Jewel in the Pines

Writing about the Williams Smokehouse makes me nervous. I find myself irrationally fearful that committing its charms to paper will make this storybook cottage of a barbecue joint vanish overnight -- tall pines, immaculate woodpile, magisterial pork ribs and all.

There is something improbably Brigadoonlike in the bucolic pocket of northside Houston where this low-profile smokehouse plies its dignified trade. The sheer pine alleys fronting the historic black subdivision of Acres Homes form a gateway to another world, one that is quasi-rural and profoundly Southern, awash in deep and secretive shade.

Blink, and you could be on an East Texas back road, or somewhere in northern Alabama; instead, you are a five-minute journey up Ella Boulevard from the North Loop, navigating a narrow two-lane blacktop. To either side yawn drainage ditches so wide and deep they have spawned a multitude of wooden footbridges.

Beyond one such footbridge, just a few blocks north of Ella's transformation into Wheatley, the Williams family's neat brown cabin drowses amid high trees. The barbecue that issues from within this tidy, paneled universe conjures up the countryside as powerfully as its setting does. Here the cordial Willie B. Williams and his soft-spoken son, Cedric, superintend the post oak slow-smoking of ribs and links whose quiet, commanding soulfulness is rare in an urban context. To eat them is to understand why barbecue holds such sway over the hearts and minds of Texans.

Two friends I introduced to the place grew rapt and respectful over the Williams' special slab of ribs, a $12 wonder hacked apart with surgical precision and heaped upon a groaning paper plate. The ribs' exemplary crustiness and wood-smokiness and high-class meatiness all came in for discussion -- but it was the succinct commentary of obsessed eaters with better things to do. "You can make a great rib sandwich with these," I volunteered, stripping off beautifully charred strips of tender pork and chewy crust-ribbons, then pillowing them inside Mrs. Baird's finest, together with rings of sweet raw onion and a daub of the Williams' addictive sauce. "I don't have time," retorted one of my tablemates, casting aside a naked rib bone and executing a boarding-house reach for the sliced links.

That is the way of a Williams Smokehouse pig-out: epic carnivorous gnawing interrupted by brief, blissed-out encomiums, followed immediately by more carnivorous gnawing and what-the-hell finger-licking as the insidious, red-peppery tang of the sauce sets in. The Williams' is a barbecue sauce that even a sugar-cynic can love, its slight sweetness more than offset by its vinegar-and-chile gumption. It is made for those glorious ribs, and for the crumbly, savory slices of beef sausage that pack a belated red-pepper burn.

In the same fashion, Mrs. Baird's soft and innocent white bread is made to envelop those irrepressible sliced links. No fancy-schmancy bread could possibly taste so true to our tribal textural memory. Swabbed with sauce, spruced up with a crucial crunch of raw onion, this is a do-it-yourself link sandwich for the ages.

The Williamses produce a textbook brisket, too, and it is very good: tender, rosy-rimmed, quietly smoky around the edges. Anywhere else it would be a star attraction. But here, in such Nobel Prize-caliber company, the brisket is only an also-ran. The way I see it, it just gets in the way of my rib and link consumption.

Not to mention my bean and potato salad and cobbler consumption. For that is one of the beauties of the Williams Smokehouse: there are side dishes that a discriminating soul actually might want to eat. Simple pinto beans with a muted, chile-powder bite, for one, a suitable echo for the peppery barbecue sauce. And respectable potato salad with pickly-sweet undertones. "Actual waxy potato slices!" murmured one of my companions, the way one might announce the sighting of an Attwater's prairie chicken.

The cole slaw, however, did not meet with the approval of this self-described "Cole Slaw Queen." "Tastes like Kroger's," she grumbled. In other words: too minced, too sweet, too lacking in general cabbage character. Does anybody besides the In-and-Out House in Galveston do this stuff right anymore?

That's about it for complaints. One of my companions opined that a cold beer might be nice, but the Williams Smokehouse is a family sort of place, where iced tea (regular or sweetened) rules, and neighborhood kids duck in for an ice cream or a soda. The footbridge outside happens to have a railing that is an ideal perch for young snackers.

Williams the elder greets his guests with earnest solicitude. Mrs. Hattie Williams dispenses stately, caring service. Handmade signs proclaim the family's seriousness of purpose: one asks customers to call Willie B. if they notice anything wrong; another illustrates a sandwich special with a colored line drawing. There's even a suggestion box. I keep meaning to advise that they lose the white-bread oldies station that burbles over the sound system, but my rib stupor inevitably triumphs over my aversion to Elton John. Aside from a better soundtrack, about the only thing missing from this oasis of civility and smoked meat is a couple of picnic tables under the pine trees, which would make the place just about perfect.

But it seems ungrateful to quibble in the face of such awesome grub. What does it matter that there's a rigid, boughten crust on the otherwise decent pecan pie? Not much in the face of stirring peach cobbler housed in a heroic styrofoam tumbler, warm and cinnamony and blessed with a dichotomy of dough. There's the browned, crisped pastry kind, and the sticky-soft dumpling kind; the effect is that of an over-the-top bread pudding with pie overtones. The first bite hooks the unsuspecting eater like a trout. "This is drive-across-town-to-get-it-cobbler," announced the Cole Slaw Queen.

But then, the Williams Smokehouse is a drive-across-town-to-get-it kind of place. One departs this hallowed, manicured, pine-shaded piece of ground feeling happier with life and convinced of Houstonians' favored lot in it. Which is as it should be when you have eaten the city's best barbecue at one of the best restaurants in town.

Williams Smokehouse, 5903 Wheatley, 680-8409.

Williams Smokehouse:
mixed rib and link dinner, $5.95;
slab of ribs, $12;
peach cobbler, $2.50 and $1.25.

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