As much as I'd like to, I simply can't recommend that a meal at Guy's Meat Market is worth the trek to Guy's modest location on Old Spanish Trail near its intersection with Highway 288. That, however, is only because you can't eat a meal at Guy's Meat Market. There's no place to sit. Guy's is, first and foremost, a pit stop for stocking up on your way to a picnic, a barbecue or a weekend at the beach. It provides the food; the dining location is up to you.
But what food it provides. If you do have a lunch or dinner spot scoped out, then Guy's can be wholeheartedly recommended. A favorite lunch companion of mine works next to the Astrodome, so for three lunches on three separate days we made off with our wonderfully inexpensive booty from Guy's, journeying down Old Spanish Trail back to his office. Some days we were more successful than others at enjoying our lunch while it was still hot, but on each day I learned just how interminable the number of lights on OST between Yellowstone and Kirby can be when the fragrance of hickory smoked meat is wafting up your nose.
That just about sums up the perils of a lunch at Guy's: where the devil to go to enjoy that barbecued hamburger that's so reminiscent of Sunday cookouts by the lake. But those weekend chefs would be hard pressed to outdo Guy's seven-ounce burger -- thick, drippy, rimmed in magenta and slapped between a small, soft white bun. It's even better with cheese: a righteously waxy yellow pat of all-American American, as suffused as the beef patty with smoke flavor and meat juices. (A warning: once the burger has reached room temperature, its juicy quality begins devolving into a less-than-wonderful congealed quality, so in this case, be sure you're able to get to your lunch spot fast.)
In some circles, Guy's hamburger (served Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. "or until we run out") has made enough of a name for itself that members of said circles are ignorant of the fact that Guy's is also a purveyor of barbecue, homemade chili and three types of poor boy sandwiches. As a self-professed French fry fanatic, I've decided that the only thing Guy's is missing in order to be a first-rate burger and barbecue joint is fries. Instead, Guy's potato offerings are limited to the more orthodox barbecue accompaniment of potato salad, unless you count the individual servings of Lay's potato chips that share rack space with the entire family of Frito-Lay's finest.
The perimeter of the store is lined with shelves of paper plates, lighter fluid, huge opaque plastic jars of pickles and bundles of firewood. The barbecue counter is shoved, almost as an afterthought, into one corner of a long glass case that stretches across the shop's back half. The case displays a wide selection of steaks, roasts and chops, but its more important function seems to be to divide the store in half, separating those purveying from those partaking. Behind the counter is a spacious food preparation area whose meat-carving residents seem right at home in the room's operating theater color scheme. In front of the counter, looking at the walls of white tile and surgical-green paint, the customers are as rapt as any group of first-year medical students. They study the menu board and the various tacked-up signs, musing whether the misspellings are intentional, while at the same time trying to keep their eyes on the guys with the knives. Around the barbecue counter is crowded a small cluster of servers who, when you're still three back in line, point to you and say "Next." That's code for "Don't keep everyone waiting; hurry up and order."
At least one server is kept busy hacking whole barbecued chickens into halves and quarters and cleaving racks of smoked ribs into twos and threes. Another is occupied slapping together made-to-order burgers -- you get your choice of all the standard fixings, plus jalapenos if you want them. Someone else deftly slices off several curls of fleshy brisket or a few lengths of made-on-the-premises links. (The boudin, sold uncooked, is the only sausage not made on-site.) A few more Guy's guys keep busy filling white Styrofoam containers full of enough meat for two meals, ladling sauce over everything, or wrapping brisket or link sandwiches in white butcher paper.
When you've hustled back to your dining spot -- be it your desk, your dining room table or a friend's conveniently located office cubicle -- unwrap your bounty. If you've ordered a barbecue plate, take a moment to notice the pool of sauce ringed in the smallest vermilion border of its own oil and to breathe in the vinegary, just-tart-enough, just-sweet-enough savor. All too often, a barbecue sauce assertive enough to stand alongside spicy links is too overpowering for chicken. Not so here. This one is right on key, a suitable accompaniment for all it comes in contact with.
Not that Guy's barbecued chicken needs any assistance to completely satisfy. In a world where too many smoked chickens are fated to dryness, here's one smokehouse that's managed to learn the secret of perfect poultry. Even the white meat of this huge serving (a $5.95 two-meat plate comes with at least three pieces of bird) is moist throughout. While I was murmuring adulations over the chicken, my lunchmate was swooning over the links: thick tubes of skin packed tautly with rosy meat and speckled through with flecks of red, beige and black seasonings, not one iota too hot, not one scintilla too dry. The slathering of sauce that I spread over the juicy bite of link speared on my fork was completely superfluous -- not that I would have given it back. Same with the ribs. Of the chewy variety that inspires gnawing, the long-and-meaty and short-and-crusty ribs that came on my combo plate were good enough to consume sans sauce.
The brisket, which I sampled only in sandwiches, is also swoon material. Except, that is, for the chopped beef sandwich. Would someone please explain to me the appeal of brisket that's been masticated into baby food? The slices of beef have a carbonized exterior and are a bit fibrous, as is any self-respecting brisket, yet they're tender enough not to tear apart their cushy white bun when bitten into. If you, like I, prefer a drippy brisket sandwich over a dripless one, ask for extra sauce. After all, what's the point of finger food if it's not a bit of a hassle to eat?
Guy's offers all the usual barbecue accouterments, and while they're passable, nothing inspires raves to equal the meat. The beans, brown-sugared and vinegared enough to pass muster at any church supper, are inconsistent: on one visit, they were too peppery, on another, too runny. The cole slaw is, thankfully, not over-sweet, but the potato salad, despite its pleasant hint of mustard, suffers from a mayonnaise drenching.
Guy's homemade chili -- apparently available on some days but not on others -- is served up from a huge, steaming vat in the kitchen. Opening the container lid reveals a ring of bright orange foam and a seriously meaty chili whose base is a creamy rust color. Its overall flavor is reliably punchy, if over-salty. The heat factor is of the throat-burning type. Minuses: it's almost too greasy, and some of the meat is tough and gristly. Like good soups and casseroles, good chili is better several days later, and that's true of this version as well: helping myself to microwaved leftovers, I forgot what my original complaints were.
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The one semi-fresh dessert that Guy's offers is Aunt Betty's Pecan Pies for Two. Shipped down from Livingston, Aunt Betty's pie is of the best sort: made from dark brown sugar that results in a retro, toasty-tasting goo. The crust was over-brown, and I wondered where Aunt Betty found those minuscule pecans. My first sampling of the pie was fine; my second sampling, though, came from a pie that must have been sitting around the barbecue pits a few days: it had definitely been imbued with the essence of hickory smoke. This was the only real clunker on any of my visits to Guy's.
But then again, as the sign says, Guy's is a meat market, not a pie shop. And the meat is a true carnivore's delight. Pick a mild day, pick up your grub, head north on 288 an exit or two to MacGregor and go west to Hermann Park. Find a picnic bench or a shade tree near the duck pond, and reminisce over other times you've eaten barbecue in a park. Only this time, enjoy yourself even more, since somebody else -- someone who knows what they're doing -- was in charge of the cooking.
Guy's Meat Market, 3106 Old Spanish Trail, 747-6800.
Guy's Meat Market: hamburger, $2.15 (with cheese, $2.45); barbecue plate (two meats and two side orders), $5.95.