An Aggie Tradition
See inside the smoker and watch the brisket get trimmed at The Brisket House in our slideshow.
A half-pound of slick, fat-capped brisket and tender pork ribs sat on a gleaming, glossy white sheet of butcher paper on the table next to me at The Brisket House. It looked like barbecue as still life: to the meat's left on the tableau was a whole pickle, a great lump of Cheddar cheese and a knob of raw, white onion. It was a Hungry Man-style meal, served with a knife, a fork and a sense of satisfaction. It was also a surprising sight in Houston. This meal is a College Station classic, known by those who love it as The Aggie Special.
Fans of the long-gone Tom's BBQ in College Station, which closed more than ten years ago, will possibly remember the old pitmaster there, Wayne Kammerl. But they will definitely remember the Aggie Special, a half pound of meat served on a piece of butcher paper, pared down and simple.
"The Aggie Special was probably 80 percent of what we sold at Tom's," says Kammerl, who ran the College Station barbecue joint from 1992 until 1998. Kammerl opened The Brisket House last June, and has been shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response that his Aggie Special — renamed The Brisket House Special here — has drawn from the local community.
"When I opened, I said I'm gonna do a couple of things the way we did at Tom's," says Kammerl. "It was the quickest recognition of where I came from. The very first day I opened, one of my ten customers looked at the menu board and said, 'Who's the Aggie?!'"
The dish known as The Aggie Special was so popular in College Station that even after Tom's closed in 2001 after 45 years in business, in what Kammerl calls a "heart-wrenching" end to a few years of mismanagement by new owners, the special survived — with its Aggie name intact — in other barbecue joints around town.
At The Brisket House, the butcher-paper meal costs only $9. You can get it in a full-pound size for $18 or a more petite six-ounce portion for $7.50, but what are you — a tea-sipper?
The slight hint of Aggie-Longhorn rivalry runs through the joint, tucked into a classy red-brick strip next door to Cylone Anaya's. The walls of the ever-so-slightly upscale Central Texas-style barbecue restaurant literally bleed maroon here (maroon paint). But Kammerl's team wears both burnt orange and maroon T-shirts as they take orders and chop beef in the open kitchen.
"When an Aggie comes in my building, they always let me know they're an Aggie," Kammerl says. "But I have a huge Aggie and Longhorn following. And that's kind of neat." He continues: "Easily 30 to 40 percent of my repeat business is Aggie alumni. And I'd say half is from a three-mile radius of the Tanglewood neighborhood.
There's the feeling that The Brisket House serves as a sort of living room for the area by both day and night, with regulars who live or work nearby sprawled comfortably at tables in the dining room. Cords of firewood sit stacked by the entrance and genuine smiles emerge from behind the counter when you walk in. Slices of pie tempt you from an ice-packed counter, and Robert Earl Keen joins Jason Boland & The Stragglers on the stereo.
The clientele at lunch are mostly well-dressed businessmen from the surrounding Galleria area, tucking ties into buttoned-up shirts as they politely attack their heaping barbecue plates. The restaurant does a brisk take-out service at lunch as well as dinner, although only 10 percent of the business now is in Aggie Specials.
At night, the dining room has a different vibe, with more families than suits occupying the tables. There isn't a kid's menu to speak of, but what kid wouldn't be happy with the sloppy joe-esque barbecue sandwich, whose buns overflow with finely diced brisket under a peppery, house-made sauce that's always served wonderfully warm?
Nighttime isn't typically the best time to get good barbecue. If you head to places such as Goode Co. or Rudy's, you're faced with the same problem that would exist if spots like Thelma's stayed open into the evening: barbecue that's been taken off the pit earlier in the day, becoming tough and stringy as the meat slowly cools back down.
Because of that, I was hesitant to try The Brisket House past, say, 3 p.m. During lunch, I'd never been disappointed with a single piece of barbecue at the place. What happy feelings would be crushed by a nighttime visit? Only one, it turns out.
My solitary issue was with the lean brisket one weekday evening, which didn't have the same sweetly fatty taste and texture, the same oomph, as the regular brisket served during the day. My dining companion, however, loved it. "I just prefer lean brisket, though," he conceded, after I brought him some of The Brisket House's fatty brisket the next day.
