I don’t remember eating barbecue growing up . We had no secret family sauce recipe, though I do not now deny trying to concoct one. I started reading books on the subject a few years ago searching for an authentic form of barbecue, if there is such a thing, or at least true to my Czech and German immigrant ancestry of central Texas. When my wife Caryn goes out of town, I go to barbecue joints. My affair with smoked beef. Not that she doesn’t like barbecue, she just doesn’t care to frequent these places as much as I do.
The search has taken me to the Houston Rodeo, to well-known restaurants like Pappas, Demeris, and Goode Company, and to gritty joints scattered along the edges of Houston between the city itself and the suburbs. This journey is more than culinary. It is geography. It is a study of architecture and urban form. It is material folklore. Foremost is the barbecue itself. The prime mover. And whatever ability I have to judge barbecue comes from my experiments on a small, round black Weber grill.
My first couple of tries at home didn’t turn out so well. On my second or third try, I decided to barbecue a three-pound cross rib roast for some friends who were staying with us the night before they were set to go on a cruise. The roast came out underdone and Caryn suggested we make burgers the next time someone visits, or at least until I get in a few more attempts.
My breakthrough came the weekend before the fall semester of 2009 at the University of Houston, where I am in the Master of Architecture program. We had some friends staying over for a fishing trip we were all to attend and they requested barbecue. The piece of meat was a six-pound choice cut brisket tip that smoked for nine hours with oak chunks that had soaked overnight. I placed a water pan over the coals with one white onion and three sliced cloves of garlic for added moisture and flavor. I basted and turned the brisket and refueled the fire every forty-five minutes. The end product was my best attempt yet and I had free reign from the wife to barbecue whenever I wanted.
What I like about barbecue is that it is remarkably casual, not pretentious at all, and even happily unrefined. It requires no on-plate decoration. It isn’t healthy by any means and it doesn’t ask forgiveness for polluting the air. In many cases, the process of barbecue starts early in the morning, burning small sections of logs down to glowing, smoking embers.
These coals are fed into a pit either below, often referred to as direct cooking, or adjacent, indirect cooking, to the surface where the meat resides. These pits can be as utilitarian as an old oven rack on a few bricks in a dirt pit over a bed of smoldering ash to the large pits made from 1,000 gallon residential propane tanks. While other barbecue regions and states prepare pork, Texas stakes its claim in brisket, which is the cow’s pectoral muscle. This piece of the animal actually does work, as opposed to something like the top loin. It is involved in every step the cow takes. Because of this, it is full of long muscle strands, whose collagen makes it difficult to cook. It is not filet mignon of even sirloin. Because of its toughness, brisket gets butchered with the layer of fat left on in an attempt to improve its flavor when cooked.
Temperatures for cooking range from 200 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, for time spans of four to as long as eighteen hours. The seasoning giving brisket its flavor can come from marinades or rubs applied before the meat touches the pit, variations of wood used for smoking, mops applied during cooking, and sauce added afterward. Rubs can be applied a few hours or a few days before the meat begins the cooking process. All these spices mix with the fat and water in the meat to create the black outer layer, often referred to as the bark, that is found on most prepared briskets. In the cross section of a well-prepared piece of meat is a bright red smoke ring.
The smoke ring results from the interaction of nitrogen dioxide in wood smoke with the water in the meat. But it signifies more than a chemical reaction to me. The circle is a strong form. Rings stand for marriage. They strangle cities or form the unscripted perimeter where unexpected beauty or relief can flourish.
My wife and I were invited to attend the barbecue cookoff held every spring in Houston and I thought it would be a good chance to expand my understanding of barbecue. This event starts rodeo season and is quite the social scene. As for the barbecue, it is widely considered one of the big four yearly events in what participants affectionately call “The Circuit.”
The teams that take part in the cookoff have their own predetermined areas at the grounds that are covered by large plain white tents. Access to most of these places is only by invitation, although a few larger public access tents do dot the perimeter. The tent we have been invited to has a strict dress code: jeans and boots are a must. No T-shirts or baseball caps or sneakers allowed. I pull out my pair of old work boots that were hidden in the back of the closet and slip them on. “We will be back,” my wife claims as she pats the dog on the head and we exit the front door.
Our short drive to the West Loop Park and Eide takes us only a few minutes. We find a spot under a flyover exit from 610 with a bright light above. The canvas tensile structure that floats above this place has been somewhat of a curiosity to me. It always catches my attention as I’m getting onto 610 as I make my way to school during the week. A little architectural mark in a landscape of massive highway infrastructure and anonymous car culture.
