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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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Poor Daddy's Smokehouse

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS: Poor Daddy's Smokehouse
7509 Highway 26
North Richland Hills, TX 76180
Open M-Sat 11-9

Formerly the Bar 3 Smokehouse, Poor Daddy's opened up less than a year ago down the street from Interstate Highway 820 northeast of Fort Worth. Myself and Smokemasterone were headed to a BBQ event in Fort Worth, so of course we needed to stop off for a pre-meal snack. We confirmed they were smoking with hickory, but the folks working weren't sure what kind of smoker. Though I couldn't make out the smoker brand through the slats into the smoker area, my tastebuds tell me that it was a gasser for sure (Correction. The owners informed me that they use a wood-fired Oyler. My taste buds failed me).

Sliced brisket was falling apart and dry. A bit of smoke was evident in the thin black crust, but the rest just tasted like poorly seasoned roast beef. Generous salt and black pepper seasoning on the ribs and a nice texture made them better than the brisket. Meat came cleanly from the bone and the well formed bark had a modicum of smokiness. Mac & cheese tasted like Stouffer's and the mashed version of the potato salad was at least memorable. I can't say as much for everything else.

Rating **

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

JMueller BBQ

1502 S 1st St
Austin, TX 78704
Open W-Sat 10:30-til it's gone

Update: This joint is CLOSED. Pitmaster John Mueller was unceremoniously relieved of his duties by his sister LeAnn Mueller who owns the place. She has reopened with the new name LA Barbecue. I'll give the new joint a try next time I'm in Austin.

2012: After several visits and bringing a dining companion by the name of Anthony Bourdain and his camera crew with me for a meat fest at John Mueller's place a few months back, let's just say that John knows me. We have each other's cell phone number, and he sent me a Christmas ham which I promptly enjoyed with impressed dinner guests. I preface all of this to tell you just how pleased I was when during a surprise visit where I was hoping to sneak in unnoticed, I was able to pull it off. My wife and I were headed to an event in Wimberley when I decided to do a drive-by of the JMueller BBQ trailer on our way through Austin. At 12:45, there wasn't the normal string of folks waiting to order, so I made a beeline for the trailer where I found meat carver and pit protege Ali working the front counter instead of John. My tray was soon full of beautiful smoked meats as I rounded the corner of the trailer to pay and say hello to John who was sitting with a couple friends drinking a cold one. We both laughed, and I retreated to a picnic table for my generous snack.

When the brisket above is sitting on the counter as you walk up, you know you're in for a good meal. A couple thick slices of the fatty beef had a soft interior of smoky meat and tender fat while the thick bark on the exterior was stout and even a bit crispy. On a previous visit I was more enamored with the lean beef, but on this day the moist brisket was easily its equal. One item that had improved considerably was the homemade sausage. The chewy casing and greasy filling had given way to a taut casing with a great snap and a well seasoned and cohesive filling. The beef rib had little room for improvement, and it was as always one of the best beef ribs anywhere in the state. It may be the most consistent cut of meat here, and rarely fails to impress.

Since my last visit, the recipe for the pork ribs has been adjusted. Gone are the chewy ribs overwhelmed by just pepper. They have been replaced with well smoked spare ribs with exemplary juiciness and tenderness. Another addition is a sweet glaze similar to the one you'll find at Smitty's in Lockhart. It doesn't overshadow the meat like a candy coating, but instead adds a pleasing counterpoint to the heavy black pepper rub. I could have eaten a full rack.

When I return to a five star joint to see if they have earned the sixth, what I'm looking for is a repeat performance of the previous experience. Consistency is more important than being able to wow someone beyond expectations every once in a while. John insists that his real desire is to please that regular customer who comes by once a week and expects the same great meal he had the week previous rather trying to please the food critics like myself that swoop in now and again.I can't speak to John's weekly performance, but I can say without a doubt that the barbecue here improves with every visit I've taken. At this rate, I've got to wonder where the ceiling is.

