Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Baker's Ribs (Deep Ellum)

DALLAS: Baker's Ribs
3303 Main St.
Dallas, TX 75226
Open M-F 11-7, Sat 11-9, Sun 10-2

You may have been familiar with the Baker's Ribs location in Deep Ellum. It stood for decades in a brick building on Commerce Street with a large pig painted on the side. They leased that building, but were looking for a permanent home, so they bought a building just a few blocks away in the same Deep Ellum neighborhood. I made a couple of stops to see just how well they've dealt with the transition.

Some things have changed for the better like the addition of the Original Fried Pie Shop inside the restaurant (more on that later) and some things have thankfully remained like the all hickory-fired Bewley smoker that they brought over from the old location. It was so clean and shiny I thought it was new, but the lady doling out the food orders said they just gave it a good cleaning.

I've always liked the brisket here from a smoke standpoint. Baker's knows how to get the smokiness into the meat, but it's harder to also keep the meat moist and tender. The beef on this day was no different than I'd expected which is to say that it had a great looking black crust and ruby-red smokering along with a strong smoky flavor, but it also lacked good seasoning, good fat and it was just too dry. An unexpected meat option of fried turkey was outstanding. They smoke a seasoned turkey breast then dunk the whole thing into a fryer to finish it off. The result is juicy turkey whose slices have thick crispy edges. It was some of the better smoked turkey I've had. No word whether or not fried brisket will make it on the menu.

The ribs were also excellent. The meat was moist and came from the bone perfectly. A subtle sweet rub allowed a good dark crust to form and the meat was very smokey. I included the photo above to show how a well cooked rib will look after a bite is taken. The bone should be exposed easily, but the meat on either side of the bite should remain intact. It should not fall of the bone entirely, nor should there be meat left on the bone where the bite was taken.

On a subsequent visit I ordered a plate of both lean and fatty brisket. If they could just mix the supple texture and richness of the moist brisket with the smokiness of the lean slices, then they'd be onto something. Neither cut was great on its own, however. All of the sides here are good from a simple creamy mac & cheese to crispy cole slaw and a potato salad heavy with dill. Don't forget about dessert either.

If you want one of these famous fried pies you have to order them at a second counter at the back of the restaurant and pay for them separately there. A wide array of filling options are offered and all pies are made to order. This allows you to create flavor combinations, which is actually encouraged. The lady frying the pies on this day confirmed that I could combine any fillings together in one pie since it would be made fresh. Brisket and pulled pork are filling options and I really wanted to try the shredded beef in pie form. I thought pecan and blackberry might be complementary flavors so I asked for what was probably their first order of a brisket, blackberry and pecan fried pie. This masterful combination of ingredients landed on the table just as were polishing off the barbecue. It was hot, flaky, and rich from the overflowing filling. The sweet blackberry, nuttiness of the pecan and the smoky beef were a better match than I'd ever imagined. This was an excellent dessert but could easily double as a hearty main course. I'm thinking apricot and pulled pork for my next visit.

Rating ***

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

CBQ Eatery

17327 I-35 N #200
Schertz, TX 78154
Open Tues-Thur 11-9, F-Sat 11-10, Sun 12-8

I proposed to a couple friends in who live in Schertz that we visit this joint for some barbecue, and they wondered why. To them it was a burger and beer joint, and despite the words 'Texas BBQ' on the sign, they didn't even realize they had it on the menu. Once we were seated and perused the menu I could see their confusion. Bar food and burgers dominated. We found a few smoked meat items and the table soon filled with plates and beer mugs the size of pitchers.

It's hard to go wrong with heavily spiced waffle fries covered in chopped beef and blue cheese, and CBQ didn't screw it up. The combinations of textures with the crispy fries and the tender brisket along with the flavor combination of the bold sweet sauce and the rich cheese made it hard to stop eating.

Smoked hog wings came stacked on a pile of crisp fries. These meaty pork shanks were sauced and grilled after smoking, and the meat was moist and well cooked. It was the best meat in their repertoire.