We pay our $8 at the makeshift rodeo ticket kiosk and stand in line. A man wearing spurs affixed to his boots clanks by on his way to get a ticket. Caryn looks down at the man’s boots, looks up at me and grins. “We should have done this last year,” she says. She often finds pleasure in out of place, strange situations like this. We take our seats on the bus and patiently await our departure to the grounds.
Our fellow passengers are a cross section of Houston’s ethnic diversity. Four teenage boys with thick accents, Greek possibly, occupy the seats in front of us. A Hispanic family of five sits to our right. There are just as many blacks as whites and all on the bus seem to be cheerful and looking forward to a night of revelry. The bus pulls away from the curb and onto 610. Our driver takes the Almeda Road exit, turns left and then takes another left at Holly Hall. As we exit the bus the pitch-black Astrodome makes an eerie silhouette in front of the comparably new and brightly lit Reliant Stadium. We stand in line for another ticket and then make our way through the turnstiles. Naturally, the carnival midway is the first area we pass through. Like a gift shop, front and center at an art museum, the midway is the money pit of the rodeo.
The cookoff area is located in the south parking lot adjacent to Reliant, seeming the only place Texas-big enough to have such an event in this, the biggest of Texas cities. Three hundred and sixty tents, most covering the size of the average residential backyard, are stretched across the massive parking lot. These tents lay out like urban blocks in this barbecue city, back to back with a row of ten or so side by side. Plumes of mesquite smoke can be seen billowing out of $1000 barbecue rigs, rising above everything. Most of these pits were located in alleys behind the tents, out of sight to the public which was somewhat of a disappointment to me. The average cookoff attendee does not get to interact with the people making the barbecue.
We find our way through the maze of people and finally arrive at our destination. The “Chillin N Grillin” team sign can be seen hanging above the entry. We give the doorman our tickets and make our way inside. I’ve never seen so many new brown Carhartt jackets in one place. Cavender’s is surely out of stock this time of year. Bobby, a Vietnamese lacrosse-playing engineer I met during my undergraduate days at A&M, greets us at the bar in the back of the tent. “You guys want some jager bombs?” he asks. We politely decline his offer.
Two men wearing black Resistol cowboy hats and Lucchese boots pass us by, the tan canvas trail duster coats that hang from their shoulders sweep across the asphalt like two straw brooms. Their horses are undoubtedly tied up outside of the tent, most likely at the water trough trying to recover from their long trip down Kirby through River Oaks. These two men are the front runners for the “best costume” prize of the night.
My cynicism stems from what I believe to be a false alternate history of Houston. The closest major historic cattle trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, can be found some 150 miles away in Lockhart, which also happens to be a barbecue mecca. Houston’s trail ride history is somewhat of a recent development, starting in the mid 20th century. While this iconic image of the cowboy on horseback is genuinely historic to Texas, it takes a stretch of the imagination for Houston to claim such a heritage. Houston’s cattle legacy can be found in its railroads and its port. By 1860, Houston had emerged as a commercial and railroad hub for the export of cotton and cattle. By the late nineteenth century, Houston was the railroad center of Texas. During these “Texas western” years, Houston was full of railroad barons, not cowboys.
As for the food that evening at the cook off, the brisket was salty and the ribs were horribly tough. The burnt chewy sausage was actually quite tasty. Ah, carcinogens. But in the pit master’s defense, what was fed to the hoards of people in this tent wasn’t what was to be turned in for the competition. These articles of meat were located in a separate pit, where they were under constant supervision. Every aspect, from the amount of smoke to the internal temperature, was analyzed. Anything that could be done to gain an edge over the competition was executed. But to no avail: the team had come up short, not placing in any of the allotted events.
Although I do not doubt that good barbecue could have been found at the cookoff and I appreciate Houston’s need for an accepting if imagined community, I believe that the real barbecuers of Houston are located in establishments that are tucked away in the far-reaching corners of the city. Places that practice their art professionally every week. A good number of these places, like Harlon’s off Martin Luther King in Sunnyside and Burn’s in Acres Homes, are found in the historically black neighborhoods that circle the city’s urban core.
Located on De Priest Street just to the West of where Veterans Memorial peels off I-45, a little white structure between two houses serves the best barbecue in Houston. Burn’s guards the east end of Acres Homes like the mother hens sometimes found in the area watch over their chicks. This part of Acres Homes is surprisingly rural, considering it is a few minutes from Downtown. University of Houston architecture professors Rafael Longoria and Susan Rogers refer to Acres Homes as part of a “Rurban Horseshoe” between city and suburbs in an article published in the Winter 2008 issue of Cite. The horshoe, or smoke ring if barbecue takes precedence over horses, arcs to the south east starting from Acres Homes through Independence Heights, Houston Gardens, Settegast, Clinton Park, and finally Sunnyside.