Rating ******

2011: John Mueller's history in Austin is well documented. He stormed onto the scene in Austin in 2001, made Texas Monthly's top 50 in 2003, and flamed out just two years later. Then, just after New Year's in 
2010 he told the BBQ world to get ready for his return. Excitement turned to doubt after more than a year of inactivity from Mr. Mueller, but news of a new joint spread like wildfire this summer. The hype machine even produced a New York Times article about the joint a full four months before the doors were open. This same article sowed the seeds of rivalry between John and his former employee, Aaron Franklin, the current king of Austin's BBQ scene. Neither man took the bait in separate conversations, but one thing's for sure - Austin now has two barbecue joints worth waiting in line for.

The line was short at opening time on a beautiful Saturday morning. I dined with a group of friends who had gathered in Austin for the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. An invitation to this event requires that your joint be featured in the latest Top 50 BBQ list in Texas Monthly magazine, and this year they'd also chosen a newcomer (Franklin Barbecue) based on their quality smoked meats. I wanted to get a good taste of a joint that hadn't been invited to the event, and see if they had what it takes for next year's roster.

A trailer sits beside what will become the permanent building to house the joint in the future. After receiving the order at the trailer window, we made our way to one of several shaded picnic tables for the coming feast. I had a little of each menu item, and on this day the menu included prime rib. Smoked prime rib always sounds like a good idea, but I've yet to truly enjoy it anywhere that it's served. The table had both a thick interior cut that was cooked medium, but was still tough with chewy fat and little smoke flavor, and an outside cut that had great seasoning and was more enjoyable even at medium well. At $20/lb, I just can't find a reason not to get my beefy fix on the brisket. Available in fatty and lean, the brisket ain't cheap either at $14/lb. The connoisseur generally goes for the fatty stuff, but I wanted some from the lean end too. Lean brisket was just on the verge of dry, but still held just enough moisture. The lusciously rendered fat cap atop the thick slice added plenty of its own moisture along with a ridiculous amounts of flavor from the black pepper & salt rub and the oak smoke. This end produced some of the finest bites of brisket I've had anywhere. On the other hand, fatty brisket needed more time on the smoker. White bits of fat in need of rendering were still visible, and the thick slices could have been easier to pull apart. Without the smoke-encapsulating qualities of the thick fat cap to help, the smokiness on this cut was fleeting, but the flavor was still enjoyable. Talking with John later I learned the struggles he's having with getting the point end cooked before the flat starts to dry out. Some of the problem comes from the high fat content in the certified Angus briskets, and the rest of the blame is probably in the higher cooking heat (325 and higher) that John employs in the huge smoker housed in its own trailer.

Sausage is something they take pride in here. The spicy links are hand made from Mr. Mueller's recipe using natural casings. On this day they were well seasoned, but overly fatty with uncomfortably chewy casings. This could certainly be remedied by a bit more time in that smoker, or a more accommodating hog. Pork chops on the other hand were perfectly cooked. Generously seasoned, the thick cut chop was ridiculously juicy with a beautiful color and excellent flavor. Like the chop, turkey breast is a lean cut that can dry out easily, but here the meat was perfectly moist, tender and smoky. A dip in the thin tomatoey sauce flecked with black pepper and cayenne made it even better.

Much thought has been put into the sides. Squash casserole is a rich mix of yellow summer squash, butter and cheese. It was one decadent vegetable. Potato salad was also pleasing with mashed and chunked potatoes, celery seed and a hint of mustard. Less successful was the chipotle slaw that was interesting for a bite or two, but the spice was too out of place for a full serving.

Ribs in a couple of forms can be had, and they are both great. Some of my dining companions were hoping for a more tender pork spare rib, but I liked the toothsome texture. The well seasoned meat came cleanly from the bone, but the tips were admittedly on the chewy side. I was getting full at this point, but the coup de grace was next. Back at the ordering window I spotted a fresh rack of the beef short ribs. I requested the end cut that weighed in at just under a pound and a half. The edges were crispy from melted fat, smoky meat and thick black pepper. Rivaled only by the beef ribs at Louie Mueller Barbecue where John learned his craft, this rib was amazing. Rarely is the fat so perfectly rendered out of this tough cut that requires very patient smoking, and the generous seasonings would only work with a cut this thick. I had several barbecue meals ahead of me on this day so I tried to show restraint, but it was hard to stop eating this beef rib.

