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Barbecue Breakout

Pit boss Thelma Williams becomes a star

Sandwiches That You Will Like was the name of the PBS documentary that aired on January 8. Produced by KQED in Pittsburgh, the show featured extraordinary sandwiches from around the country. Houston was ably represented by the brisket sandwich at Thelma's Bar-B-Que(1020 Live Oak, 713-228-2262). Her sudden fame came as a surprise to Thelma Williams. Up until the national television exposure, the restaurant's review in the Houston Press ("When Jeffrey Met Thelma," July 11, 2002) was the only publicity it had ever received. I called to ask her how it feels to be a TV star.

"You can't ask for anything better," says Thelma. "We had a crowd in here watching the show that Wednesday night. One customer brought champagne. It was wonderful. These people are like my own family."

The day after the show aired, Thelma's life changed dramatically. A crowd formed outside her door that morning, and business never let up. "They started lining up at 10:15, waiting until I opened at 11," Thelma remembers. "I cooked 28 briskets, 72 chickens, and sold 300 brisket sandwiches in one day."

But that was just the beginning. "Saturday, there was a line out the door and a wait of three to four hours. I had people sit in here and wait for three hours for the chicken to get done." Then the phone calls started. People called from California and Canada wanting to know how she cooks her brisket.

"They ask what kind of wood I use, if I cook the brisket in foil, how long do I cook it," Thelma says. "I try to be nice about it. I mean, I can't give cooking classes over the phone. But there's no secrets about barbecue anyway. It's about patience. It's about getting up at one and two o'clock in the morning to check your fire and make sure you aren't cooking the meat too fast. You know, you just can't rush it."

"So how are you going to make sure your food stays good?" I ask.

"I'm not going to get any bigger, and I'm not going to get a big head," Thelma promises. "And I'm not going to sell any tough, underdone meat just because I have a whole lot of people waiting. When I run out, I run out."

Last week, KUHT came by to shoot video for another show. And more publicity is on the horizon. "I hear you're going to be featured in Steven Raichlen's new barbecue book this spring," I say.

"That's what I heard. It's a blessing," says Thelma. "Goes to show you better watch out what you pray for. I prayed that this place would get so crowded I would have to turn them away."

Thelma's was in danger of going under when I first visited last summer. I asked her if those days seem like a distant memory now. "No, I remember them real well," she says. "I had one day I made $43."

Thelma can't get too far from her roots -- her public won't allow it. "You know I can't move those broken chairs; everybody wants to see them," she teases me. In the Press's review, I wrote that customers had to pass a dilapidated mustard-colored vinyl sofa and a pile of broken chairs on the screened-in porch to get to the entrance proper. Thelma was kind of mad about the description back then, she confesses, but now she thinks it's funny. " 'Oh, there's the mustard-colored sofa,' people say the first time they come through the porch," she laughs. "Anyway, that's just me."

Now Thelma is attracting customers from all over Houston -- and beyond. A couple came from San Antonio last week, she says, just to see what all the excitement was about. Another pair showed up from Dayton, at closing time. Thelma reopened the restaurant to serve them supper.

The restaurant has increased its staff to six employees. But everything else is the same, Thelma insists.

"Are you getting rich?" I want to know.

"I'm paying my bills," she says.

"Have the prices gone up? Are the portions any smaller?" I ask.

"The prices will never go up. And the portions will never go down," Thelma says. "Everybody says, 'You are giving people way too much food.' I tell them, 'If you're not hungry, don't come to Thelma's.' "

 
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