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Central Texas doesn’t have a lock on great barbecue worth standing in line for. Over the last few years, new places have opened in Houston that make it needless for all except hardcore aficionados to drive to Lockhart or Austin. The proprietors of these establishments are setting a very high bar for what quality barbecue means.
Chris (“JC”) Reid and Michael Fulmer have been raising awareness that the barbecue scene in Houston is worthy of merit and attention, and it’s working. Last year was the inaugural Houston BBQ Festival. The event was an instant success, and it’s being repeated this year. The festival is an opportunity for Houston BBQ restaurants to come strut their stuff in front of the masses and get some new fans along the way. This year’s festival is April 6 at Reliant Park and there are still some tickets available.
Here are six of Houston’s best barbecue places. For each visit, we focused on “the trinity:” brisket, ribs and sausage and two random sides. We’ve broken these restaurants out by area, so no matter where you live, visit or conduct business, you can find great barbecue near you.
Ray’s BBQ Shack — Near the University of Houston
4529 Old Spanish Trail
Sometimes the best food is in nondescript places, and such is the case with this place with country café appeal. It’s located next to a gas station. It’s near the University of Houston and those lucky students, as well as area residents, have outstanding brisket and ribs just around the corner.
I was thrilled to find such high-quality brisket just 15 minutes from downtown. I’m really picky about brisket. There are far too many that are dry and tough. On the other side of the spectrum are the ones wrapped in foil during cooking, which turns them to pot roast. If I wanted pot roast, I’d stay home and get out my Crock Pot.
The brisket at Ray’s is exceptionally tender but holds its integrity, and the same goes for the ribs. The sausage has a bit of black pepper bite to it. I’d order all three of these meats again, no question about it.
I personally am not a fan of sweet baked beans, and that is the style that is served here. It was a different story with the the fried corn on-the-cob, which I adored. A bite into the crispy crust yields to the juicy, sweet corn underneath. The same goes for the spicy rice. It’s got some heat to it, but nothing that most people can’t handle.
Pizzitola’s — The Heights
1703 Shepherd Dr.
When I walked into Pizzitola’s, I felt like it could have been one of the small town cafés near Sweeny, Texas, where I spent part of my childhood. Our server was a warm, friendly lady who immediately made us feel welcome. She asked us if we’d been in before, and when we answered “no,” Jerry Pizzitola himself came over to our table and invited us to check out the firepit and smokers after dining.
Pizzitola’s claim to fame is having the oldest firebox in Houston. Smoke from the burning red oak logs is channeled upward into two big, flattop smoker boxes where dozens of briskets are prepared at a time. It’s a sight that’s common in places like Lockhart, but rare to see here.
I recommend you order some of that brisket. Ask for the “moist” or “fatty” kind. If you’re feeling guilty or want to balance that out, you can order grilled vegetables as a side, which I thought was a considerate touch. If you really want lean brisket, the tomato-y barbeque sauce served here goes remarkably well with it. The ribs and sausage are solid if a bit mild. The meat pulls easily off the rib bone but holds together. We ended up with some chicken as well, and I liked the very slight touch of sweetness in their seasoning.
They serve big blocks of cake for dessert here that look like they came straight from a church bake sale. Whether you get chocolate or the pineapple filled one with coconut and white icing, it will be a big enough piece to share with a friend unless you have an enormous sweet tooth.
Gatlin’s BBQ — The Heights
1221 W 19th St.
Go to Gatlin’s when the weather is lovely and grab a spot at one of the picnic tables on the covered porch. Gatlin’s is popular, so you’ll probably share your table with other diners, but it’s a great way to commune with fellow barbecue lovers. Gatlin’s is only about a 15 minute drive from downtown.
I could order and eat, by myself, a pint of their dirty rice. It is proper dirty rice, with bits of liver and meat. I could also dine heartily on their homemade spicy sausage. I liked the pork ribs, which are a great deal as well. The meat pulls easily off the bone when you bite into them. (The brisket wasn’t bad on the day I visited, but it wasn’t great, either. It was too mild and entering pot roast territory. Definitely go for the ribs, sausage and dirty rice, and consider getting one of the other meats, like the chicken.)
Killen’s BBQ — Pearland
3613 E Broadway St.
This is about a 30 minute drive from downtown, but you need to go at least once (and then you’ll be hooked and return again and again). Ronnie Killen owns the phenomenally successful Killen’s Steakhouse. He also participates in barbecue competitions and decided he wanted to bring that quality to the masses. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Cooking for a restaurant is a far different beast from competition ‘cue. Killen, however, had both skills under his belt, which makes him uniquely suited for this task.
