Saturday, March 31, 2012

Heavy's BBQ

HONDO: Heavy's BBQ
1301 19th St.
Hondo, TX 78861
Open M-Sat 11-8, Sun 11-3

The former McBee's in Hondo has gotten a new lease on life. Heavy purchased the joint after moving back home from Austin where he had worked at Bert's BBQ. He using the same methods of indirectly smoking with mesquite on the same brick pit used by McBee's, but the results are incredible. I was worried when we stopped in at 11:30 to find only two other customers, but once we left an hour later the joint was full with a line out the door.

We got a sampling of meats which included sausage, pork loin, ribs and both fatty and lean brisket. The sausage was gray denoting fresh sausage with no preservatives. It was smoky, juicy and perfectly seasoned. I thought it might be homemade, but instead Heavy has fresh uncooked links delivered from Pollok's in Falls City, Texas twice a week. It's worth the shipping cost. Pork loin is a lean cut that's apt to dry out, but this one was juicy with a deep smokiness. The simple seasoning of just salt and cracked black pepper served it and the other meats well.

The spare ribs were perfectly tender with a nicely rendered fat layer. The bark gave them a deep smokiness and they were tending towards dry in a good way. A thin tomatoey sauce had plenty of black pepper and vinegar with just the right amount of sweetness. It was so good I was drinking it from the cup, but the irony was that I wouldn't dare use it on any of the excellent smoked meats.

As I watched the deep black crusted brisket relax onto the cutting board I knew I was in for something good. Heavy's knife glided effortlessly as each slice fell gently onto the next. The beef neither quivered nor bounced. The fat melted onto my fingers as I brought a few fingers full to my mouth. I braced in anticipation and it didn't let me down. Even the thick fat that remained was good to the last bite holding onto the smoke tightly. The beef was buttery tender no matter if it was from the moist or lean end, and every slice had a deep smoky flavor. I was even more impressed when I learned that he smoked with all mesquite and refused to pre-wrap the meat in foil while cooking, otherwise known as "the Texas crutch". To manage a mesquite fire in this way takes real skill. If I'd just ordered brisket, I would have been ridiculously impressed, but with all of the other excellent meats Heavy's is a must visit from anywhere in the state.

Rating *****

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Broussard's Links + Ribs Bar-B-Q

BEAUMONT: Broussard's Links + Ribs Bar-B-Q
2930 S 11th St
Beaumont, TX 77701
Open Tues-Sat 10:30-8

From north to south, East Texas is a wasteland for decent sliced brisket, so when you find one that even edible it's a discovery. They may be famous for the beef links at Broussard's, but they know how to do brisket too. This small building on a busy corner on the south side of Beaumont does all of its business through two take-out windows, and only a few picnic tables on a side patio offer a place to sit. Most orders are taken to go, but we were eating in.

Broussard's is famous for its East Texas style spicy beef links (for more info read here). These links are beef through and through. The meat, the fat and the casing are all beef. They have a bit more girth than your normal pork casing, and the casing is noticeably tougher. Most folks trying them for the first time would probably prefer to remove the casings first, but these links had been smoked to a point of crispness that was easy enough to bite through and chew. An unfamiliar seasoning mix without black pepper creates deep red drippings and a heavy garlic pungence. I'd learn over the next few stops in Beaumont that the old style links much heavier in fat and more loosely packed are the norm for this style of link, but there's little fault to find here in these taught links. They're certainly drier and more cohesive, but I couldn't stop eating them. A link of boudin had good seasoning and a pronounced smokiness, but wasn't exactly unique.

What was unique here at Broussard's was good smokey ribs and brisket. While both were doused in a thin sweet and spicy sauce, the smokiness of the dark hued ribs shined through. The meat was ultra tender, but still stayed on the bone. Fat throughout was well rendered, and every morsel from rib to tip was worth savoring.

I can't say the brisket here is near the top of the Texas list, but it's commendable for this region. The crust provided a nice smoky flavor, but the sauce was needed for the lean and somewhat chewy meat that was quickly drying out. Eat it fast or combine it on some white bread with a chunk of beef link and you'll certainly enjoy it. The only bad news is that I'm now craving spicy beef links something fierce.