A sandwich was packed full of thick brisket slices. The beef had good smoke, but the heavy spice rub created an off flavor of burnt sugar and spices. The fat that was left on provided some much needed moisture because these slices were bone dry.

Whatever was used to moisten the pulled pork was incredibly watery. The meat was soggy with a washed out flavor and the bun was visibly wet. Not good.

Combo plates aren't offered here, and neither are half racks of ribs. The only way to get a bite of ribs is to order the full rack for $16.99. The pork was fine beneath the layer of grilled-on sauce, but if they'd just served them fresh out of the smoker instead of rewarming them on a grill they would have been much more successful. These ribs had the moisture and tenderness I was looking for, but the burnt on layer of sauce was a major distraction from the flavor of the meat and smoke.

A few items on the barbecue menu are worth returning for, but they just aren't serving very good Texas barbecue across the board. When we left I wasn't surprised that my friends said they'd be back...for burgers.

Rating **

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King's BBQ

1322 Underwood Road
Deer Park, TX 77536
Open Daily 10-9

A trip up to the top of the towering San Jacinto Monument nearby that was marred by thick fog, and it was a rough day of barbecue. We were looking for any sort of high point to finish the day with, and smoke was pouring from the side of King's BBQ. After we parked I noticed the Southern Pride smoker. The smoke was coming straight for our car, so I turned off the AC and cranked up the vent to let the smoke in case my car didn't smell enough like it by then. I turned off the car, we walked in and quickly had a three meat plate in our possession.

We sat inside in the sparsely populated dining room to sample our options. It was nice to have some greenery with the side of zucchini and squash and the beans were very good. A thick spare rib was decent, but tasted more roasted than smoked. The seasoning was too heavy for a good crust to form. Brisket was also passable with a hint of smoke, but nothing special. Slices of juicy turkey were the best item on the plate. It had better smokiness than either the brisket or ribs, and it was sliced from a real breast of turkey instead of the usual deli loaf. I'd order it again, but turkey alone isn't really enough to get me back here.

Rating **

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Fermin's Smoked Bar-B-Que

ODEM: Fermin's Smoked Bar-B-Que
1016 Voss Ave
Odem, TX 78370
Open M-Sat 7-5

I should have known what to expect when I saw the business card on the front counter as I waited for my order. The trio of businesses on the same card were Fermin's BBQ, Mexican restaurant and trucking company, but the screened in smoker out back gave me hope.

In short, it was awful. Baby back ribs that even looked promising were so tough it took significant effort just to take a bite. The brisket was little more than steamed roast beef. A warmed link of V&V sausage was fine, but that had more to do with the sausage stuffer back in Cistern, Texas than the skill of the pit tender here in Odem. A side of rice and beans seemed like an interesting choice that might give the plate a multi-cultural flavor. I've had Dasani with more flavor than the watery beans that were so washed out it was puzzling. Don't bother stopping.

Rating *

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Woodshed Smokehouse

FORT WORTH: Woodshed Smokehouse
3201 Riverfront Dr.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Open Daily 11-'til

Where's the beef, or more specifically brisket? Just a few days ago chef and owner Tim Love bragged via Twitter that a record number of animals were cooking at his popular Woodshed Smokehouse, but this might be the only smokehouse in Texas whose smoker hasn't seen a brisket (unless there was a daily special out there that I missed). Always a savvy businessman, Mr. Love has made a wise decision. Tim knows that if he offered brisket on the menu of his Texas Smokehouse that he would be ultimately judged by the success of this unforgiving cut. Instead we're all talking about ribs and cauliflower, which are all done well, but don't provide the challenge of a beef brisket.

Once I got over the brisket issue, we ordered some appetizers. Smoked artichokes were both crisp and juicy. Sprinkled with parmesan and drizzled with oil, they were hard to put down and we cleared the pate pretty quickly. Another hit at the table (at least for my daughter and I) was the camp bread with pitmaster fat. A ramekin for dipping was full of hot rendered fat whose flavor was heavy with lamb. It was better than any dipping sauce I can remember and the thick camp bread was soft but still offered some pleasant chew.