At Burn’s, a small concrete tube that provides storm water relief rests under the gravel bridge that makes way to the dirt parking lot. A white sign with red lettering adjacent to the gravel drive gives the hours of operation: Wednesday-Saturday, 10:30-7:30. I can smell the smoke as soon as I open the truck door. Burn’s is as vanilla as it gets, with its painted white Hardie Board siding. A collection of piecemeal buildings make up the establishment, with the customer entry closest to the street and the covered pit area in the back. A small front porch provides some protection for the swinging screen door that slams behind you as you enter.
Years of smoke have patinaed the once-white interior walls a light coffee color. Framed and autographed pictures of past athlete patrons are hung without concern. The menu board behind the counter was scribed in black Sharpie some time ago and little taped white notebook paper squares indicate past price changes. An old Pepsi machine to the left of the front door dispenses the only refreshments. Four long uncovered florescent tubes light the counter from above and two window A/C units, one at each end of the room, appear to have cooled the space in the distant past.
In the sea of western-y decorated barbecue joints that dot the culinary landscape of Houston, Burn’s stands out as an unadorned shrine. It doesn’t have to hide behind the fake authenticity that places like Goode Company and Pappas so desperately try to convey. Most of its business is attracted by word of mouth. Burn’s is quite content with its steady stream of local, loyal customers and if the occasional outsider decides to drop by, Burn’s welcomes you as one of its own.
My wait was surprisingly short. Only one other person was in line before me. I order my usual. “Three meat lunch plate with sausage, brisket, and beef ribs,” I say. Sides of potato salad and beans are included, although I could not really care less.
“Anything else?” the old black woman behind the counter asks without making eye contact, as if she has said those same words to countless numbers of patrons over the years. On top of her head rests a white mesh baseball cap, the type that comes to a point in front because of the inside seam. Bold red letters spell out BURN’S, just above the hat’s bill. She turns slightly to cough in her hand, perhaps a side effect from the smoke that fills the room.
“Sauce on the side, please,” I respond, handingher the exact amount: $10.50. Burn’s is a cash-only establishment. She gives me my ticket and I take a seat to the right of the counter. Some other customers sit patiently in a few off-colored chairs scattered about the tiny space and glance at their tickets every time the woman calls out a number. The phone rings a few times during my wait and the woman jots down to go orders; the Saturday lunch rush appears to be around the corner. “817,” she says. My food is ready in a matter of minutes. I take the unmarked brown paper bag from a younger black woman who appears from a dark, smokey doorway.
There are no tables inside the building and the only picnic table outside is currently occupied by a man hawking knickknacks. A blue hue from the canopy stretched across a tent frame suspended from above is cast over everything he sells. I decide to take my order home. As I walk out the front door and get into my truck, I notice the smell of smoke stuck to my clothes. I head south on De Priest, snake my way through the neighborhood and get back on the interstate. I feel my stomach turn from the smokey smell penetrating the sack that sits on my floorboard. My trip home takes about twenty five minutes.
I unlock the front door and shut it behind me. I pull the styrofoam clam-shell box out and place it on the table, retrieve a Coke from the refrigerator and sit down. Steam escapes as the box is opened. The ribs, sausage, and brisket are all stacked neatly, front and center in the biggest compartment. The beans and potato salad occupy the other two bays.
I try the ribs first. They have good flavor and a decent amount of smokiness, but they are a little firm. An hour or so more on the pit would have helped. Burn’s sauce is decent but I like to think that good barbecue doesn’t need to hide behind it, which is why I always ask for it on the side. It has some liquid smoke in the mixture which I tend to dislike. I could taste that artificial sting through a habanero.
The irony of my search for authenticity through written texts and research, through cookoffs and restaurant touring, and not from recipes passed down from generations before, is that I grew up in a small Texas town called “West.” I could copyright “Western” meats, slap my face on the packaging, and make millions off of authenticity if I only had recipes.
Sausage is the exception. I know sausage through an unbroken Czech tradition. And I can say that the pork sausage from Burn’s was good, definitely not store-bought. It reminded me of the sausage my family makes every February. A few flakes of pepper seed can be seen through the transparent casing, but it was not overly spicy. The texture of the sausage was perfect and the taste of garlic is noticed as soon as the sausage casing is broken. It is, by far, the best sausage I’ve had in Houston.
Finally I get to the brisket, which is amazingly moist. The pit boss has allowed the smoke to flavor the meat and the additional spices are minimal. It is sliced fairly thick which usually adds to the toughness, but that is not the case here. The collagen inside the meat has rendered down and it is pull-apart tender. The smoke ring glows red and the greasy smoke flavored bark is perfect.