Everything you could ever want meat-wise is here. Beyond brisket, dinosaur-sized ribs and sausage, Killen offers a unique cut: bone-in pork belly. The first time I had it, I could not believe I’d never seen it done before. It’s sin on a stick.
Traditionally, Texas-style barbecue doesn’t push the sauces, but you’ll want to try all three that Killen’s BBQ offers. There’s a coffee (I love this with brisket or beef ribs), sweet (great with pork) and spicy (great with everything). Killen makes his sausage in-house and it has a rustic, crumbly consistency once you get past the snappy casing. The brisket rub includes three different grinds of black peppercorns: fine, medium and coarse. The fine particles cling to the surface of the meat while the others add texture.
There WILL BE A LINE. You have been warned, so get there early if you want your pick of all the meats. Otherwise, if you head there for a late lunch, assistant pitmaster Patrick Feges recently Tweeted “Brisket is always the last item to sell out. There is always some available.” So, even if you are running late, it’s still worth heading over.
Corkscrew BBQ — The Woodlands
24930 Budde Road, The Woodlands, TX
On the other side of the world from Killen’s BBQ in Pearland is Corkscrew BBQ in The Woodlands. There’s 44 miles between them.
Corkscrew has its own long lines for good reason, so come prepared. The black trailer, decorated with a bright pink cartoon pig, sports a sign that warns customers that they sell out every day. Another proclaims “No Whining.”
Corkscrew opens at 11 a.m. I arrived at 11:20 a.m. on a Thursday and found 20 people in front of me. It is well worth the wait, and if you find you’re short on time, take your order to go. But be prepared to fend off your co-workers if you’re headed back to an office with your meaty treasures.
I love Corkscrew’s attention to seasoning. The rubs are not overpowering, but there’s more going on than salt and pepper, like a little garlic or paprika, perhaps. I really appreciate it and don’t know why more places don’t experiment with some additional spices.
The brisket here is moist and tender. (Pro tip: ask for moist or fatty brisket, if you’re not feeling diet-conscious, for the extra flavor.) They get my vote for most-flavorful rib rub, too. I had no complaints at all about the sausage, even thought it’s not made in-house. It holds together nicely, a skin that practically cracks when you bite into it and is well-seasoned with black pepper. They are, however, working on one that uses their own recipe, so that will be fun to try when it becomes available.
The potato salad is the best I had on my BBQ expeditions. I thought at first I wouldn’t like it. Instead of familiar chunks of potato tossed with mustard and/or mayo, it’s all blended together. It looks a bit like a scoop of ice cream, which made me a little suspicious. It turned out to be excellent. There’s a substantial amount of dill added, and the potatoes are just blended enough to be creamy but retain slight bits which add the right amount of texture.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a fan of sweet beans, but I found the ones at Corkscrew to be acceptable, even tasty. You’ll find little chunks of brisket fat and meat in them, and there’s just enough cayenne heat to keep them interesting.
Brooks’ Place BBQ — Cypress
18020 Farm to Market 529, Cypress, TX
Cypress is in far Northwest Houston. Here, next to an Ace Hardware in a strip mall, you will find Mr. Brooks and his staff at his barbecue truck. Stacks of red oak logs stand nearby, ready to feed the fires of his pits.
The barbecue here is simply stellar. I’d love to line up Brooks’, Killen’s and Corkscrew’s brisket side by side one day and do a blind taste test to see which one I liked best. It was quite windy on the day I visited and Mr. Brooks fretted over whether the wind was going to dry out my brisket. It did just fine and I got an extra pound to take home to the family.
Brooks’ has one of my favorite barbecue sauces as well. It’s not overly sweet and spices (perhaps a touch of Mexican oregano and some cayenne) add heat and herbal flavors. There are some roasted potato hunks with garlic and red pepper to be had as well.
They’re the only barbeque place that I visited that offers slices of wheat bread to go with your meal, instead of white. I thought that was rather considerate.
Start Your Own BBQ Quest
If you go on your own Houston barbecue quest, the only problem you’ll have is deciding where to start and which meats and sides with which to indulge yourself. If you live here, plan to share or take home leftovers. My photographer and I shared just one three-meat platter and at every restaurant we visited together, there was plenty for both of us. When I was by myself, there were always leftovers. If you’re just visiting, I suggest you get a hotel room that includes a mini-fridge. Cold ribs make an excellent midnight snack.
Photos courtesy of Chuck Cook Photography
Phaedra Cook is a regular contributor to My Table magazine, My Table SideDish and other Houston publications. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Houstonia magazine and the Houston Press “Eating… Our Words” blog. She also occasionally posts to her own blog, Houston Food Adventures.