Rating ****

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mac's Bar-B-Q

BRADY: Mac's Bar-B-Q
1903 S Bridge St
Brady, TX 76825
Open Sun-Thur 10:30-8, F-Sat 10:30-9

The Texas Hill Country is dominated by direct heat mesquite cooking. Up until a few weeks ago, Hard 8 up the street from Mac's had been cooking that way since they bought out Lone Star BBQ some years back, but they're now closed. Now Mac's is the only joint in town and they're smoking with oak. Colette McBee had been running the joint with her husband for several years, but a recent divorce gave her the reigns eight months ago and she's riding the business for all it's worth. The barbecue business is a tough one that can really kick your ass, but you can hear it in her voice that the petite Colette is kicking right back. When asked if the barbecue is any better since she took things over, her answer without hesitation was a confident "Hell yes!" In a state with few women pitmasters, it was nice to see Colette working the pits with authority while still being self-conscious of her bad hair day.

From then on the meat did the talking. Stopping in at 4:30 in the afternoon could have meant dried out lunch leftovers, but this meat was all good. Slices of briskets from the flat had a nice quarter inch line of smoky fat clinging to firm, flavorful meat. A good bark and a thick smokering made the brisket irresistable to the whole table at the end of a long BBQ day. Thick spare ribs with a deep red hue also had great smoke and deep flavor from the generous seasoning. The meat and fat could have used more time on the smoker to soften a bit, but the ribs were still commendable. Beans were forgettable, but the potato salad that was dyed and sweetened with French dressing was a great complement to the meal.

I thought the prospect of moist chicken at this hour was out of the question, but these pieces had both crisp skin and moist meat beneath, even the white meat. Good smoke and a nice salty pop from the rub took the chicken to another level. A commercially made sausage has nice snap in the casing and a good bit of smoke. The meat was juicy, but not fatty and had some aggressive black pepper seasoning. I didn't catch the supplier, but they chose a good one.

I can't believe it took me three trips to Brady to finally stop here, but it was worth the wait. Now that they're open seven days a week, you've got no excuse not to stop. Colette will not disappoint.

Rating ****

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Miller's Smokehouse

BELTON: Miller's Smokehouse
208 N Penelope
Belton, TX 76513
Open Tue-Thur 10:30-8, F 10:30-9, Sat 4-9

Dirk Miller knows his way around meat. He's a deer processor, taxidermist, sausage maker and a master at the barbecue pit. Hidden a couple blocks down a side street in Belton you'll find his small but expanding storefront. On the way there it's hard to ignore the billboards and prominent location of nearby Schoepf's right on Central Avenue, but the few extra blocks are painless. It started with a single smoker and a tiny dining area. Now there are a number of steel behemoths belching oak smoke and a larger dining room in the rear of the shop.

It was a Wednesday, so we were denied the Friday-only pork ribs. We settled for a plate of sliced brisket, pulled pork and all three sausages. Just looking at the brisket, I knew it would be good. The fat was translucent, the crust was black and the smokering was pronounced. With the first bite I was enraptured in oak smoke. This was some of the most deeply smoky brisket I've had that didn't enter into over-smoked territory. The fat was buttery and the meat came apart with ease. A rub of seasoned salt, garlic pepper and black pepper added restrained but necessary zip while still allowing for a crackling bark. Pulled pork was a letdown in comparison. The meat lost most of it's character after the addition of a sweet tomato based sauce.

Three sausages are all a beef/pork mix with similar character. All had a fine grind but none entered the too-cohesive texture of a commercial sausage. The original link had a restrained seasoning that was dominated by garlic. A hot link ditched the garlic for paprika and cayenne, but still needed more kick. Jalapeno cheese was the best with large chunks of jalapeno and melted cheese. All three are cooked over direct heat in a silo shaped smoker with five circular racks stacked above heat source of wood coals. Maybe the ones I ate came off the top rack, but they all needed more smoke and a crisper casing. I must give him credit for making three unique sausages in a time where making just one signature link is becoming very rare.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

As the meal was finishing I made another comment about missing the ribs and a guy came out from the kitchen with two ribs wrapped in foil. Too many ribs had been cooked for a catering job, so we got some leftovers. They'd been wrapped in foil for a while, so the crust had dissolved a bit, but the flavor from a heavy black pepper rub and smoke was excellent. The meat on the tips was a tad chewy and dry, but I'm sure these issues are worked out on Fridays when the ribs are a menu feature.

