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There were enough falling-apart-tender beef tips in thick brown gravy over rice in the Styrofoam container to feed a medium-sized family. Jim Sherman got the sweet orange mashed yams and the cooked-to-death cabbage as his two sides from the steam table at the back of Davis Meat Market. I was eating a cheeseburger made with the store's own freshly ground beef. The sandwich was served on a stack of spectacular hand-cut French fries. The burger was decent, but Sherman's beef tips were outrageous.
Jim Sherman had lured me over to the Fifth Ward by claiming that Davis Meat Market had one of the best burgers in the city. Sherman was exaggerating, but he doesn't get out of the Nickel much. James Davis, who runs the meat market along with his wife, does a lot of things brilliantly, but his burger is a little dry. I am thinking he needs to throw a little more fat in the grinder. Or stop leaning on the spatula so hard. Or maybe I should have ordered a bacon burger.
A few years ago when Adrian's Burger Bar and the Lockwood Malt Shop were both in business, the Fifth Ward had some of the best hamburgers in the city. But Adrian's moved downtown, and the Lockwood Malt Shop closed its doors. So I suppose Davis Meat Market has the best burger in the Fifth Ward now. It's a decent burger, but it's hard to take seriously once you start sampling the steam-table food.
Houston, TX 77020
Region: East End
Burt's Meat Market Hours: 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Boudin balls: 3 for $1 Boudin: $2.19 lb. Rib plate with two sides: $6.89 Gumbo: (medium) $4.79 Sausage: $3.19 lb.
The succulent oxtails at Davis Meat Market may be the best in the city. When you try to pick one up, the meat just slips off the bone. Like the beef tips, the oxtails are served in a deep brown gravy over white rice, and the portion is huge. I sampled some with greens and cornbread.
I also tried a three-meat barbecue plate. The brisket was buttery-tender, and Mr. Davis's chewy housemade beef and pork sausage was perfectly spiced. The pork rib came from a tough four-or-five-pound rack rather than the tiny three-and-a-half-pound size that yields the most tender ribs. The beans I got on the side were heavenly — long-cooked, creamy and studded with sausage. But overall the barbecue, which is cooked in a high-tech Old Hickory stainless steel pit, didn't have enough smoke flavor to recommend Davis Meat Market as a top barbecue destination.
All Davis Meat Market meals come in a Styrofoam container. That's because most people take their food to go. There is actually one small table in the back of the store, but I am guessing Jim Sherman and I were the only people who ate there all day.
Davis Meat Market is not the most inviting place to dine in. For security reasons, you have to push a buzzer to get in the front door. And it's a little dark and disorganized inside. But the dark and antiquated atmosphere is also endearing. The giant bottles of pickled pig's feet and baggies of crispy cracklins on top of the tall meat counters might remind you of an old-fashioned country store out in the backwaters of the bayou.
The main draws here are the country-style breakfasts with Davis Meat Market's housemade pan sausage and the overflowing Styrofoam containers full of homemade soul food for lunch and dinner, all at ludicrously cheap prices. But it's the other offerings in the meat cases that make it worth the trip, in my opinion. I loaded up with Mr. Davis's homemade beef and pork link sausage and his spicy hog's head cheese while I was paying my bill. I would have bought some boudin and breakfast sausage too, but he was sold out already.
For dinner last night, I had three crispy patties of Burt's Meat Market pan sausage and two fried eggs. I don't know about you, but I love eating breakfast for dinner, especially on a day like yesterday after I pigged out at brunch. Burt's Cajun pan sausage is considered the city's premier breakfast sausage by many connoisseurs — it's the brand they serve at the Breakfast Klub. I bought the pan sausage on another excursion to the Fifth Ward.
Burt's is located on Lyons just east of Lockwood, and it's a pretty popular place to be at lunchtime, as a fellow food lover and I discovered on a recent weekday afternoon. The line stretched almost to the door when we got there. And it was easy to see why when we made our way up to the steam table.
A mountain of meat was arranged under bright lights to induce a maximum of stomach growling and mouthwatering. There were boudin balls, three or four varieties of sausages and boudin links, smoked pork chops, turkey legs and deep-fried bacon-wrapped items all stuffed into stainless steel bins to the point of overflowing. Then came the vegetables; cabbage, greens, yams, corn dishes, red beans cooked with andouille, white rice, dirty rice and a few other items I couldn't identify.
We took our food to a park a couple of blocks farther east on Lyons, laid out the Cajun picnic spread on an outdoor table and dug in. Burt's fried boudin balls are legendary, and we started out with several of the battered and fried boudin spheres for appetizers along with a couple jalapeños that had been stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried.
Then we sampled some of Burt's awesome chicken gumbo. We ate it with a spork and dunked in the cornbread muffins that came on the side. The roux was the color of brown gravy and there were lots of shreds of long-cooked chicken and spicy andouille sausage in the thick soup. There was a little rice on the bottom.
I have been buying boudin at Burt's for years, and I have always considered it on a par with the boudin in western Louisiana. But the link we got for our picnic was way off in the ground pork-to-rice ratio — it contained too much rice. Maybe it came from the end of a batch or something, but it wasn't up to Burt's usual high standards. Oven-baked ribs in barbecue sauce were passable, but the dirty rice that came on the side was terrific. Next time, I'll get an extra container of dirty rice. Greens with smoked pork were very good as well.
Picking up a pound of Burt's pan sausage when you get a meat to go there is an added bonus. I also bought a large green pepper stuffed with boudin that I am going to bake in the oven for yet another meal. And then there were all the leftovers.
I seldom think about driving over to the Fifth Ward to pick up lunch or dinner, but it's really a pretty smart move. The soul food at Davis Meat Market and the Cajun food at Burt's rank with the best in town. And if you take the opportunity to load up on all the other good things in the display cases, picking up an inexpensive meal to go at one of these meat markets can turn into a loaves-and-fishes affair. For what seems like a pittance, you end up feeding the multitudes for days.