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On my way to host the Houston Press Restaurant Radio Show one Friday afternoon, I stopped by Vic's Backyard Bar-B-Q Barn on Fondren and grabbed some brisket, pork ribs and links to go. We were doing a show about Texas barbecue, and I wanted to have a mixed plate in front of me so I could remember what the stuff tastes like. Sitting there in the studio, I held a little riblet up to my nose to see if there was a smoky aroma. I thought somebody had hit me over the head with a mesquite log.
In Texas, the smell of the wood smoke can tell you a lot about the heritage of the barbecue. The sharp smell of mesquite is identified with the tejanos. It's the only wood available in much of the ranchland along the Mexican border. Mesquite is common in the norteño grilling style of northern Mexico and in South Texas Hispanic barbecue. The Czechs and Germans of Central Texas get all sentimental about oak. It's the same wood that butchers used for smoking sausage back in the Old World. Blacks and whites from the old South agree on sweet-smelling hickory and pecan. These types of wood come from two closely related trees native to North America. When black slaves brought the Southern barbecue style to East Texas before the Civil War, they brought their wood preferences with them.
Oak and hickory enthusiasts scoff that resin-rich mesquite imbues barbecued meats with an aroma that resembles diesel exhaust. And indeed, in long-smoked cuts like brisket, the flavor can get a little overwhelming.
Vic's brisket suffers not only from mesquite overdose but from excessive dryness. Even so, while mesquite isn't ideal for slow smoking, it's perfect for grilling, precisely because it's strong enough to flavor the meat quickly. Sausage links and pork ribs cook much faster than brisket. And that's why these two items are the best things to order at Vic's Backyard Bar-B-Q Barn. The links are from Chappell Hill Sausage Company. At Vic's, they're sliced extremely thin on a diagonal. The long, skinny slices of peppery sausage meat are perfect for sandwiches.
Vic's ribs are dense, chewy and intensely smoky. I got the chile-spiked barbecue sauce on the side and used it as a dip. There's nothing sweet and subtle about these pork ribs, but after two or three, you may find yourself considering a conversion to Texas barbecue's mesquite sect. Yes, the brisket was a disappointment, but the ribs and sausage at Vic's were so good, I came back to check the place out.
Vic's Backyard Bar-B-Q Barn has had many different owners over the years, but the location has been serving barbecue since 1968. Interestingly, the place has an Oyler rotisserie -- a barbecue pit that was invented by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite, Texas, in 1967. The Oyler pit is a big steel box with an electric rotisserie inside. Unlike modern automated barbecue pits that supplement the heat of the wood fire with heat from gas or electric burners, the Oyler cooks entirely with wood smoke. Many of Houston's favorite barbecue joints swear by Oyler pits.
Victor Torres, the current owner of the restaurant, is obviously Hispanic. Because he uses mesquite wood, I assumed he came from South Texas. The barn architecture and charming worn-wood atmosphere of the restaurant remind me of that classic South Texas barbecue joint, Joe Cotton's down in Robstown, just outside Corpus Christi.
On my second visit to Vic's, I sat down and studied the menu. What a shock. There were fried shrimp, fried catfish, grilled chicken, fajitas, hamburgers, buffalo burgers, chef salads, soup of the day, chicken nugget baskets and a turkey dinner with two vegetables. Sides included macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, corn and broccoli. Hardly what you'd expect from a classic South Texas-style barbecue joint. "Come try the original Texas Bar-B-Q," his menu said in bold letters across the top. I started to wonder if Victor Torres had inherited this slogan along with the Oyler.
I strolled over to the cash register and struck up a conversation. "Where are you from?" I asked.
The New York Times called me up a few weeks ago and asked if I thought real Texas barbecue could be made in Manhattan ("At Long Last, Real Barbecue Makes a Stand in Manhattan," The New York Times, September 16). It seems a couple of joints up there have imported our technology and are turning out what passes for decent 'cue in those parts.
What has always stymied would-be New York barbecue mavens are the city's stringent regulations regarding smoke emissions. Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant built by New York restaurant genius Danny Meyers (operator of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and other famous Manhattan eateries), tried to solve the problem with a nine-story chimney that released the smoke high above the neighbors. The flue successfully dispersed the smoke into the upper levels of the atmosphere, but unfortunately, the tremendous draw it created also sucked all the moisture out of the meat. After much tinkering, Meyers and company now claim the chimney at Blue Smoke is working perfectly.
The lead dog in the New York barbecue pack is former London hairdresser Robert Pearson. After a trip to Dallas to teach hair-cutting tips, Pearson became obsessed with barbecue. In 1992, he set up his first Texas barbecue parlor in the New York environs, complete with an imported Oyler rotisserie. The English barbecue stylist uses absolutely no seasonings, not even salt on his brisket. And he has some other odd ideas: "The less smoke you can see, the better the barbecue," he told The New York Times.
He hopes to see no smoke at all when his new restaurant, Pearson's Texas BBQ, opens on East 81st Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side. And to accomplish that feat, his rooftop chimney will be fitted out with a fancy new smoke-eater. A high-tech contraption the Times describes as a "$36,000 electrostatic precipitator" will zap the barbecue exhaust until there's nothing left but thin air. What effect the equipment will have on the Oyler's performance remains to be seen.
Like Victor Torres, these New Yorkers will turn out some tasty smoked meats, but they will be served without the customary side order of Texas folklore. If you want to see what the New York barbecue experience might be like, you need travel no further than Vic's Backyard Bar-B-Q Barn on Fondren. You'll eat some great links and ribs, but you'll also get the feeling that these folks aren't from around here.
A real Texas barbecue joint is more than a place to eat meat -- it's a place where you can smell history in the wood smoke.
In answer to The New York Times's question about the possibility of authentic Texas barbecue in New York, I said, "Let me put the question in New York terms: If you chemically filtered Houston city water so it was the same as New York tap water, and used the same flour, and brought in the same ovens, could you make authentic New York bagels in Texas? Yes and no."