After the meal we talked with Dirk. A student of Texas BBQ, he shares his anxiousness to get to Austin for a visit to Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ after reading Katy Vine's Texas Monthly article on the two. He showed us the smokers then took us back to the kitchen for some fatty brisket. He cut a large blacked chunk of meat from the back end of a brisket and was visibly pleased when we asked him to keep all the fat on. The slices we had a few minutes earlier were great, but this was otherworldly. Get yourself down to Belton and find out for yourself. Dirk will be happy to serve you.

Rating ****

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hog's Heaven BBQ

809 S Main St
Weatherford, TX 76086
Open M-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9, Sun 12-5

Charles Huggins is a brave man. He ran a barbecue joint in Hunstville, Alabama then decided to bring his talents to Texas. He opened a joint in the small town of Weatherford with a menu full of smoked meats. The only thing he left off was brisket. He finally relented after about a year of getting grief, and it is now on the menu. Well, not on the actual menu hung by the register, but just ask for it.

Try the rest of the menu while you're at it. There wasn't anything we disliked. The chicken was nicely moist with a crisp and salty skin. Both meat and skin are deeply smoky in true Texas fashion, but the sauce served with it has a decidedly Alabama twist. It's a thin white sauce of mostly buttermilk and what tasted like Italian dressing. It actually worked. Pulled pork was just wet enough to hold it together without being soggy. The well seasoned and smoky pork needed no adornment. Of all the meats, the ribs just oozed Texas style. A restrained rub, a great bark, plenty of smoke and meat firm enough to stay on the bone. These were a perfect example of well smoked St. Louis ribs.

Just as we were finishing off the homemade potato salad and the exceptional smoked corn on the cob, Charles noted that brisket was available. He doesn't like it much because it's too fatty, so I made him more uneasy by asking for some fatty slices. What we got had decent smoke and a well formed crust. It could have had smoke and seasoning deeper into the meat, but it was well cooked with nicely rendered fat. It was certainly above average brisket.

We went back with Mr. Huggins to see the homemade pit transplanted from Alabama where he's smoking with hickory. The fire barely smolders directly under the meat, but the meat is held about four feet above the fire. The method results in smoked meat, but it's and odd hybrid of direct and indirect heat that I haven't seen before. No matter his methods, this pitmaster knows how to smoke some meat. It might be Alabama style or Texas style BBQ, but it's all good here at Hog's Heaven.

Rating ****

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que

BROWNSVILLE: Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que
2404 Southmost Rd
Brownsville, TX 78521
Open Sat & Sun (for barbacoa) 5:30am 'til sold out

I'm not here to tell you that I'm an authority on barbacoa. I know enough about it to be dangerous, and I've eaten enough of it to know that what I ate at Vera's was something special. The funny part is that the best place to get barbacoa in Texas doesn't have a single Yelp or Urbanspoon review. Take that however you like, but a visit to Vera's isn't exactly adventurous.

You can read a much more detailed version of the process that owner Mando Vera goes through to get traditionally smoked barbacoa in Smokestack Lightning, but here is the abbreviated process. Mando washes whole cow heads. These days those whole heads don't include the brain (sesos). Brains haven't been available commercially since 2005 due to the mad cow scare. The cleaned heads are then wrapped in foil unseasoned and placed in a brick lined pit. Mesquite and ebony coals have been cooked down in a deep brick-lined pit where the wrapped heads are then stacked. The pit is covered with a metal lid then with dirt. The whole heads will cook in the pit for around eight hours. Until recently, this process occurred in a small building just behind the restaurant, but a fire moved the operation temporarily to an off-site pit until the damage from the fire is repaired. Sadly, I wasn't able to get to the other pit. Mando was just too tired after a very long day.

Barbacoa taco w/ salsa verde

The taco above is so beautiful that you'll see it again in this review.