Being critical comes naturally, and I went into this visit wanting to identify any flaws I could find in the work of a revered pitmaster. Certainly there were a few things that can be improved upon, but placing this visit in context with others over the summer at the temples of Central Texas smoked meat left me with no choice but to place it among the top places in the state. Just three weeks in, the comparisons to Franklin Barbecue on the other side of town are as unfair as they are inevitable. This joint isn't quite to that level yet (for the record, nobody is) but it's one of the few where I've witnessed the bona fide potential.

JMueller BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Louie Mueller Barbecue

TAYLOR: Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W. Second St. (Hwy 79)
Taylor, TX 76574
Open Mon-Sat 10-6

Update: In the words of owner Wayne Mueller, black pepper is a food group at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. There isn't a whole lot that it doesn't go into, and it pervasiveness around the restaurant means it will find its way into unexpected places like your cup of lemonade, and most certainly between your teeth. When in Rome, drink it in.

Three of us hit Louie Mueller early on a Friday morning. There was some confusion on my end about the opening time on a Friday, so we were seated at the steps in front of the entry doors waiting for them to unlock. Being the only folks on the sidewalk, it was pretty obvious what the issue was so Tony White who helps run the pits came out to let us in the back for a pre-lunch tour. Owner Wayne Mueller was back there stuffing beef sausages. He chuckled a bit looking up from his work table to see me standing there. We know each other after many conversations about smoked meat and the barbecue business in general. We chatted until about five minutes before opening time when we took a spot at the front of the line.

This was our first stop of the day, so we were hungry and I let it get the best of me when ordering. One tray was covered in sliced brisket and jalapeno sausage. The sausage is one of my favorites, and this link was perfectly spiced. The casing had a great snap and bright green bits of jalapeno could be seen throughout. As great as it was, I passed off the sausage link to Nick and dug into the brisket. In the eyes of most barbecue connoisseurs, fatty brisket has no equal. While I love a good juicy slice of brisket from the point, there'snothing much better than a perfectly smoked slice of lean brisket with a generous cloak of translucent fat clinging to its length. We all smacked our lips and grunted in carnivorous approval while downing the fatty brisket that was on the tray, but the lean brisket was worth pondering. I broke off each bite and looked it over closely before placing it in my mouth. The meat was pleasantly taut, but broke apart with little effort. The natural dryness of the beef was given a sumptuous counterpoint of the silky fat cap that was just a sponge for smoke and seasoning. The thick layer of cracked pepper and the thicker smokering were all working together to create textural combinations not found in mortal brisket. This was probably the smokiest version of brisket I've had a Louie Mueller as well, and I can remember the flavor vividly as a write. Three of us sat there after many days on the road eating the best barbecue that Central Texas had to offer, and one simple word was repeated by all. Perfect. That was just the first platter.

The second tray was covered in ribs. A beef short rib was about three inches of smoky beef laced with well rendered collagen and fat creating a silky texture not found in any other cut of beef. When a piece of meat is described as being 'like butter' these beef ribs are the definition. What Wayne does with a simple beef rib is magnificent, and if other pitmasters would open their eyes to this potential, then we'd see more of them around the state.We received an end cut per our request just because we needed more black pepper. I also wanted it because the fatty ends of the ribs have a chance to start getting crunchy at the edges of the bones, and the end cut provides for more of this fatty treat. Just as I expected, we had been blessed with one of the finest pieces of smoked meat that can be had anywhere in Texas.

Meaty layers of the thick pork spare ribs were easily peeled from the bone. Well rendered fat throughout each rib made for exemplary juiciness, and the smoke was front and center in these simply spiced beauties. Also included on the tray were sweet and spicy baby back ribs. Wayne included a few for free because he was seeking our input on the trial run. It seems Tony White is from Mississippi and was looking to do something closer to his barbecue roots. At the same time, Wayne was looking for a crowd pleasing sweet rib that tourists with an infantile understanding of spare ribs could easily identify with. I thought these new sweet ribs were good as did the rest of the table. They were well smoked and nicely tender. The seasoning wasn't over the top, but you knew you weren't eating anything subtle. It was also evident we weren't eating anything in the tradition of the old Central Texas barbecue joints, and I didn't like the new menu item purely for its symbolism. Providing a new cut with a flavor so outside of the Louie Mueller norm just so a tourist from the south could feel more at home was a ridiculous notion to me. What makes this style of barbecue so special is an uncompromising attitude of smoked meat superiority and a hearty dose of 'I don't give a shit' to folks who don't like it or can't appreciate it. In the same way I wouldn't want or expect to see mammoth smoked beef ribs for sale in North Carolina, I don't see the point of adding accessible Southern ribs to an already flawless menu that personifies the identity of Central Texas barbecue.

