As you probably already know, the Houston Rockets are playing the New Jersey Nets Saturday afternoon at the Toyota Center. If you don't have tickets to the basketball game, or that football game everyone's talking about, you may be looking for a good place to watch it on television. Allow me to recommend Houston's coolest new sports bar, Drexler's World Famous BBQ & Grill on Pierce near Dowling in the Third Ward.
Well, okay, Drexler's doesn't actually call itself a sports bar. But it's huge (maximum capacity 575), and it has chicken wings, all kinds of alcoholic beverages and TV sets everywhere. What else could you want?
Whatever else it is, Drexler's World Famous BBQ & Grill is a shrine to Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, one of the most talented players in the history of the game. The restaurant, which is owned and operated by Drexler's family, boasts 20-foot ceilings and a polished wood floor that may remind you of a basketball court. In fact, there's a regulation glass backboard and hoop hanging at one end of the main dining room.
Drexler's also features display cases packed with Clyde's trophies. There are autographed basketballs from some of the great moments in his career, his All-Star Game rings, a plaque commemorating his 20,000th point scored in the NBA, and framed magazine and newspaper articles about him. And then there's the "Phi Slamma Jamma" room, which is available for private parties.
The restaurant moved to its new location just a few months ago, but it's a must-see for visiting sports fans. Generally, there are no worries about getting a table here at dinnertime. I counted 54 tables for four in the main dining room. But you still may have to wait in line if you come by late this Friday or Saturday. Drexler's will be hosting several major parties that are open to the public over Super Bowl weekend. (Call for details.)
As far as the food goes, Drexler's seems to have departed from its barbecue heritage. In the entranceway of the restaurant, there's an oil painting of French cheeses and a bottle of 1982 Gevrey-Chambertin. What do I know? Maybe vintage Burgundies are the new thing with barbecue. (I was just getting used to Cristal.)
Anyway, the place has become awfully fancy for a barbecue joint. The tables are of polished marble, and the food is served on oversize white china plates. Side orders come in dainty little bowls, and the napkins are made of white linen.
Drexler's ribs, I am happy to report, are falling-apart tender and coated with tangy sauce, just like they were in the old joint. The Texas-style beans, finely chopped coleslaw and mashed potato salad are likewise still excellent. Drexler's brisket, a hit-or-miss proposition in years past, seems to have improved with the relocation. When I tried it for dinner the other night, it was extremely wet and very tender, though not particularly smoky.
The rest of the menu includes a lot of dubious innovations. A rib eye steak ordered medium rare was thin and tough. The steamed asparagus and new potatoes that came with it were plain. I also tried the shrimp kabobs, made with what appeared to be precooked frozen shrimp threaded on two wooden skewers with some red and green bell peppers in between, heated briefly on the grill without benefit of any marinade, glaze or discernible seasoning. And, oh boy, were they awful.
I stopped by the restaurant again at lunch the other day and picked up an order of hot links. ($11.95 for a pound of hot links with no sides?) Texas hot links are an African-American specialty, made with finely ground beef, lots of fat and plenty of red pepper. They ooze out of their casings, and you catch the meat on white bread and call it a sandwich.
Drexler's hot links aren't as greasy as the old-fashioned variety, so they taste dry. But the spice level is truly inspiring. Have a soda or some iced tea ready, because these babies will burn your mouth.
The new Drexler's has replaced the smoky little building right around the corner on Dowling, where for many years James Drexler tended one of the oldest barbecue pits in the city. The vintage pit was built by Houston barbecue legend Harry Green in the 1950s.
At the new location, Drexler's has embraced high-tech barbecue. The meats are cooked in two gleaming stainless-steel smokers, which are fueled by a combination of green oak and gas. These units are manufactured by Ole Hickory, a corporation located in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
On its Web site, Ole Hickory states, "We have been pioneers in the barbecue business since 1974." (1974? We have barbecue pits in Texas that haven't been cleaned since 1974.) But it's the description of how the smoker was invented that's really funny. The folks at Ole Hickory developed it while operating the Port Cape Girardeau Restaurant. Its first pit was a "simple brick oven with stationary racks and wood fire located directly underneath the meat," the Web site says. "To make a long story short, the third time the fire trucks came to put out the fire at the restaurant, it dawned on us that there should be a better way."
Duh. So did these Missouri barbecue novices drive down to Texas to take a look at the design of the wood-fired pits that have been operating down here for over a century? Nah. They reinvented the wheel. Only they made it square so it wouldn't roll away.
Take a rib from Drexler's with you over to Thelma's at Live Oak and Lamar. It's just a few blocks away. Thelma's has an old wood-burning pit just like the one Drexler's used to have. Now give both ribs the sniff-and-bite test. You tell me which one smells and tastes like barbecue. The Ole Hickory unit is a shiny kitchen appliance, not a barbecue pit. It's essentially a gas oven and rotisserie that burns a few logs every now and then.
According to one kitchen worker, the old-fashioned wood-burning pit was demolished when Drexler's moved. Perhaps the owners didn't want anyone using their old pit to compete with them. But you can't get a permit to build one of those anymore, so the city has lost an old-timer, and that's sad.
Drexler's World Famous BBQ & Grill is an incredible sports bar and a fitting tribute to one of the city's greatest athletes, and the Drexler family deserves recognition for its dedication to the Third Ward. This place should be a big attraction for basketball fans. It's also a great place to take out-of-town visitors. But, unfortunately, it's not a destination for serious barbecue hounds. (For visitors' information on barbecue, see Toque Off.)
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