A whole head cauliflower was smoked over oak (all of the menu items have a symbol next to them which designates which of four woods are used in the smoker or grill). I like vegetables just fine and one of the better veggie items I've ever eaten was a whole head of cauliflower done in my oven from a Michael Ruhlman recipe. That version was buttery and tender, but the Woodshed's head was drier and even a bit crisp from being a bit undercooked. The smokiness was aggressive along with the spices, but it hadn't yet reached its potential on this visit.

A different whole animal is featured every day. On this visit it was a whole hog roasted on a spit in full view through a large window between the waiting area and the kitchen. My young daughter was captivated by the spinning porker while we waited for our table, and strongly suggested we order it when we got to the table. Chunks of moist and highly seasoned pork were pulled from the hog and served with all the fixin's for tacos. The pork was so good none of my portion made it onto a tortilla before I finished it off.

Like the animal of the day, the sausage also rotates. A full grain mustard with serious kick were served with a bison sausage and some house made pickles on the side. The meat had great smoke and spice, but bison can dry out easily due it's low fat content, and these links exhibited the issue.

Smoked tenderloin is listed under "Traditional Q" on the menu at $2.50 an ounce. Other items have a price listed per pound, but I guess $40/pound was harder on the eyes when the menu was being edited (although they do let you order as little as 2 ounces). It was the least successful meat we had. Served cold and rare, the underseasoned beef had picked up little smoke. I was wishing they'd just seared the meat.

Beef back ribs are rarely done well, but what they're putting out here can be held as an example of how well they can be smoked. A crust was crisp with the meat between the bones (there's very little over the bones, which is normal for beef back ribs) remaining moist. Even coverage of a flavorful rub allowed for a good crust and a nice smokiness. Pork ribs were almost as good and a bit meatier. The pork came off the bones easily enough and again the crispiness of the surface was a nice textural change. The seasoning seemed more herbaceous and heavy-handed than with the beef ribs. After all the meat, we finished with two slices of pie. The marshmallow covered chocolate pie was decadent and rich while a buttermilk pie had an addictive hint of lemon. I'd gladly visit again just for the pies which come from Fort Worth's Black Rooster Bakery.

After all that food I couldn't convince the family to try the $75 beef shin, but a tour of the pit room allowed me to catch a peek of one in progress. There seemed to be enough spare room in there for a few briskets. Stacks of wood are piled against several smokers in the screened-in room, and I learned that the various woods on the menu is not a gimmick. Each smoker has a specific wood written on the side and are only fueled with that wood. A hispanic man whose name I didn't catch was tending the pits and was happy to show off the next day's special of quartered cabrito that was getting a nice smoky crust.

Minus the lack of brisket, I really liked this place. The nouveau barbecue might be hard for some purists to warm too, but this is well executed food that is more accessible than you might expect from the long menu. As a Dallasite, I'd gladly make the forty-five minute trip from Dallas to Fort Worth and eat here again, and I'd tell any of my cohorts in Dallas to do the same, so the only rating that makes sense is...

Rating ****

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Wilhite's Barbeque

CREEDMOOR: Wilhite's Barbeque
4903 D FM 1327
Creedmoor, TX 78610
Open W-Thu 10:30-3:30, F 10:30-9, Sat 10:30-3:30

Robert Wilhite is both mayor and resident pitmaster in Creedmoor, Texas. He runs one of the few restaurants in town, and I'd guess this is the best one. Don't let the adjoining Valero station fool you into thinking this is some fly-by-night barbecue stand. Robert's dad started this place back in 1962 and it's been smoking ever since. These days the meat is smoked in one of two custom designed cylindrical smokers that function like a lazy susan for meat. They are fed with all post oak wood, and there's not a gas line in sight. The smell of smoke was strong as soon as we got out of the car and only increased once we were inside. Ordering is done at the counter and a cutting board isn't too far away. This allows a few for a few special requests while the meat is being sliced. We were just here for meat and soon a pile of sausage, ribs and sliced brisket were piled high on butcher paper.