Although this visit was essentially flawless, the rating here isn't due to this single visit. The last three dating back to New Year's Eve two years ago and another during a tour I guided through Central Texas have been exemplary of what great smoked meat should taste like. There was a time after Wayne took over full time after his father's death that regulars were probably justified in saying that the place has lost a step, and a fear existed that it had gone down hill for good. I can now say with certainty that this is no longer the case. Louie Mueller Barbecue is great, and keeps getting better.

Rating ******  

2010: Okay, so I took a trip to Taylor on New Year's Eve, but I'll call it 2010 anyway. At noon, the line was out the door, but we waited patiently. Wayne Mueller took our order up front, and we loaded up on turkey, beef ribs, brisket and a pork steak.

When we unwrapped our package at a friend's house, it was a beautiful sight. It tasted even better. All of the meats get a hefty salt and black pepper rub. The pork steak is not a common offering, but it should be. The meat was perfectly tender with plenty of smoke and excellent flavor. Turkey was an example for any other joint trying to keep this cut moist while still imparting adequate smoke. The brisket slices, from both the lean and fatty portions, were nearly perfect. The meat was moist and a layer of rendered fat was left on the lean slices. The smokiness was robust, but they could have been a bit more tender.

The beef ribs were in a category of their own. These were the best beef ribs I've ever eaten. This tough and fatty cut was rendered down to a silky smooth and tender piece of smoky beefiness. A heavy black pepper rub only added to the incredible flavor profiles from the meat and smoke. Each rib could serve as a meal of its own, but I couldn't stop after eating just one.

While still in the joint, I placed a business card on the wall and got a shot. The FCGBBQ card is hard to pick out in the photo, but I swear it's in there.

Before I left, I was able to get a look at the pit in back. The post oak wood was blazing, and the pits were full of beautiful meat.

Although I wasn't able to sample the pork rib again, the level of quality of each meat was so elevated that I just had to up their rating. I'll make sure to get their earlier next time to grab one of each of their beautiful rib offerings.

09/2008 - I stopped by to pay my respects to the recently departed Bobby Mueller. At 3:30 they were out of everything but brisket and chicken. I ordered a few slices of excellent brisket and a chicken breast. The chicken was more tender than I thought possible. The smoke married with the spice beautifully to create an excellent flavor. The brisket was sliced thick with the signature thick black pepper rub. The smoky flavor penetrated the meat, but the slices needed more time on the smoker to get to that pull-apart tenderness. Overall, a great brisket, and another solid showing by Louie Mueller's.

2008 - Louie Mueller's has created the perfect setting for enjoying great BBQ. The exterior is worn, but orderly, and the interior is spacious, hazy, and smells of sweet smoke. Meat here is ordered by the pound and delivered on butcher paper. I've had the pleasure of sampling the brisket here twice. The first time it was nearly perfect, but the second time it was a notch lower in quality due to the toughness of the meat. They use a rub heavy on cracked pepper which adds a pleasing level of heat to the great smoky flavor. The meat is cut thick with a thin ring of fat. On the first visit, the brisket could not have been cooked more perfectly, but the brisket on trip number two needed more time in the smoker to render the fat, and tenderize the meat. Although it was tough, the excellent smoky flavor and picture perfect presentation did not suffer. The ribs were a winner on both visits, especially trip number two. It was incredibly thick and meaty, so I expected more tough meat with little smoke penetration. What I got was one of the most perfect ribs I've had with robust flavor. The texture and moistness was perfect with nicely rendered fat throughout. The smoky flavor permeated the meat, and blended nicely with the heavy pepper rub. If the brisket was more consistent, I could rate it higher, but I can't wait to go back for another quality control test.

