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By Kaitlin Steinberg
There are memories of pivotal moments in life that are branded deeply on the brain: first kiss, first spin of a T-Bone Walker album, first car, first time leaving home. If you're lucky, there's another memory you can add to that list: first taste of the barbecue sauce at C. Davis Bar-B-Cue in Sunnyside.
My own first taste was serendipitous. I'd gone to C. Davis for the blues music, which issues out of the time-weathered structure on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday evenings. What I found was not just sounds for the heart, but food for the soul: ribs, brisket and links graced with a thin, vinegary sauce that had not a hint of syrup, a sauce that from the first bite made my forehead sweat and the pleasure center of my brain dance a dirty boogie.
Few secrets are as well guarded as the recipe for a good barbecue sauce. Still, I feel safe conjecturing that C. Davis has a considerable fondness for both cayenne pepper and mustard powder -- a true discovery in a city where barbecue sauce as a rule exhibits a molasses-derived thickness and sweetness. The result, along with whatever spices contribute to the subtle, essential nuances of the final product, is a classic example of a flavor that's delightfully spicy without being uncomfortably hot. There's a tingle that's transmitted as a mild, pleasant zap; happily missing is the masochistic, how-fiery-can-you-stand-it pain that, once experienced, can cause a victim to forever shun anything described as "hot." This is a hot barbecue sauce that can lead to the unrepentant public debauchery of requesting more bread to dredge through the last puddle of red after meat, beans and potato salad are but a memory.
A combination of sausage and sauce, wrapped in triangles of white bread, is essential to the C. Davis experience, but there is much more that deserves to be tasted. The ribs exhibit a tender moistness that suggests a rare mastery of the art of slow smoking -- and supports the notion that the flavor of barbecue sauce can be savored by osmosis when it's smeared across the diner's face. There's a primeval delight to nibbling a rib down to the bare bone that's greatly enhanced here by the remarkable tenderness of the pork attached to the bone. And I've noted over the years that those who beam with anticipation when the words "tender" and "beef" are used in conjunction are likely to find themselves with a tear of delight in their eye when they sample the magic wrought at C. Davis on what began as a raw brisket, that toughest of all cuts of beef.
Adorning the barbecue plates are two other standards of rib-joint cookery: The potato salad, attractively adorned with a circlet of raw onion with a pickle slice in the middle, is of the mustard-flavored tradition that results in a delicious contrast between the mild heat of mustard and the soothing coolness of a thoroughly chilled spud salad; the pinto beans, demonstrating just enough texture to prove they were soaked and simmered and have never seen the inside of a can, are slow-cooked for hours in the house sauce and require no description beyond "delightfully tangy."
There are places, it's sad to say, where the meat is lightly smoked, baked for several hours and served as barbecue. C. Davis indulges in no such fraud; the briskets and ribs and links are cooked with the smoke and heat of a wood fire alone, and the massive brick pit (with its heavy iron lid counterbalanced with vintage sash weights) where this magic occurs was built with the proprietor's own hands a quarter-century ago.
Two characteristics identify a regular patron of a favorite barbecue shack: No menu is needed, and no delay is desired in either ordering or receiving the food. These factors are central elements in the layout at C. Davis; one step inside the front door places a patron at the kitchen's order window. Regulars who have been unconsciously rehearsing their particular request ever since backing out of the driveway at home generally have their orders placed before the door swings shut behind them. To accommodate first-time visitors, there's a punchboard menu to the right of the order window. It only takes a few visits, though, to memorize the menu, especially since the bill of fare wastes no time on deviations from the basics. The available options are pork ribs, brisket and smoked sausage links. If barbecue is a religion, these are the Texas trinity. The only dilemmas that arise are "plate or sandwich?" and "if I get the two-meat combination plate, what do I have to do without?" The only time I can recall eating just a sandwich at Davis occurred when a friend with a terminal barbecue jones cajoled me into a run to Sunnyside shortly after I had finished a button-straining Mexican dinner; that link sausage sandwich, dripping with sauce and dressed with dill pickles, was perhaps the best dessert I've ever consumed.
Still, no matter how fine the product, the real secret behind the success of any family-owned business is the personality and dedication of the responsible family. It's been about 25 years since Clarence Davis, a plumber and truck driver, elected to turn his weekend hobby of barbecuing into a career. In the years since, his approach has earned him a uniquely Houstonian accolade: C. Davis Bar-B-Cue is the official barbecue of the Orange Show. Clarence Davis may never have graduated from a cooking school, but like the folk painters and sculptors who have drawn the Orange Show's attention, he proves on a daily basis that he is a rare master of his own peculiar art. This genial patriarch is, on a slow afternoon, a philosopher and raconteur whose company and commentary are as delightful as his barbecue. For her part, Clarence's wife Dorothy is both a great cook -- as the soul food plate lunches served Tuesday through Friday demonstrate -- and the sort of hostess who can be counted on to call even customers whose names she remembers "darlin.' "