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By Eating Our Words
The walls of Kozy Kitchen Bar-B-Que on Lockwood were green once, but a patina of smoke has tinged them brown. The orange vinyl booths are somewhere between worn in and worn out. The large black woman delivering our order is wearing a Kozy Kitchen Bar-B-Que T-shirt with a map of Texas printed across the front. As she sorts out the plates, I study the southeastern part of the state, which stretches across her left breast. There is a star denoting our exact location. The legend above the star reads, "Fifth Ward."
We ordered two-meat plates so that, among the three of us, we have a sampling of every meat Kozy Kitchen sells. There are ribs, beef links, sliced pork, beef and veal. The ribs are a little too tough. Judging by their size, I'd guess they come from four- to five-pound slabs, instead of tender little three-and-a-half-pound racks. It's hard to cut the other meats with the plastic utensils provided, but the flavor is sensational -- as long as you don't mind a little fat.
A mild red sauce has been ladled over the compartment of the Styrofoam plate that holds the barbecue. It has a nice flavor, but not much spice. One of my dining companions, Fifth Ward barbecue expert Bert Long, picks up the shaker bottle that is provided on every table. It's full of an evil reddish-brown substance that has separated into two layers. He puts his thumb over the top and shakes it, then he squirts some over his beef links. "This is the secret right here," he says. "You need the hot sauce to give it some snap." The beef links are the best I've ever had. The finely ground beef paste is heavy on the fat so the meat stays gushy in the chewy natural casings, but it doesn't ooze out into a puddle, as beef links so often do. The links are mild, but the addition of each dash of homemade shaker-bottle hot sauce raises the spice level exponentially.
1202 Lockwood Drive
Houston, TX 77020-7300
Category: Restaurant >
Region: East End
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Long isn't impressed with the ribs. But Kozy Kitchen never was known for ribs, he explains. That was the specialty of Lockwood Inn, the famous barbecue restaurant that once stood right across the street. "We went to Lockwood Inn for ribs and Kozy Kitchen for links," remembers Long. "I'm 61, and I've been eating barbecue here since I was a little baby," he says. Lockwood Inn burned down several years ago, leaving Kozy Kitchen as the only remnant of the Fifth Ward's once proud barbecue tradition.
Bert Long, a Houston artist who grew up in the Fifth Ward, is one of many Texas barbecue lovers who have stepped forward and offered to set me straight since the publication of my Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses. I did my best to find oral histories, old photos and favorite smoked-meat recipes that elucidate the history and folklore of Texas barbecue. But not everyone thinks I picked the right ones. Long complains that my book includes several photos and recipes from Houston's Third Ward. But there is nothing at all from the Fifth Ward -- a grievous mistake, in his view. "The Fifth Ward is the barbecue ward," he says adamantly. "Always has been."
"Is the Fifth Ward the barbecue ward?" I ask our waitress when she returns.
"Well, it was," she says. "But most of them have closed." Long and the waitress reminisce about Lane's and Simpson's and Hayne's and all the other black barbecue restaurants that once thrived here.
Kozy Kitchen opened in 1946, during the era of segregation. It was one of many Fifth Ward barbecue restaurants that catered to the black community in those days.
Lockwood Inn was one such restaurant that also became a favorite of white barbecue lovers. It was a fancy place with pies and cobblers and iced tea, Long remembers. White office workers in shirts and ties would flock to Lockwood Inn from the Brown & Root plant right down the street on Clinton. Kozy Kitchen didn't appeal to the office workers, because it was a no-nonsense restaurant. It never had any pies, and it never served any iced tea. And it still doesn't. There's canned soda and water, and that's it. (You can bring your own beer.)
While we're talking, a white guy named Chuck Rice walks in, sits down at the table behind us and orders quietly. I check out his plate as the waitress walks by with it. It's an odd-looking pile of meat with lots of black stuff in it. There are beef links on the side. So I go over and introduce myself and ask him what he's eating. It's a special order I've never heard of that includes both inside cuts of brisket and plenty of the black spicy bits from the outside. "Just tell them you want some 'in and out' brisket; they'll know what you mean," Rice says. In fact, he tells me, he has also ordered an "in and out" sandwich to go for a friend back at the office who couldn't get free for lunch.