Rib tips and fries was one of the lunch specials at Bobbie Que's Rib Shack on Scott Street the day I stopped by. I love the crispy, crunchy texture the little bits of rib meat trimmings get while they are smoking, so I ordered some. While I watched, the restaurant's owner and head chef, Bobbie Patterson, put my rib tips in a microwave oven — so much for the crunchy texture.
The rib tips I got were huge — Patterson uses four-pound rib racks. Some barbecue joints that pride themselves on ribs, like Pizzitola's, use the smaller three-and-a-half-pound ribs; they are a lot tenderer and a lot more expensive. Four-pound ribs require some sort of steaming, braising or foil-wrapping in addition to the smoking to render them edible.
The big chunks of fatty pork rib tips had a rubbery texture, thanks to the microwave. They were covered in one of the owner's signature "finishing sauces." There was a vague smokiness about the flavor of the meat, but there was something weird about it.
Patterson bottles several flavors of barbecue sauce and sells them to retail outlets across the country. He features his sauces at the restaurant. "Which sauce did you put on these ribs?" I asked him.
"The smoky flavor," he replied.
"Does it have liquid smoke in it?" I asked.
"Just a little," he said.
Maybe there is nothing wrong with liquid smoke. The fajitas at some popular Tex-Mex joints in Houston are drenched in the stuff. And I have been fooled into thinking that salsa made with liquid smoke contained smoked tomatoes.
But as I sat there eating microwaved rib tips coated with liquid smoke-spiked barbecue sauce, I contemplated how the Texas barbecue tradition is disappearing and being replaced by a generic national conception of barbecue. Barbecue smokers are rare and expensive, and the old-fashioned style of cooking with wood smoke is difficult. Painting some barbecue sauce spiked with liquid smoke on grilled or baked meat is easy.
I decided to stop by Bobbie Que's Rib Shack that day because I couldn't find a parking space at Thelma's a few blocks down Scott Street. As I drove by the corner of Scott and Southmore where Thelma's is located, I rolled down my car window and smelled the smoke of the oak wood from her old-fashioned brick pit.
Bobbie Que's Rib Shack has only been open a couple of months, and the parking lot was empty. There wasn't any smoky aroma when I walked in the restaurant. A Southern Pride stainless-steel barbecue oven sits in the front window. A little handwritten sign on the machine read, "Push blue button." That's a modern barbecue recipe for you.
Ten years ago, when I started this job, I wrote a feature called "The Art of Smoke" bemoaning the disappearance of old-fashioned barbecue pits in Texas. Push-button, gas-fired, stainless-steel barbecue ovens like those made by Southern Pride don't impart much smoke flavor to the meat. They don't take any skill on the part of the pit boss, either. In the last ten years, Houston has lost many of the pits I wrote about in that story, including the one at Green's on Almeda and the one at Drexler's on Dowling. In ten years, the Southern Pride style of virtual barbecue has all but replaced the real thing.
Bobbie Patterson moved to Texas from Akron, Ohio, four years ago. He is an excellent chef. In fact, he taught cooking at a vocational school in Ohio. His barbecue-sauce line has won awards at food shows and barbecue conventions and sells very well online. Patterson told me that he opened the restaurant on Scott as a sideline to the sauce business.
The creamy potato salad, homemade cole slaw, mac and cheese and fluffy cornbread at Bobbie Que's are all outstanding. Patterson walked around the dining room asking customers how they were doing, and I asked him about his hamburger. He said the meat was ground on the premises and the patties were hand-formed. Then he pointed to a customer eating fried catfish. "That's probably the best thing to eat on the whole menu," he said.
So I came back at lunchtime to sample the other items. Sadly, the hamburger was awful. It doesn't matter who formed the patty; the burger meat was squashed into a thin sheet that protruded beyond the bun by an inch in all directions. The juiceless, gray, overcooked meat was topped only by some grilled onions. The bun had no spreads.
I took the burger back and asked what had happened to the advertised lettuce and tomato and to request mustard and mayo. The counter person had the lettuce and tomato added to the bun and told me I would find the spreads in little packages at the condiment station. At seven dollars, this is not a burger worth ordering.
The catfish was as advertised. Dipped in cornmeal and fried so the outside was crispy and the inside was moist, it was indeed the best thing I ate at Bobbie Que's. I highly recommend it.
The slogan written across the top of Bobbie Que's menu reads, "Get the taste of real Texas Bar-B-Q." If Bobbie Patterson wants to call Southern Pride-cooked meat with liquid smoke-inflected sauce "real Texas barbecue," that's his privilege. I can't fault him for his Ohio style of barbecue. He didn't grow up with Texas barbecue traditions, and there is no reason why he should adopt them now. People who visit his restaurant seem to like the food. And he is hardly the only one cooking with a Southern Pride. The Dickey's Barbecue Pit chain is headquartered in Texas, and it is opening locations all over the country with Southern Pride units. This kind of stainless-steel-oven, virtual barbecue is now the norm in Texas.
Although I wrote the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook and count myself among the barbecue purists, I grew up in Pittsburgh. My mother used to make what she called "barbecue sandwiches" by pouring Kraft barbecue sauce over chipped ham and simmering it in a pan, then spooning the mixture onto hamburger buns. If you are thinking, "That's not barbecue," you are wrong. Nobody owns the word "barbecue," and nobody gets to dictate its definition.
Those of us who champion Texas barbecue, Carolina barbecue and Kansas City barbecue have become the cranky elitists in the multibillion-dollar American barbecue business. Southern Pride is the pit of choice in barbecue restaurants now. And according to most of the barbecue books published for backyard barbecuers, hamburgers and hot dogs, fish dishes and even veggies are barbecue too. It doesn't matter if you agree or not — the vast majority of Americans swear by what they read in Steven Raichlen's Barbecue Bible.
I brought a full rack of Bobbie Que's Saint Louis-style ribs and a pound of his jalapeño sausage home and served them for dinner. My friend and fellow food writer Pableaux Johnson stopped by to eat with us that night. I asked him what he thought of the ribs without mentioning where they came from.
"There's no smoky flavor. They are falling-off-the-bone tender, but they taste like they were baked," he said as he gnawed on a big rib.
I bought a bottle of Bobbie Que's Jalapeño barbecue sauce too. It's really wonderful stuff. I plan to use it on a three-and-a-half-pound rack of pecan-smoked barbecue ribs some time in the near future.
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