Louie Mueller's Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Deanville Sons of Hermann Hall No. 301

DEANVILLE: Sons of Hermann Hall No. 301
6785 FM 111 (just SW of Deanville)
Deanville, TX
Open Sat 10am - sold out

You may have heard of Snow's in Lexington, Texas, which shot to statewide fame in 2008 after being named the Best Barbecue in Texas by Texas Monthly magazine. Twenty minutes away, in tiny Deanville, there's another spot that flies under the radar but deserves a visit. On Saturday mornings, you can find Milton Charanza tending the pits at the local Sons of Hermann Hall. Though Mr. Charanza is of Czech heritage and the Sons of Hermann is a German organization, there's no hint of irony at this melding of cultures. Both German and Czech traditions remain prominent in this part of the state. Fraternal organizations like the Sons of Hermann were founded by immigrants seeking a sense of community in their new home. They offered a place for fellowship, pooled their funds into life insurance policies for members, and became home to some of Texas' historic dancehalls. Outside many of these buildings you can find a barbecue pit of considerable heft and wear, but few contain the remote firebox required for smoking meat. Most of these pits, including the ones at the Sons of Hermann Hall No. 301 in Deanville, were designed with direct-heat cooking in mind.

Mr. Charanza burns oak wood down to coals on a concrete slab, transferring the coals to the pit when they are white-hot. He cooks pork spare ribs, half-chickens, thick-cut pork steaks, and Czech sausage (all from a local meat market) at high heat directly above the coals. You won't find beef on this pit, and there isn't much smoke, but you'll hear plenty of sizzle. Most folks take their foil-wrapped barbecue to go, but you can also eat in the side room of the functioning dancehall, where old men spend the afternoon playing dominoes.

The sausage had a mild flavor like the Alsatian sausage I had a couple months earlier in Castroville. The casing was tender but without much of a snap or deep color. The filling was cohesive and had bits of black pepper. I liked it quite well, it just was a subtle sausage. Pork ribs tasted like they'd had a vinegary mop. A nice crust had formed on the meat which was very tender. These were very good spare ribs. The skin of the chicken was moderately crisp, but the meat within was perfectly moist, even the white meat. The seasoning was heavy in a good way making it a popular item at the table. But, the best thing on the table was the massive pork steak. This was a sliced shoulder similar to the one found at Snow's, and it too was covered liberally in salt and black pepper. Although it looks a bit dry in the picture, it was good moist meat that I hacked a bit with one of the plastic knives provided. That generous intramuscular fat was rendered nicely adding even more succulence to the meat. I'm as tried and true a brisket fan as you'll find, but even so, I barely noticed it was missing from this excellent sampling of meat.

Rating ****

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Briskets and Beer Smokehouse

LAREDO: Briskets and Beer Smokehouse
2002 Chihuahua St.
Laredo, TX 78043
Open M-Thu 7–4, F-Sat 7–9, Sun 7-7

Lisandro Moreno has been smoking with mesquite at his little smokehouse in Laredo since 2007. Along the Rio Grande it's hard to keep regular customers coming back with the whole family unless you serve a little more than just smoked meat. Lisandro still offers a mighty sampler platter of meat (more on that in a bit), but along with other traditional Tex-Mex favorites you can find his unique take on barbacoa.

These days barbacoa is usually steamed or baked, and this is traditionally done without seasoning. At Briskets & Beer Smokehouse, you'll find a beef cheek that bucks the trend. These cheeks are first smoked for about forty minutes over a 400 degree mesquite fire, seasoned with cumin and garlic and then placed in a covered electric cooker overnight. A portion is served in a homemade flour tortilla along with cilantro, onion, lime wedges and hot sauce, but with all the flavor already in the meat, just a few dabs of hot sauce is all that's needed. This is some excellent smoky barbacoa, and alone is worth the trip.

As promised, we also got a sampler plate of brisket, sausage, chicken and beef and pork ribs. The beef back rib was tender with loads of smoke. While there's never much meat on a back rib, the meat here came off easily enough that you could enjoy every bite.