The whole heads are then brought into the restaurant's kitchen where they are unwrapped and meticulously cleaned by Mando and his staff. Meat is separated into cheek (cachete), tongue (lengua), eyes (ojos) and the rest is chopped into mixta. Mando wife and daughters then serve it up from steam tables just behind the ordering counter. Orders are generally made by the pound with a half pound being the smallest order. They don't serve tacos, but rather offer chopped raw onions and cilantro, raw chile pequin, a trio of hot sauces and warm tortillas by the pack from nearby Capistran Tortilla Factory. The salsa verde with tomatillos, avocado, lime, green chiles and cilantro was my favorite. Now it's time to assemble.

Bufé escandinavo

Vera's is unique in Texas. Due to health codes, there is not another location in Texas where you can get barbacoa like this from a commercial vendor. For most traditional backyard barbacoa, cooking with wood in a pit in the ground is the only way to do it, but the health department frowns on this sort of cooking. As long as Vera's remains operational they will be grandfathered in and allowed to continue to cook in the old way. With no exaggeration, if this place closes it will mean the end of traditional barbacoa available commercially in Texas.

Vera's is also a unique business model in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Most every place that serves barbacoa is either a tortilla factory or a meat market. Like Vera's these places usually serve it on Saturdays and Sundays only, but it's a smaller part of a large operation. On the weekends, Vera's is all cow head, all the time (except a sad brisket that we'll get to later). The careful selection of another shop's tortillas spoke of focus rather than any sort of corner cutting. The small building has a few tables inside, but the business (other than Nick and I) was strictly take-out. We sat for over an hour on a Saturday morning watching the crowds chat with Mando and leave with plastic bags filled with steaming meat. All of this while assembling taco after taco.


Smoked brisket was on the menu, so I had to order it, but it's not really worth a mention here. I'll just say, order the barbacoa.

Smoked brisket

I felt like too much of a gringo if I had just ordered the cachete, so I got a half pound of the mixta as well. The mixta was so fatty and gamey that I must admit it was hard to enjoy without the tortilla and plenty of salsa verde. I later learned that cachete is what just about everyone orders unless its gone, then you're left with mixta. I'll be getting cachete from now on.

Mando cleaning a head

I was so full on the initial visit Saturday morning after days of eating, that I was force feeding myself. I knew Vera's was a special place, and against my normal pattern we returned the next day with a hungry stomach. Another reason for returning was a promise from the owner, Mando. When I inquired about ojos, he said that indeed the eyes were a delicacy and that the cost is no matter to those that come in requesting them. He showed me a cooked eye which weighed in around 1/4 lb each, and I asked him if he liked them. He paused in a pondering look and confessed that he'd never tried one. We then agreed that I'd return the next day and we'd each eat our first eye together.

Mando holding a cow eye

Photo by Nick McWhirter

The next morning Nick and I sat for about an hour eating and waiting for the right moment when Mando could steal a few minutes. After a few tacos of cachete and salsa verde, we were ready for the eye. Mando brought out a small paper boat of chopped meat. I had envisioned dangling the eye over my mouth and taking a large bite, but Mando said this was only going to happen if a tortilla and some salsa was involved. We quickly wrapped the gooey meat into a tortilla, feigned a tortilla toast, and chowed down. Eyes are a muscle, so it tasted about like a gamier version of the mixta, but it was hard to get over the unstable texture which offered no resistance. I think Mando and I were both glad we split the eye, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless. We had only a minute or two to laugh about it before Mando went back to deal with the unceasing line of hungry Texans.

The 'eyes' have it!

After two days of eating this barbacoa, and a couple hours of watching Mando's daughters enjoy the it at one of the dining room tables, I came up with my preferred method for eating it. The cachete is rich like any fatty cut of beef would be, but a hint of the smoke has kissed the meat as well. Unlike the usual barbacoa that is steamed, this meat is a bit firmer and not as wet, but it wouldn't in any way be considered dry. It's also cooked without seasoning, so the sprinkling of a little salt is a normal and helpful addition. Place a bit of meat of the salted meat in a warm tortilla along with some of their excellent salsa verde and enjoy, over and over and over.

Take me back to Brownsville

It might not be the sort of Teas barbecue that you're used to, but this sort of smoked meat has been around far longer than the smoked brisket that I love so much. It is Texas' real native barbecue, and Vera's is a Texas historical treasure. It's worth a pilgrimage.