My photo

(I've included both of these photos so you can take notice, as I often do, how much better Nick's photos are than mine.)

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter
When I saw the jet-black brisket on the cutting block, I knew it was gonna be good. The smokiness permeated the silky fat-cap that remained and a rub heavier in salt than pepper woke up the meat. Each slice was superbly moist and cooked to that perfect point of tenderness that allows one to pick up a full slice, but then tear it down the middle with only a modicum of effort. A couple of folks at the table were skeptical of the generous brisket fat that remained on each slice, but after just a bite they saw the light. Sometimes "melt-in-your-mouth" is the only way to say it. Pork ribs weren’t as dark but just as smoky. Meat came off the bone nicely without falling off, and every bit of the nicely rendered fat was edible. These ribs were epitome of beautiful simplicity on a bone. An all-beef sausage comes from Meyer’s in Elgin, and I laughed with Robert about how much better it was than what we got at Meyer's the day before. He noted that the Meyer’s delivery driver preferred the Wilhite's version too. This is what can happen when a barbecue joint bothers to order good quality raw sausage and do the smoking themselves instead of buying the pre-cooked stuff. Across the board, this was outstanding barbecue, and Robert had done right by the Texas trinity.

Steve Dean on the Roof by Nicholas McWhirter
We were about to jump back in our caravan of vehicles when a stiff and sudden wind blew in and took our friend Steve Dean's cowboy hat straight off of his head and deposited it directly on the roof. We found a rickety ladder out back and Steve went up to retrieve it. He brushed up next to the exhaust from the smoker, so we got the pleasure of smelling him for the rest of the day. Once he was safely down off the ladder we set our sights on the next barbecue destination with the knowledge that we'd probably just had the best meal of the day.

Rating *****

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Old Coupland Inn

COUPLAND: Old Coupland Inn
101 Hoxie Street 
Coupland, TX 78615
Open F-Sat 5:30-10

A short strip of highway connects Taylor and Elgin, Texas and midway between the two you'll see a sign for Coupland. If you've never taken the road up and over the hill to the east, then you've probably never seen the impressive collection of historic buildings that line the main street if Coupland. Barbara and Tim Worthy converted one of those buildings into a restaurant and dance hall back in 1992. After a while they tired of the taxing lifestyle that came along with running a dance hall and sold the business while retaining ownership of the building. A failed venture by one tenant was followed by another who forgot to pay the rent so they found themselves back in the dance hall business again when they reopened the place late last year. They've steadily reopened all portions of the business with the restaurant in full swing and the bed & breakfast getting a face lift.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

During our visit they were trying out a new menu item that they were eager to get our opinion on. A half a jalapeno was sliced open and filled with chopped leftover brisket and cheese, then the whole thing was hand-breaded and fried. The golden crust had the crispness of a good chicken fried steak and the jalapeno still held on to some of its crunch. The smokiness of the brisket held up even to the heat of the jalapeno. We urged them to make these a regular menu item, which they now are as 'Brisket Poppers'. Order them.

After the brisket poppers were finished, it didn’t take long for a plate of barbecue to show up at our booth. Fatty slices of brisket were a bit underdone, but the smoke in the crust was phenomenal. Dark crusted St. Louis style ribs were exemplary. The meat had just the right amount of mesquite smoke and ample seasoning. The meat needed just a tug to get it off the bone, and a well formed crust gave a textural contrast to the moist meat beneath. A peppery sausage link was also good and sides of surprisingly spicy slaw and mashed potato salad were evidence of the care taken on the food preparation here. A tub of peach cobbler was far more than we could finish at this point, but we gave it our best shot. The dance hall didn't have a show on this evening, so we didn't have the chance to work anything off on the dance floor, but that was probably better for everyone.