Pork ribs were also very good. A generous amount of meat was left covering the bones of these unusually large St. Louis ribs. A rub rich in aromatics was thin enough to let a good crust form, and even the thickest part of the meat was tender and moist. Brisket is probably wrapped during cooking then stored in its own juices. The meat's surface was wet, but the muscle had dried and toughened a bit. The smokiness was there, but with all the fat was gone and the flavor from the seasoning was washed out. Smoked chicken was plenty moist, but otherwise average. A commercial sausage was well spiced with black pepper. The casing had a good snap and plenty of good smoke.

They had dessert on the menu, but our dessert consisted of a couple of perfectly executed stuffed jalapenos. Called jalapeno smokers on the menu, Lisandro uses only large jalapenos. He fills them with a mixture of spiced up chopped beef and cream cheese then wraps them in bacon and smokes them. The procedure here is not ground-breaking, but the execution is flawless. The bacon is purposefully thin so it forms an even crisp layer of salty pork fat overtop a jalapeno that still has a hint of crispness remaining. If you've ever had a limp pepper wrapped in soggy bacon, you know what I'm talking about.

The brisket was far from flawless, but this was easily the best traditional barbecue we consumed for over a hundred miles in any direction. Order some ribs, a few jalapeno smokers and plenty of barbacoa tacos for the table. It'll be worth the trip.

Rating ****

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Patillo's Bar-B-Q

BEAUMONT: Patillo's Bar-B-Q
2775 Washington Blvd.
Beaumont, TX 77705
Open M 10-4, Tues-Sat 10-8

Frank Patillo IV was tending the brick lined pit back in the kitchen when I arrived with a few friends to Patillo's on the south side of Beaumont. The pit was installed when this version of the restaurant was opened in the fifties marking just one of the iterations that this business has endured in its one hundred year history. As a first time visitor who had quite honestly just happened to drive by this historic joint that hadn't even created a blip on my radar before, I was oblivious to the history. Not knowing what to expect, we confirmed that the sausage was homemade and ordered a little of everything.

The first thing to hit the table was the sausage link. As I struggled to cut into it with a butter knife, the fat ran freely from the casing into a deep red pool onto the plate. This was by no means an attempt at lean sausage, and wasn't familiar at all. Beaumont native Chris Reid explained that this was the old way to do links in southeast Texas (he just wrote another great article on the soul of barbecue with a highlight on Patillo's here). Called 'juicy links', these all beef sausages in a beef casing had all but been phased out of modern barbecue menus. Even when they remained, as they had at Broussard's down the street, they had been transformed into a leaner version of the original. At Patillo's they had stuck with tradition. Fat wasn't to be feared but savored as a second course using slices of white bread as a sponge to clean the plates of the flavorful drippings. Even after a good smoke, those beef casings were too chewy to eat, so the filling laced with paprika and garlic spilled onto the plate. After just a bite, the members of this round table eyed each other to determine the best way to secure another bite or two.

The links here are still hand made. Back through an open door into a side kitchen, Frank's brother Robert took us back to see how the sausage was made. The mix is proprietary, but the procedure was open for viewing. A medieval looking collection of rods and gears looked to outdate the building, but this was the old sausage stuffer still cranking away.

Back at the table, there was still plenty of other meats to sample. Brisket was sliced thin and curled together on a plate before being topped with a 'barbecue sauce' that is more like a thin gravy. The plate actually looked closer to Chinese food than barbecue, but this was the embodiment of an older tradition before the ubiquity of tomatoes and sugar in barbecue sauce. Silky tenderness was not a goal for this brisket hence the thin slicing. A good crust and thin pink ring surrounded the slices, but barely a hint of smoke could be detected. Even now I'm not really sure if I liked it. Something this true to history may be an acquired taste.

Meaty ribs with a black crust held more of the smoky essence of the pits. Again, the meat was tough and took some effort to get off the bone. The gravy sauce seemed to compliment the pork better than the beef.

Ribs weren't the only pork available. A plate of sliced pork topped with the same sauce was the smokiest of the lot and the most tender. The earthiness of the dried chiles in the oily gravy were most evident on this plate, and would easily be my order for the next visit, along with some of the juicy links.