Rating *****
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sugar & Smoke

249 E. Main Street
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Open Tues-Sat 7-3, Sun 10-2

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2012: Chef Nicole Davenport may look familiar. It was she who was unceremoniously eliminated from the BBQ Pitmasters reality show in season 2 for a poor cole slaw recipe. Yes, she lost a barbecue competition because of cabbage, so it's fitting that there is none on the menu at Sugar & Smoke. Open for only a couple of weeks when I visited, they were still trying to get their footing. A small offering of smoked meats competed with breakfast items, salads, sandwiches and a whole lot of baked goods. Since my visit, they've embraced the smoker a bit more by adding two more meats to the repertoire along with smoked hummus and a smoked portabella mushroom.

These days they have a five meat sampler plate on the menu, but on this visit my request for a plate of meat only had to be cleared with the chef since they were only offering plated meals with sides. I guess the well-heeled crowd that was there for quiche and chicken salad didn't mind not having the option, but my request quickly resulted in a stunning plate of magazine worthy meat. Given the clientele, I was expecting overly trimmed brisket, but the slices presented had a thick line of nicely softened and crisped fat. Ms. Davenport showed her competition background by presenting gleaming slices of nicely stacked meat that had been brushed with a finishing sauce just before serving. The added flavor was welcome and not overwhelming. Even with the handicap of a gas-fired Ole Hickory pit, there was plenty of good smoke on these tender slices too. I had to confirm that the pork was from the shoulder, because its richness made me think some belly had been mixed in. Served pre-sauced with a peach BBQ sauce, the meat was both smoky and sweet. The one meat that did not work with the sauce was the lamb. The mint vinaigrette belongs on a salad, so be sure to get it on the side. The otherwise delicate meat was moist, tender and barely gamey. It lacked the good smoke of the other two meats, but was certainly enjoyable.

Desserts and sides are usually given little attention at a barbecue joint, but the sides here are thoughtful. Sweet potato fries were fresh and crispy with a dusting of kosher salt. The sugar & smoke pickles aren't free, but the spicy and sweet chips make for a great complement to the meat. With 'Sugar' in the name, they aim to impress with a bevy of baked goods. Word is that the space previously housed a bakery that lost its lease, and much of the staff was retained for this concept when the restaurant opened. The result is a tempting array of pies, cakes, cookies and traditional breakfast goodies. I went for the chocolate flan bundt cake which was dense, rich and moist even without frosting.

While the setting and decor at Sugar & Smoke may give the impression that it's too fancy for well smoked meats, the results were impressive. Sure, the meats come out on a fancy tray with plenty of green garnishes, but when the meal is over, only the garnishes will be left.

Rating ****

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hard Eight BBQ (Coppell)

688 Freeport Pkwy
Coppell, TX 75019


Open M-Thur 10:30-9, F-Sat 10:30-10, Sun 10:30-6

Update: Seeing the huge burner door open to reveal glowing coals of mesquite wood was an impressive sight while waiting in line. I was there at the right time to see a pitman shoveling coals into one of the cooking pits. The next stop was the 'menu' pit.

With all of your options out in the open, it's hard to be selective. The guy working the pit suggested some of the chicken poppers and with the shrimp poppers right there, I had to add them. Again on this visit they were reluctant to provide their recommendation for which of the smoked meats to order. Any good pitmaster knows that a couple of the cuts are turning out better than the others on a given day, so it makes me uneasy if they can't at least guide me a bit.

I got some fatty and lean brisket, pork ribs, and a couple of those poppers. Beans are free in a communal pot, but the cornbread salad I had to pay for. While I enjoy the spicy beans, the 'salad' of stale bread and a few chopped peppers and onions loosely piled together had me scratching my head about what some prep cook must have forgotten to add that morning.

Both options for brisket were plenty moist, but were a bit over tender and falling apart. A nice crust and smokering had formed on the meat and each sliced had picked up some great flavor from the mesquite coals. The spare ribs were a bit thin, so the heavy rub overwhelmed a bit, but salt lovers would enjoy them for sure. The meat came easily from the bone which isn't usually the case for this direct-heat style. The poppers were an utter disappointment. The bacon surrounding the dried out meat was undercooked and chewy.

