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The Art of Smoke

Technology has changed the nature of barbecue. But deep in the heart of Texas, a few true artists still cling to the old ways. We go in search of greater Houston's greatest pits.

I asked Harry Green what was different back then.

"Nobody cooked briskets in the old days. I used to go down to the packing house and buy a front quarter of steer. I'd cut it up myself. It was a hell of a job. And I served mutton, too. But ribs and beef were the biggest sellers. And juicy links. Matt Garner made the first beef links around here, and he passed it on to Joe Burney. And Joe passed it on to me. It's still a big part of black people's barbecue."

"Where was Houston's greatest barbecue in the old days?"

Drexler's: Drawn by the name, you'll stay for the pork ribs.
Deron Neblett
Drexler's: Drawn by the name, you'll stay for the pork ribs.
Many of Texas’s legendary barbecue joints started out as meat markets. On top is Abdulla Jowdy’s Market in San Antonio, circa 1925. An open pit was the preferred cooking method for large gatherings, including the 1921 barbecue in Victoria (bottom) where 42 cattle were prepared to “bring farmers and townspeople together.”
Harvey Patterson
Many of Texas’s legendary barbecue joints started out as meat markets. On top is Abdulla Jowdy’s Market in San Antonio, circa 1925. An open pit was the preferred cooking method for large gatherings, including the 1921 barbecue in Victoria (bottom) where 42 cattle were prepared to “bring farmers and townspeople together.”

"There were four or five great barbecue men in the old days. Matt was early on, then Joe Burney, John Davis, me and maybe a couple of others. When the Houston papers picked the best barbecue in town, I always used to win."

"And who has the best barbecue in the city now?"

"Drexler's. Drexler's is the best that's left."

The pork ribs at Drexler's take my breath away. They are as soft as butter inside, with a smoky crust of seasoning. I devour rib after rib, dipped in sharp, hot barbecue sauce. Meat-market barbecue is drier and crispier. East Texas ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and a little wet. East Texas brisket is very tender and often a little wet, too; it is often held in aluminum foil or in a sealed container so that it continues to steam itself after smoking. But the most characteristic element of East Texas barbecue is the beef link.

Good beef links, which Green calls juicy links, are finely ground beef in a ratio of about 70 percent meat to 30 percent fat. They are seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and lots of paprika. According to Green, beef links aren't as good as they used to be because people don't like all the orange grease that flows out when you cut into them.

I always preferred coarsely ground German-style sausage over East Texas beef links, until I encountered the juicy links at Drexler's. They ooze out of the casing when you cut them, and they are fiercely seasoned. Wrapped in a piece of white bread, they are an awesome barbecue experience. Since rediscovering the beef link at Drexler's, I have sampled the excellent links at Williams Smoke House in northwest Houston and some pretty decent links at Leon's in Galveston. But none hold a candle to Drexler's.


The ribs at Lenox Bar-B-Q on Harrisburg Street are very good, and the stubby pork links, which are custom-made in Yoakum, are a nice variation on the meat-market sausage theme. The little restaurant, once known as the Lenox Cafe, was originally located a block away at the corner of Harrisburg and Lenox. It was here that barbecue first met modern technology.

In the late 1940s this area of town was known for its gambling dens. It was around that time that Leonard D. McNeill won the Lenox Cafe in a game of craps. McNeill, who worked at the nearby Hughes Tools company, had never run a restaurant before. But he had some big ideas. It was the era of the giant Texas barbecue, and McNeill was soon competing with the biggest.

By the 1960s McNeill was catering barbecues for thousands of guests at a time. Along with Walter Jetton of Fort Worth, he was one of the state's top two barbecue caterers. In 1967 Ann Valentine, food editor of The Houston Post, wrote an article titled "Barbecue Barons" about these two mega-caterers. At the time, Jetton held the record for the biggest barbecue, having fed 12,000 people at one event. McNeill's top attendance was a mere 9,000. Today the record for the biggest barbecue is held by the XIT ranch's annual reunion in Dalhart. In 1991, 11,000 pounds of beef were barbecued in open pits dug with backhoes. It fed 20,000 guests.

But while West Texas cowboy-style enthusiasts fought over the world's largest barbecue title, the future of barbecue technology was being shaped in Houston. Leonard McNeill could cook mountains of barbecue in open pits just like his contemporaries, but unlike them, he could also see there wasn't any future in it.

It was becoming unfashionable to cook in unsanitary outdoor dirt pits. Sooner or later, a more modern method of barbecuing had to be found. With one giant step, McNeill took barbecue straight from a hole in the ground into the era of mechanization.

McNeill bought an enormous bread-rising oven from Rainbo Bread. The oven had a rotating mechanism inside that moved the loaves through a timed cycle. McNeill converted this machinery into a wood-smoke rotisserie that could cook 3,000 pounds of meat at one time.

Today the old Lenox Bar-B-Q restaurant where McNeill got his start is run by Erik Mrok, whose father was a friend of McNeill's. The restaurant uses three rotisserie ovens of a type patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. Oyler, a barbecue restaurant owner, also started tinkering with a smoker rotisserie made from a bread-rising oven; whether he was working independently or in cooperation with McNeill is unknown.

Oyler's invention is a steel barbecue pit with a rotisserie inside. It has an electric carrousel, but no heating elements. It's fueled exclusively with wood, which is burned in a remote firebox. The advantage of the rotisserie is that the meat gets basted with dripping fat, but it is cooked with pure wood smoke. It isn't exactly an old-fashioned barbecue pit, but the results still depend on time, temperature and the talents of the pit boss. Oyler smokers are used by such well-known Houston establishments as Goode Co., Texas Barbecue House and Pappas Bros.

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