Almeda's New Playhouse
The ribs were the star of my three-meat plate at Bar-B-Que Blues on Almeda. The pork was long-cooked, until it adhered only loosely to the bones. It had a satisfying crust of seasoning on the outside that made every bite more interesting than the last. The ribs looked like they came from a three-and-a-half-pound rack, a rarity in this era of oversize hogs. Barbecuers go to great lengths to find "three and a half and down" ribs because the small size yields tender meat.
Luckily, I had asked for my barbecue sauce on the side. It was an excellent sauce, deep-red and seasoned with lots of coarsely ground black pepper, without the cloying sweetness that mars a lot of housemade barbecue sauces. But the ribs were so good, I was delighted to be eating them all by themselves. When the barbecue sauce tastes great, but the barbecue doesn't really need any, you've got yourself a "good problem."
Bar-B-Que Blues is located in the space where Green's Barbecue used to be. Bar-B-Que Blues pit boss Neil Wilkins grew up on Dowling Street nearby and used to eat at Harry Green's place when he was a kid. Wilkins says the restaurant is holding auditions for a house blues band. It's great to see Harry Green's old space occupied by a community barbecue joint again.
A barbecue joint that doubles as a blues venue seems like too much to hope for. But the music seems to be central to the concept. There is a mural painted on the wall of the new restaurant depicting a diverse range of blues giants including Elvis and B.B. King, and I am told the owners are involved in the music business. Is Almeda destined to become Houston's Beale Street?
The links I got on my three-meat plate at Bar-B-Que Blues were a fascinating fusion between old-fashioned East Texas beef links like Harry Green used to serve and conventional Texas barbecue sausage. Harry Green made beef links with beef shoulder ground with lots of tallow (beef fat) and paprika. To eat one of Green's beef links, you punctured the casing and squeezed the nearly liquid meat mixture onto a slice of white bread.
"Nobody makes beef links like that anymore because people are afraid of fat," the late Harry Green once told me. Wilkins has captured the beef, tallow and paprika flavor of Green's links in a firmer-textured blend that stays together like any other kind of sausage. Maybe you have to know the history to completely appreciate the flavor, but these are some very interesting beef links.
The choices of sides on the steam table included baked beans that looked like they came from a can, green beans that looked like they came from a can and shell macaroni coated with electric-yellow liquid cheese. I got the green beans and the macaroni and ate a few bites so I could tell you to get your homemade soul food vegetables elsewhere. I skipped the cakes and pecan pies too, as these are delivered by an outside supplier.
To round out my plate, I asked for brisket from the fatty end. I'd say the brisket was the weakest of the three meats. It was tender and fairly juicy, but it didn't have much smoky character. I didn't get any crust on my brisket either. I wondered how long this meat had spent on the pit. Neil Wilkins was a little elusive when I asked him what kind of pit he was using. When I drove around back before I left, I could see why.
The man is trying to run a restaurant out of a single barrel smoker.
Last week I picked up a full rack of ribs to go at Bar-B-Que Blues and set them out on the conference room table during the weekly editorial meeting at the offices of the Houston Press. Most of the comments I got from fellow staffers were about the intriguing crust of spices. Several of my colleagues observed that barbecue sauce would have ruined the texture. Others admired the exceptional tenderness. John Nova Lomax demanded a double portion since he was the one who alerted me to the restaurant's opening in mid-August. Everybody agreed these ribs were something special.
Neil Wilkins has never run a restaurant before. He got his barbecue experience cooking on offshore oil platforms. He knows how to cook barbecue, but I hope he can figure out how to handle some volume. Too bad the last occupants destroyed Harry Green's old pit. It would have fit Wilkins's needs perfectly.
The late Harry Green once had three barbecue restaurants in Houston, and they were rated the best of his era. He built them with cinder-block barbecue pits with the fireboxes on the outside and smoking chambers that opened into the restaurant kitchen. I don't think building codes will let you build this kind of cinder block pit anymore. The old ones were grandfathered, and unfortunately, there seems to be a plot to destroy all of them.
When Green retired, he sold the place on Almeda to a Vietnamese family and his original joint on Dowling to the Drexlers. When the Drexler family moved into a bigger location near the old place, they sledgehammered Green's cinder block pit.
After the Vietnamese family went out of business, the Luther's barbecue chain took over the Almeda location for awhile and destroyed the cinder block pit there too. Both Drexler's and the Almeda location of Luther's used stainless steel gas-powered barbecue units. Both are out of business.
The relationship between barbecue and the blues in Houston will be the subject of a paper John Lomax will deliver to the annual symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi this October. Lomax recalls the days when Shady's Playhouse, a combination barbecue joint, music venue and flophouse in the Third Ward, provided a place where such stars as Johnny Clyde Copeland, Albert Collins and Johnny Guitar Watson lived, ate barbecue and played the blues. Years later when he achieved success in New York, Copeland wrote a song called "Houston" that mentioned Shady's twice. The refrain was, "Houston won't you let me come home."
While some of the greatest blues players of all time came from Houston, if you want to hear the music, you are better off in Austin and Memphis. The city was also once the center of African-Texan barbecue, but since desegregation most of the famous barbecue restaurants have gone out of business and the style has all but disappeared. So when a place like Bar-B-Que Blues comes along, Houston blues and barbecue fans take notice. It looks like a seat-of-the-pants operation, but just imagine what it could turn into.
When Sam's Barbecue in Austin burned down some years ago, the community there rallied to help the Mays family rebuild the place. Bar-B-Que Blues has just opened, but the food is so good, and the idea of a blues venue in Green's old joint on Almeda is so enticing, that I find myself wanting to organize a rally to get this place off the ground. But that's not exactly part of the job description of a restaurant critic.
So along with my recommendation that you go eat some ribs there, I'll confine myself to one modest request: Will somebody please help Neil Wilkins find a bigger smoker?
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