A saving grace to finish the meal was the homemade banana pudding. A whipped creamy pudding sat atop a layer of both bananas and nilla wafers. Atop it was a fine layer of either more crushed wafers or graham crackers. It was an excellent pudding and a reminder of how well they can do they here when they really try. If this Hard 8 could just get the same consistency with the items that come off the pit, they'd really have something special at this location.

Rating ***

2009: I've been hearing from some folks that this location of Hard Eight had improved, so I went back to give it another shot. I arrived at 2:30 on a Sunday, and unfortunately, once the lunch rush is over, the quality seems to suffer at this joint. I ordered three meats; sausage, brisket and a spare rib. The orphaned spare rib had been separated from it companions for quite a while before it ended up on my plate, and it was dry and less than hot. The brisket was decent, but all of the flavor came from the salt and pepper rub, so any bites without that rub were nearly flavorless. The dry sausage had been sitting in the warming pan for so long that one side of each slice had been nearly petrified. Not even the sauce could save it. On top of all that, even the exposed side of my slice of bread was well on its way to stale. Maybe the food's perfect when turnover is high, but customers need to expect a high quality product no matter what time of day, especially at these prices.

Rating **

2008: This place is an outpost of the original in Stephenville, and is done in the the same style . Meat is ordered straight from the pits before you enter the building, but at this location, the pit "masters" are clueless. I asked if he had a favorite, and he gave the generic and lethargic "It's all good" reply. No help. I ordered brisket and ribs. The ribs were meaty and tender with well rendered fat and a nice crust flavor. The smoke flavor was missing from the center. The brisket was not as good. The crust was evident, but it was not smoky. The tenderness was fine, but it was a little dry. A very average brisket. This joint has a ways to go before it challenges the original.

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Mumphord's Place Bar-B-Q

VICTORIA: Mumphord's Place Bar-B-Q
1202 E Juan Linn St
Victoria, TX 77901
Open Tues-Thur 11-7, F 11-8, Sat 11-6

Barbecue south of San Antonio generally means indirectly smoked meats done with mesquite. As we walked up to Mumphord's the smell coming from the screened in pit room at the back of the joint was unmistakeably from direct heat BBQ. We started our visit right there with a tour of the pits from Bubba Barnes, who is one of a few pitmen here. They burn their wood down to coals and cook the meat directly over them in several pits that all have their own given names like 'Goliath' and 'Chicken Smoker' which is reserved for, well I think you guessed it. A mix of mesquite and oak coals provide the flavor, and Bubba provides the know-how.

After a thorough tour of the place, which included dozens of photos of this athletic family which includes coaches, baseball players, and even a couple of former NFL players, it was time to eat. A four-meat plate was on the menu, so a pile of ribs, brisket, turkey and sausage was soon in our grasp. Employee recommendations of green beans and potato salad rounded out the plate. Direct heat cooking doesn't make for incredibly tender brisket, and this one was no different. The meat had a pleasing chew, but wasn't tough. The meat had simple seasoning and great flavor from the coals. Ribs were thin on meat and a bit dry, but the overall flavor from the rub and the smoke was excellent. A dip in their homemade sauce (the only secret they kept from us was this recipe) which was a sweet mix of tomato, mustard & maybe Italian dressing, took care of any moisture issues. My favorite meat here, the turkey needed no help. They start with a whole turkey breast, apply a salt-heavy rub and lay it over the fire. The meat was perfectly tender, moist and succulent. A German sausage from Schulenberg, Texas was smoked nicely with good snap and a pleasing mix of salt, pepper and garlic.

The sides of fresh green beans in a sauce heavy with salt and butter were still crisp and the potato salad was obviously homemade with a mashed consistency but too much sugar. A better option for the sweet tooth are their desserts which are made by a lady from their church. A slice of chocolate cake with cream cheese icing was perfectly moist with a restrained amount of frosting, which I'm partial to. I was a great dessert to finish off what was a great meal. It's tough to find well cooked meats like this in this region. This may not have been perfect, but it's the best we found anywhere within a seventy-five mile radius of Victoria. I'd gladly return.

