First, a little advice: Black East Texas barbecue is heavy on the sauce -- ask for yours on the side if you aren't going to eat it right away. Don't complain about crumbling brisket; just order it in a sliced or "chipped beef" sandwich. Don't worry if it doesn't look pretty, the meats are supposed to be charred on the outside and falling apart. And don't forget to get some ribs for appetizers.
Little's Bar-B-Que, Highway 3 and 27th Street, Dickinson, no phone. Little's roadside trailer in Dickinson turns out a sliced brisket sandwich worth going out of your way for. But it's also an easy stopover between here and Galveston. Little's trailer is generally out between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays. But if you don't see him when you drive by, Little says, you should stop by his house on Avenue D -- everybody else does. Just don't bother him after 8 p.m. (he needs his beauty sleep) and never on a Sunday.
Two Brothers Smokin' Oak Kitchen, 3001 Ennis, Houston, no phone. So you want to try good old-fashioned black East Texas trailer-by-the-side-of-the-road barbecue, but going outside the Loop is out of the question? Leroy Wilson is just the man for you. Wilson smokes meat seven days a week (generally noon to 8 p.m. weekdays, noon to 10 p.m. weekends) and sells tasty sandwiches and ribs out of his trailer in a parking lot on Ennis near Texas Southern University. The ribs are firm and meaty. The chipped beef sandwich is the way to go with the brisket. Sides are available on weekends.
Burns Bar BQ, 8397 De Priest, Houston, 281-445-7574. In the good old days, Roy Burns used to set up a smoker and sell barbecue on the side of the road. But he settled down under some pine trees in Acres Homes 12 years ago, and he's been cooking there ever since. Burns has a cinder-block pit, but when business is hopping on Saturdays, the old portable pits get fired up, too. Burns's is a favorite Acres Homes neighborhood hangout, especially on weekends. The brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth, so it's best to get it on a sandwich. The wet and smoky ribs are among the best you'll find in Houston. Mashed potato salad and beans are the most popular sides.
Williams Smoke House, 5903 Wheatley, Houston, 713-680-8409. A couple of months ago, they installed a rotisserie at Williams's. It's not one of those newfangled stainless-steel contraptions; it's just a motorized belt that fits inside the existing pit. You can tell the difference when you bite into the brisket. It was good before, but now it's incredible. The chopped beef sandwich here costs more than the sliced because it contains more of the crunchy end pieces. The ribs are always excellent.
Reid's Bar-B-Que, 4101 Clover, Houston, 713-734-9326. This tidy little eatery will take you back in time. Judging by the worn paneling and faded posters on the wall, nothing has changed since James and Eddie Reid started turning out barbecue here 32 years ago. The ribs are stellar, and the brisket is thick-cut and tender. Get some beef links and squeeze the meat out of the casing onto a hunk of white bread for a real old-time East Texas experience. And don't miss Eddie's homemade pies. Find this gem down south near the intersection of Scott and Reed Road.
Kozy Kitchen, 1202 Lockwood Drive, Houston, 713-673-7830. Opened in 1946 by the Rosemore family, Kozy Kitchen is the last of the Fifth Ward's once famous black barbecue joints. It's a no-nonsense place with plastic forks and Styrofoam plates. There's no tea, and don't bother asking for peach cobbler. But the brisket is smoky and tender. Order an "in and out" sandwich, a mix of inside and outside cuts. The beef links are wonderful. Don't forget to douse your links with the homemade hot sauce provided, but put your thumb over the top and shake up the bottle first. This may be the only place you'll ever see barbecued veal.
Leon's "World's Finest" In & Out B-B-Q House, 55th and Broadway, Galveston, 409-744-0070. There are eight tables at this converted roadside stand on Galveston Island. The electric-knife-cut brisket is sliced thick, so opt for a chopped sandwich. The ribs are succulent, and the sides are incredible. Stop in and grab some smoked meat to eat at the beach, but don't forget the green beans, turnip greens or Leon's stepped-up rice. The potato salad is among the best in East Texas.
Ruthie's Pit Bar-B-Q, 905 West Washington, Navasota, 409-825-2700. Ruthie's son, Louis Charles Henley, is the jocular pit boss at this ramshackle East Texas joint in Navasota. His ribs are excellent, his pork shoulder is sublime, and his Elgin sausage is smoked for several hours until it gets really dense. He also makes a mean brisket sandwich. The restaurant is in an old house, where you can read a magazine while you wait for your meal. Mutton ribs are served on Saturday afternoons, but you'll be lucky to get any -- there's a waiting list for them.
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Caroline's Quality B-B-Q, 340 North Pine, Kountze, 409-246-8984. Caroline's is on the main street in Kountze, not far from the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitors Center. The modified trailer has two tables inside, and the place is neat as a pin. Caroline Wilson and her helper Arthur L. Yarbough smoke their fabulous brisket for 13 hours over red and white oak. Their ribs are dense and meaty, with a spicy crunch. A mixed plate comes drenched in sweet, thick barbecue sauce; consider asking for the sauce on the side. Don't miss the silky mashed potato salad. Open Thursday through Saturday only.
Gene's Sho-Nuff Bar-B-Que, U.S. Highway 59 North, Shepherd, 713-631-2361 (home). Seventy-one-year-old Eugene James is a retired trucker who is living his dream. He always wanted one of those barbecue trailers he used to see on the side of the road. And now he has one. You'll see the broken-down affair on the northbound side of Highway 59 in Shepherd. Gene insists on oak for his brisket smoking; nut woods are too sooty, in his opinion. He smokes his brisket nine to 12 hours until it falls apart. Truckers are among his most devoted clientele. Walk up to the window and ask Cora James to fix you a brisket sandwich to go. And be sure to see if there's any sweet potato pie left. Hours are irregular.
Florida's Kitchen, FM 350 South, Livingston, 936-967-4216. This old ramshackle house is one of the most popular eateries in Livingston. You can get breakfast, lunch and dinner here, but tender barbecued brisket and crispy smoked ribs are the specialties of the house. Try Sylvester Harris's barbecue with Florida Harris's greens, yams and Southern sides; it's a marriage made in heaven.
Thelma's Bar-B-Que, 1020 Live Oak, Houston, 713-228-2262. This little red house at Lamar and Live Oak is getting awfully famous. Thelma's brisket sandwich was featured in a PBS documentary called Sandwiches You Will Like. And she's also turning up in the pages of Texas Monthly and in Steven Raichlen's recently released tome on regional American barbecue, BBQ USA. Thelma also will star in an upcoming episode of Bobby Flay's Food Nation. Let's just hope all this fame doesn't cause Thelma to hurry up and ruin the brisket.