Rating ****

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rusty Star BBQ

WACO: Rusty Star BBQ
10600 North River Crossing
Waco, TX 76712
Open M-F 10:30-8

We missed Ted Nugent by five minutes. It was a running joke as we were driving here since the only reason I'd heard of the place was because I saw The Nuge sharing some brisket here with Anthony Bourdain on an episode of No Reservations a few years back (check the 7:25 mark of this video). As I ordered at the counter, Nick shot some photos around the place and the owners said that we were a few minutes late with the camera since The Nuge had just left. I thought they were joking at first, but we had in fact had some poor timing. We ate quickly and had the odd experience of trying to hunt down the most famous modern hunter in Texas after the meal, but he had already left the hardware store down the road.

Back at the Rusty Star, the food was damn good. Creamy pea salad was made with plump frozen peas instead of mushy canned ones. A potato salad was mashed in texture and brought some heat with the addition of jalapenos. Good stuff. Meats were smoked over pecan in a Southern Pride rotisserie. The ribs didn't fare so well in the gas cooker. A crust hadn't developed over the rub that tasted of poultry seasoning and was too heavily applied. It just wasn't good. The chopped/pulled pork had great smokiness from the crust and good smoke, and was the best meat on the plate. A well cooked brisket was better than expected. A good crust surrounded the moist meat giving it some great smoky flavor. The meat was tender and the fat well rendered, but it just needed more salt. Even with the small quibble, it was some of the better brisket I've had from a gas cooker. After this visit I could see why Uncle Ted is a regular, I just wish I could have gotten his recommendations first hand.

Rating ***

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hiway 77 Cafe

ROSEBUD: Hiway 77 Cafe
1101 U.S. 77
Rosebud, TX 76570
Open Tues-Sat 11-8 (BBQ Thurs-Sat Only), Sun 11-2

I had planned to stop here, but only for dessert. I'm always on the lookout for some good sweets during barbecue road trips and this place had gotten some good reviews. When we pulled up and I saw the sign advertising their new BBQ menu on Thursday, Friday and Saturday using "Honey Mesquite" as their wood of choice. To be honest I was a bit forlorn. Here I just wanted a good slice of pie, but how could I go in here without trying the smoked meats, of which I had slim hopes of being any good. Was I ever wrong.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter
The meat was great. Baby back ribs had a thick portion of meat with a smoky crust that provided a pleasant chew. A simple seasoning only provided a positive reinforcement of the excellent flavor. The brisket had the same qualities when it came to smoke and flavor, but would have benefited from a little longer on the tall cabinet smoker out back to tender up a bit. Owner Sue Sturrock showed us the homemade pit that had a small fire at the base and a shelf that hung about five feet over the fire. Although it was technically a direct heat set-up, the meat was far enough from the fire to give everything a smoked quality. I really enjoyed the brisket and ribs, but the sausage link was the biggest surprise. It was a lean link, but not dry. The casing had a good smoke and a nice snap while the filling was coarse and packed with black pepper and garlic. We learned from Sue that it is a local specialty made at the grocery store down the road, and is known as Parcus sausage. It's named after the now defunct Parcus Market whose shell remains in downtown Rosebud.
Photo by Nicholas McWhirter
As a true Texas Cafe, there were tables surrounding us with golden chicken fried steaks covered in white gravy and thick grilled pork chops. I thought we'd had enough, but Nick insisted on some onion rings after seeing them on another table. The server said we couldn't skip the fried squash. Both were perfectly crisp, but not greasy. After a few dips into the homemade ranch, the basket was empty.


They were sold out of pie for the day, so we went with a great banana pudding that was light and rich at the same time. A peach cobbler was most certainly not from a frozen pan of pre-made stuff. Sweet peaches were paired with a thick crust heavily seasoned with cinnamon and other aromatics. Now it'll be hard to get the pie next time knowing how good the other dessert options are. I just hope they don't start running out of the barbecue.