Rating ****

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Big Ray's Bar-B-Que

ALLEN: Big Ray's Bar-B-Que
400 E. Main
Allen, TX 75002


Open M-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9

Big Ray's had a lot going for it on the surface. I got quite a few recommendations from readers to check out this independently owned joint in Allen in a former BBQ chain location. A huge sign shouted "BBQ" on the side of the building, the smell of smoke was in the air, and the meats on display looked promising on the counter. A huge selection of sides was also available.

Even the meats in this photo look great, but the brisket was tough, lacked smoke and had lots of opaque fat. With a bit more time on the smoker it could be some quality meat. The same goes for the large spare ribs in the texture category. They took some real effort to get off the bone and the fat just hadn't been rendered down. The bark was hindered by a too-heavy rub, but they too had promise. The 'pulled' pork was roughly sliced and chopped. The meat was tender enough, but it really lacked smoke, seasoning, and flavor.

The array of sides here deserve their own paragraph. I've rarely seen more types offered, so I couldn't settle for slaw and beans. Cornbread casserole was a melange of chopped onions, peppers and ranch covering some crumbled cornbread. It wasn't any better than it sounds. More interesting was an Asian style pasta salad with ramen noodles that was too sweet, but was just odd enough to keep eating. With all these options you could eat something different every day. I just wish the meat alone was enough to keep me coming back.

Rating **

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mustang Creek Bar-B-Q

LOUISE: Mustang Creek Bar-B-Q
33574 Us 59 Hwy

Louise, TX 77455


Open Tues-F 10:30-5
, Sat-Sun 10:30-3

You may be familiar with this tiny place between El Campo and Louise along Highway 59. It's most famous menu item, the Bohemian Special was highlighted by Texas Monthly in 2006, named the best barbecue sandwich in Texas by Robb Walsh in 2009, and featured as one of the top 21 BBQ sandwiches in the U.S. by Garden & Gun magazine in 2011. Let's just say this place has been 'discovered', and I was going in with high expectations.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

We watched as pitmaster Cecil carefully assembled the sandwich from peppery slices of brisket, spears of smoked sausage, dill pickles, sliced white onions and plenty of spicy and sweet barbecue sauce. When it's all put together, it's a behemoth sandwich. The textural clashes and multiple flavors make for a great sandwich whose flavor was not lacking. I had eaten several meals on this day, but I didn't want to put this sandwich down. It's worth the drive, even if it's 90 minutes from Houston.

We were too late for the ribs, so we just got a plate of sliced brisket. The smoked meat alone was a disappointment. Rubbery slices from the lean end were underdone, yet still well seasoned and smoky. Good thing the sandwich gives me another reason to visit, so I can see if this brisket was just an anomaly and to try those ribs.

Rating ***

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Hinze's Bar-B-Q

WHARTON: Hinze's Bar-B-Q
8229 U.S. Hwy 59

Wharton, TX 77488


Open M-Sat 10-9, Sun 10-4

The sign out by the road is showing its age, but Hinze's just north of Wharton has come a long way from its tiny original building. The current restaurant is as large as the menu. A couple of very large trees shoot right up through the front dining area and hold a western mural above the roof. Just inside the doors you'll normally find a sizable line. Ordering is done at the register, then food is called out by order number after a short wait.

While we waited, the staff did a good job of up-selling us with a piece of lemon meringue pie, but let's get to the meat first. Pecan smoked brisket had a good bark and beautiful smokering. The meat was a bit tough and trimmed extra lean, but remained moist. It had decent smoke, but really needed some seasoning. The lean, thin ribs were excellent. The meat had good smoke and excellent flavor from a sweet rub and subtle glaze. The texture was on the dry side, but in a pleasing way. The meat didn't crumble nor was it juicy. It came easily from the bone and had great flavor. Three sides come with the plates at Hinze's. Green beans, potato salad and onion rings were all good, if not great versions of these basic accompaniments.

We weren't disappointed with the pie selection. A mile high meringue was impressive, but the lemon beneath and the buttery crust that supported it were the stars of the show. A warning sign behind the register says "Our lemon pies are made with real lemon juice. They are very tart". It was tart, and it was perfect. Don't leave here without at least a slice from their impressive selection.

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.