This article is part of the semi-regular column, The BBQ Chronicles. Click the cow for more of this great column.
If you have read the other installments of The BBQ Chronicles, you know that Melinda and I grew up enjoying Lexington (or Piedmont), North Carolina and Midlands, South Carolina barbeque. When we moved to Houston in the early seventies, it seems we were just in time for the arrival of good barbeque. Houston was just becoming a major city. In 1901, when oil was discovered nearby, Houston’s population was less than fifty thousand. Today it is a highly diverse city – ranked the most culturally and racially diverse city in the United States and ranked fourth in the US by population. Its culinary history followed a similar path. When I first went there in the sixties it was a simple meat and potatoes kind of place. Today, Houston has a great variety of cuisines – Mexican, French, Tex-Mex, South American, Ethiopian, Greek, Thai, Vietnamese, Cajun, North Indian, Soul Food, Italian, South Indian, and and many others.
Texas has its own traditions (appropriate for the only state that was first a republic) and barbeque is no different. The early settlers from the Carolinas and Tennessee, where barbeque means pork, heavily influence East Texas barbeque to this day. But now Texas barbeque means beef; pit masters take great pride in turning beef brisket, a notoriously tough cut, into a delectable, tender, moist finished product. Much of Texas is ranch country, producing more cattle than any other state. From the time of the early cattle drives, Texans have enjoyed beef. You’ll find pork ribs in most Texas barbeque restaurants, from the influence of early settlers. And you’ll find sausage; early settlers to Central Texas from Germany and Czechoslovakia brought their love of sausages. However, the Texas barbeque restaurant survives or fails based on their brisket.
Not long after we moved to Houston a colleague at our downtown office suggested we go out for a barbeque sandwich lunch. As a Carolinian, I was sure I knew all about barbeque. Was I wrong! There was no chopped, or pulled pork, there was no vinegar sauce or mustard sauce, and there were no hush puppies. Thank goodness he was in front of me in the cafeteria-style line. I ordered the same thing he did and prepared it the same way. We each had a sandwich of sliced beef brisket and Czech sausage dressed with pickled jalapeños, sliced onion and pickles topped with a thick brick-red barbeque sauce. I was immediately hooked on Texas barbeque. The place was Otto’s on Memorial Drive, now replaced by a bank as Houston grew around it. Otto and Annie Sofka started their barbeque business in 1963, and over the years entertained President George Bush, Liberace, Willie Nelson and may others. Otto’s brisket was smoked for 18 hours over hickory – typical of East Texas.
Soon after my experience there, Jim Goode started his barbeque business on Kirby drive and another colleague put together another lunch group. Goode Company Barbeque has become a Houston institution and its motto is, “You might give some serous thought to thanking your lucky stars you’re in Texas!”
Our family thanked our lucky stars that Goode opened his second barbeque restaurant on the Katy Freeway not far from our home. Growing up, our children enjoyed the brisket, sausage and ribs, plus the jalapeño cheese bread and stuffed baked potatoes. Goode uses mesquite wood, which is a South or West Texas influence, and he makes a darker, richer sauce. We often would get geese and ducks from a weekend’s hunt smoked by Goode Company for our freezer. We had perfectly smoked wild ducks and geese all winter, smoke rings and all.
That’s right I said smoked. From a South Carolina boy’s perspective, most Texas barbeque would not qualify as barbeque, but would be called “smoked meat.” Carolina pork barbeque is cooked slowly over coals, so that the fat can drip onto the coals, in turn helping to flavor the finished product. Most Texas barbeque is slow cooked in a smoker with indirect heat.
There are a lot of very good barbeque joints around East Texas today, some are just hole in the wall kind of places; some are just a smoker and stand by a road or in a parking lot. All have beef brisket, sausage and pork ribs; many have pulled or sliced pork. Some have turkey and chicken. Hickory and oak are the woods of choice and East Texas barbeque is characterized by sweet, thick, tomato based sauces.
One that Melinda and I now frequent when in residence at our Texas ranch is Hemphill Barbeque, only a mile or so from the end of our driveway. We are only a few miles from the Louisiana border, and appropriately Hemphill Barbeque serves smoked boudin links. Like many pit masters, Charles Weaver doesn’t know the exact temperature of his pit, and each brisket gets individual attention, cooking until it is ready, typically from 12 to 18 hours. He mixes some red oak with hickory for his coals.
Other locations near parts of our ranch are Billy’s Old Fashion Barbeque in Jasper, the Hitch-N-Post near Livingston, Caroline’s Quality & Quantity Bar-B-Que in Kountze, and All Star Bar-B-Q in Center. The brisket at Billy’s is among the best; moist and flavorful. The pit master, Billy Mahaffey, says he has been at it for some 30 years. All Star may be worth a visit for the baseball memorabilia. And, if heading for Caroline’s be sure it is a Friday or Saturday and get there early. Arthur says at one time they were open three days a week, but he is getting older. He uses oak for his coals, any kind of oak. He says it is not the wood. In fact, he will tell you all about how he cooks brisket, ribs and chicken. Then he will laugh and say that doesn’t mean you can make good barbeque. It is the pit master that makes the difference.
The Short List (Eat here now!)
3285 Old Sabinetown Road, Hemphill, TX 75948
(409) 787-1814Don’t miss: Hot Topper Sandwich, Fresh Pies (buttermilk chess, especially), Smoked Boudin, Beef Brisket, Smoked Sausage, Chicken, Turkey
Three Locations in Houston:
Kirby Drive (713) 522-2530
Katy Freeway (713) 464-1901
NW Freeway (832) 678-3562 Don’t miss: Beef Brisket on Jalepeno Cheese Bread, Loaded Baked Potatoes (stuffed with chopped brisket), Pecan Pie, Duck
Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ
1601 N Main Street, Jasper, TX 75951(409) 384-8384
Don’t Miss: The brisket is over the moon – chopped on a sandwich or as a plate
1880 F.M. 350 South, Livingston, Texas 77351
Don’t Miss: Brisket, Links, Potato Salad
Caroline’s Quality & Quantity Bar-B-Que
340 North Pine (3rd St)
Kountze, TX 77625
Don’t Miss: Turkey, Chicken, Ribs, Links
All Star Bar-B-Que
267 S. Dickinson, Rusk, TX 75785(903) 683-2611Don’t Miss: Chopped Beef Sandwich and baseball memorabilia