We were getting stuffed, but the tray of personal sized homemade pies was too tempting to resist. Lemon pie with toasted coconut was hard to pass around the table. I made sure its round ended with my fork. Sweet potato pie had a subtle sweetness that allowed the naturally sweet tuber to shine through. The crust on both was buttery and impeccably crisp.

While the brisket and ribs aren't done in a method I prefer, it's obvious they weren't hurried and sloppy. Given the fact that East Texas is so desolate when it comes to finding good barbecue, and knowing how unique and memorable the juicy links (and most everything else about this place) were, there's no doubt that this joint is worth traveling to.

Rating ****

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Monday, July 2, 2012

West Texas Style Bar-B-Q

SILSBEE: West Texas Style Bar-B-Q
3078 Us Highway 96
Silsbee, TX 77656
Open M-Sat 10-8

It was getting late on a not so fruitful day of barbecue hunting. The sun was already down at 7:00 and the parking lot outside of West Texas Style Bar-B-Q was dark. The porch lights were on, so we walked on in to find a few customers. A couple of employees behind the counter didn't seem too pleased to have to serve another customer. They pulled a cold brisket from the fridge and unwrapped the plastic before hacking chunks of it into a bowl ready to be nuked. I quickly realized this was not going to make for a happy ending to an already long day.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

As you can imagine, the chunks of beef were horrendously bad. The microwave had seared the brisket to lip-burning levels. At this point I’d encountered microwaved barbecue about three or four times EVER. In the previous three days in East Texas, I’d seen it a total of five times. It was starting to feel personal, and here especially the dismissive service and awful food seemed like a big middle finger from the staff.

I’ve had pork cracklin’s with less crunch than the edges of the ribs that looked like they’d been sliced hours earlier. The cross section looked more like unsanded lumber instead of the desirable rosy hue of a well smoked rib. The smoke was non-existent and the flavor was more akin to rancid pork fat than smoked meat. Dessert couldn't even lift this experience from the barbecue basement. Banana pudding was a gritty warm mess of sickening sweetness, worse than even the many poor renditions of the dish made with banana-flavored pudding. Of the many items in our order, only the cabbage was worth eating.  Even the owner’s family had chosen takeout from Whataburger which they ate at the table next to us. I wish they'd have clued us in before we ordered, because a #1 combo with cheese and grilled onions would have been a much better way to finish off the day.

Rating: No Stars

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Merle's Bar-B-Q

VICTORIA: Merle's Bar-B-Q
611 South Moody 
Victoria, TX 77901
Open M-Sat 11-8

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2012: This joint's been open for a little over a year, and they already have awards decorating the wall. I was hoping the engraved silver platter from a local competition would translate into well smoked meat. It was three in the afternoon so things were a bit slow inside. We chatted with the owners while they prepared a three meat combo plate, and learned that they had moved up to Victoria from Port Lavaca. On the way out, the owner said “I’ve cooked 10,000 pounds of brisket, so they say now that I’m a pitmaster.” I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, and quantity alone doesn’t get you that title. I know the meat we got on this day didn’t come from a master.

Indirect smoking with mesquite can be tricky business. It is by far the strongest of the Texas hardwoods used for smoking, and using any sticks that aren't properly seasoned can create poor quality smoke full of creosote. I've had enough over smoked mesquite BBQ to know the symptoms pretty quickly. Your tongue starts to go numb just after the the first bite of what tastes like a telephone pole. The first bite of the eminently dry rib had this issue. The bone was plenty meaty, but the jet black surface didn't provide a pleasant bite. The chewy meat wasn't coming off the bone easily, and what did succumb was dry with a layer of tough unrendered fat.

Sausage had a decent flavor and may have been from Pollack's, but it suffered from not enough time on the smoker and still had a flaccid casing. Soggy brisket had most likely come from the day (or two days) prior. The meat was just as over smoked as the ribs, but suffered from being overcooked (and streamed from wrapping) to the point of sponginess. Sides of beans with little flavor and potato salad from a bucket didn't help. With Mumphord's just up the street, there's no need to stop here.

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.