one bite it seems right, but after a couple of slices you just realize that it’s a fake. Albeit, a very good fake.

Ribs from first visit
The ribs didn’t seem to be aspiring towards anything. I cringed when Eduardo told the table (we were dining very much NOT incognito along with the Texas BBQ Posse) that he knew the ribs were done when they were falling off the bone, all with a gleam in his eye. He was still learning, but the ribs were as advertised – disintegrating. Their pleasing bronze bark and simpler rub did make for a deeper smokiness. We’d been visited by the pitman, the owner and the kitchen manager at a few points during the meal, so I had learned my lesson about getting too friendly. Despite the ribs, as we left the table, the consensus was that they were destined for greatness. On the way out I grabbed a slice of the fresh brisket from an unknowing meat carver. It was even better than what we had at the table. I couldn’t wait for visit number two.

Brisket from first visit

I brought a group on the second visit. It had rained all morning, so I wanted to see how these rookies might deal with the elements. I waited outside while a proxy ordered for me, then I sat down to eat once it arrived. All the elements of the first visit were there for the brisket and ribs, but it was all very dry. Near the end of the meal, the kitchen manager emerged, saw me and he froze. He immediately came over to apologize. They had a catering gig the day before and had a few briskets and racks of ribs leftover. They thought they might get away with just reheating the leftovers and serving them. After our discussion, it was made clear that their last foray into reheated meat. Even with the misstep, I was hopeful considering the flavors were there.

Brisket and ribs from second visit
My next try was thwarted by the ever changing hours of their barbecue availability. It started out as Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but they shaved off the Friday service. I waited until a Saturday afternoon and snuck into the patio. Still no sausage, but the combo plate of brisket and ribs appeared quickly. This time it came straight from a warmer off to the side of the patio. The smoker was still in hiding it seemed. They began with a bit of a disadvantage since my fried Scott and I were fresh off a great visit to Pecan Lodge which was phenomenal. This pale brisket didn’t really have a chance anyway. Thick slices of gray meat lacked good fat, crust and smoke. It was serviceable roast beef and not much more. Somehow the ribs had improved by leaps and bounds. The dark red crust was flecked with pepper and just enough salt. The meat needed a small tug to come off the bone, but the smoke was there. These ribs were perfectly cooked and plenty moist. Still, the unevenness of the three trips of and of this single plate was frustrating. An excellent version of spiced up pinto beans made it a good meal, if only the brisket had been left off. 

Brisket and ribs from third visit

So here’s what we learned. I learned that conflicts of interest can unfold over time and I should do a better job avoiding them. The folks at Katy Trail Ice House have learned that serving yesterday’s brisket can be dangerous, and that serving great smoked meats on a consistent basis is quite a challenge. For my own selfish convenience, I hope they get it figured out so I can have great barbecue within walking distance from my office. From what I ate on the first visit, I know they have it in them. I just hope they can find a way to consistently hit their target.

Rating ***

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.