"Crazy talk," I told him, and snatched the rest away. Luckily, The Brisket House generally agrees with me on that point, its brisket normally cooked and cut with a generous amount of fat left on the meat. I did watch one afternoon, however, as a man behind the counter callously cut off all the lovely fatty, slightly blackened parts of the brisket and threw them into the trash, continuing to blithely chop up the rest of it for an order of barbecue sandwiches. I watched silently, mouth agape.
I still remember trying to tell a college professor from New Jersey what was so special about brisket, a term she'd never heard before moving to Texas. Yes, it's that fat cap and the way it flavors and moistens the meat below it, but it's also the smoking process of the meat itself. And although The Brisket House uses a Southern Pride gas smoker (a contentious choice among serious 'cue hounds), the oak and pecan used in the cooker infuse the brisket with a woodsy, slightly sweet flavor that recalls campfires and backyard barbecues.
Kammerl responds knowingly to the condescending attitude that can emerge when discussing Southern Pride cookers: "These pits do the most incredible job of smoking the meat," he says. "So they can call it cheating, but I call it being able to go home at night and get some sleep knowing that my meat is being cooked correctly."
The wood even does a good job making normally boring, dry cuts — I'm looking at you, turkey — into a tender, juicy mess of meat. I'll confess, however, that my favorite way to enjoy the turkey here is chopped up and deposited into a loaded baked potato. If the meat does happen to be a little dry in the evenings, those soft, buttery baked potatoes are the way to go — it's the ultimate way to use barbecue leftovers outside of the classic day-after sandwich.
What should be appreciated on their own, however, are the chicken and the pork ribs. A three-meat plate of chicken, ribs and brisket is the holy trifecta here — even with my respect for the awesome Aggie Special intact — and not just because it also comes with three sides.
Over a recent lunch with my mother, I ordered a plate of chicken and ribs for her, eager to see her reaction to my favorites. Teamed with my stepfather, the woman had just come off a ninth-place win out of 127 entries at a local barbecue cookoff for her chicken recipe and was feeling rightfully cocky.
"So, what do you think?" I grinned as she picked the slick skin and flesh apart with her fingers, wolfing it down in the most ladylike manner possible.
"I think it's the best barbecue chicken I've ever had," she responded. No hesitation. The meat slid apart from the bone with almost no effort, the gloriously buttery taste of chicken fat melding with the sweet taste of pecan wood in the slightly crispy skin.
Sides are another area in which The Brisket House trounces the competition. It's almost a universal law that if a joint's barbecue is great, the sides will be ghastly. And vice versa: If the sides are good, forget about the 'cue. But both The Brisket House and another favorite, Gatlin's, put that rumor to rest. All of the sides here are made fresh each day; no Costco tubs here, just lovingly made dirty rice with livery bits or mashed sweet potatoes with a hint of cinnamon.
The best sides, however, are that baked potato salad and the coleslaw. The coleslaw is unlike any other coleslaw I've had in Houston: crunchy strips of cabbage just barely coated with mayonnaise that's been spiked with vinegar and caraway seeds. And the baked potato salad with fat shavings of Parmesan cheese, toothsome bacon bits and a generous binder of tangy sour cream is so good that the other sides here, while good, seem like a mere afterthought. If you're that starry-eyed optimist who's on the eternal hunt for a barbecue restaurant with sides as good as its barbecue, add the coleslaw and the baked potato salad to your three-meat trifecta of chicken, ribs and brisket; your hunt is over.
Kammerl himself seems stunned by the crowds that the little restaurant has drawn in just one year of operation: "Being in the restaurant business for 22 years, I've never had so many customers take a such a heartfelt interest in my food or in talking to me about the restaurant," he says, adding with a laugh, "Usually, when a customer wants to talk to you at a restaurant, it's not good."
"I've even had some old Aggies say it feels like a little piece of Texas A&M in Houston. It's great that they recognize it that way."
Although this might not be the type of barbecue joint that tends its old-fashioned, smoke-encrusted pits all night long, The Brisket House stands out from the crowd for its ability to make sides as good as its 'cue, and to serve them all on one plate with a friendly smile. This place will make a believer out of anyone who thought a strip mall off Woodway couldn't turn out some wicked Texas barbecue.
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