Rating ****

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Hobbs Que

212 South Robinson Dr.
Robinson, TX 76706
Open Tue-Sat 11-7

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2012: A good navigator can come in handy when you're out in search of barbecue. I had an itinerary to follow, and I didn't even notice a smoker the size of a Volkswagen on the side of the road just south of Waco. Luckily my friend Rob was in the front seat and quickly told me to take a left. I pulled into the gravel lot where a shaved ice truck anchored one end while a metal building with a vinyl banner that read "Hobbs Que" sat on the other side of the lot. Wearing a black shirt, a white toque and a wide smile, owner and pitmaster Sylvester Hobbs stood just inside the sliding window waiting to take our order.

The popular pork was already gone for the day, so we settled for smoked chicken alongside the standard order of brisket and ribs. Sausage was from Slovacek's which is a fine sausage, but it could only be so different from the last fifty times I've eaten it. The chicken was a solid choice for good smoke flavor, but the meat had been cooked too long and the dry meat needed the sauce. The sauce is thin and homemade with a tomato base and good sweet flavor, but I wish Sylvester had at least left it off the brisket.

The beef was sliced thick but still fell apart when I tried to pick it up. It too had been overcooked and was likely steamed while tightly wrapped with foil, but the smokiness was bold. It was tough to get beyond the flavor of the sauce, but this was decent brisket. The sauce complemented the spare ribs better. A thick mahogany crust had developed on the ribs which were dryish with a pleasant chew. The heavy seasoning and good smoke made for some very good ribs, sauce or not. To cap off the meal we headed across the lot to get a dill pickle flavored shaved ice. The flavoring for it came directly from the pickle jars at Hobbs, and the combination was oddly refreshing. Next time I'll get the shaved ice first and drink it along with those ribs.

Rating ***

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Get Your Meat Fight Tickets!

Update: Meat Fight is now SOLD OUT.

Earlier: Listen up folks. I'm giving you the chance to plan ahead for one of the coolest events that will happen in Dallas this fall - Meat Fight. On Sunday, November 4th, some of the best chefs in Dallas will convene at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum to try and smoke their way to a Meat Fight championship. Celebrity pitmasters from across the state will be there (along with me) to judge brisket, pulled pork, homemade sausage and a Wild Card meat. It's gonna be an awesome display of meat.

Details from the Meat Fight website: Admission includes samples of all competition meats, desserts, and beer courtesy of Deep Ellum Brewing Co., and while the Meat Fight rages upstairs, there will be a meat-related silent auction downstairs in the Old Bowling Alley. Think brisket paintings, brass-knuckles meat tenderizers, VIP access to local barbecuesterants-- you get the idea. All proceeds from the event will go directly to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Tickets are on sale today, so get your tickets here before it's sold out.

Just because I know you'll be dying to show your support for Meat Fight between now and November 4th, go ahead and get your shirt here. Then wear it, take a photo, and upload it here. I can't wait to see you there.

- BBQ Snob

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Tony and Me

This evening will be my television debut with Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. This episode kicks off the last season of the show before Tony heads off to CNN. Back in March they shot the show during SXSW, and I was able to drive down to Austin and show Tony and the crew around two of my favorite barbecue joints in the state: Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ. You'll see these two destinations along with many others in the episode, but I wanted to share some of the photos from the two days. Most all of the shots from Franklin Barbecue were taken by my excellent photographer Nicholas McWhirter, as were all of the photos in our upcoming book Prophets of Smoked Meat.

Breakfast at Franklin

In line with my agent, David Hale Smith

Tony arrives

Trying to sound intelligent

Cameraman Zach Zamboni and producer Jared Andrukanis

Let's eat!

Nicholas McWhirter, Anthony Bourdain, David Hale Smith, Me

Brisket, ribs and sausage at Franklin

Producer Josh Ferrell giving me the shirt off his back

Josh Ferrell and I trading game worn jerseys

The panel at SXSW

Me and ZPZ social media director Helen Cho

Tony and I at JMueller BBQ

The feast at JMueller BBQ

When dining with Tony, fine bourbon just shows up on the table.

A big thanks to Anthony Bourdain for having me on the show and hopefully making me look intelligent this evening. The whole crew was great to work with, so I know the show will be great. I hope you enjoy it.

- BBQ Snob

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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.