Pork Ribs Taste Like Candy at Midway BBQ
The little pork rib from Midway BBQ in Old Katy was falling-apart tender. I am guessing the pit boss painted the rack with a sweet barbecue sauce when it was almost done cooking, because there was a brown, caramelized crust on the outside of the meat and a distinct sweetness along the darkened edges.
"Try some of these ribs; they taste like candy," I told the across-the-street neighbor I'd invited to come over to grab some meat to go. I got to know my neighbors better during Ike-apalooza. In fact, it was my next-door neighbor who convinced me I needed to try Midway BBQ. He had stumbled across it while looking for gas on Highway 90 in Katy, and he highly recommended the place.
Midway was also recommended by Jay Francis in the Houston Press blog Eating...Our Words not long ago. Francis said that the old meat market was serving some of the best barbecue in the Houston area. It sounded like Midway could be the next big thing in Q. So I decided to drive to Katy to check out the smoked meat for myself. Besides, I needed gas.
There was an Exxon, a Chevron and a Valero tightly clustered on Highway 90 just north of I-10. All three had gas. Valero was the cheapest at $3.54 a gallon.
Just past the gas station, I saw Midway Food Market in a strip center. Midway is an old grocery store with a big butcher's counter. Midway Deer Processing is around back. I parked the car and lingered outside to check out the barbecue pit, which is right beside the barbecue entrance. It was a beat-up old cylindrical steel pit with an offset firebox housed in a screened porch. Pit boss Joaquin Morales told me he burned nothing but pecan.
Pecan is an excellent barbecue wood. It is said to impart a sweet flavor to smoked meat. The tree comes from the same genus as hickory, but pecan is a little softer than other woods of the hickory family, and therefore it burns sooty. Barbecue cooked with pecan has a tendency to turn dark black. For this reason, old-time barbecue men often mixed pecan with cleaner-burning oak. But if you don't mind the dark color, pecan-smoked meat tastes great.
When you walk in the front door, you are right in front of the window where you order. The menu is a sign on the wall. There are a couple of tables and some booths along one wall of the tiny restaurant space, but there were always more people standing in line waiting for barbecue than sitting down eating when I visited.
When it was my turn at the window, I ordered the "Original Meal Deal," a menu item that includes a pound of brisket, a rack of pork spare ribs, two links of Midway sausage, potato salad, beans and barbecue sauce for $36.95 ($40 even with tax).
When they started to slice my meat, I craned my neck to see that Joaquin stored his partially sliced cuts in an 18-quart turkey roaster oven without any wrapping. His assistant pulled the flat end of a brisket out of the oven. It had a thick crust of seasoning on the outside, but it looked a little dry.
"Do you have any brisket from the fatty end?" I asked before he got started. He swapped pieces of brisket and sliced me some extra thin from the deckle end of the brisket. I stole a little chunk while he was weighing it. The outside of the meat was black as tar, and the peppery crust was still a little crunchy. It didn't look moist, but the texture of the paper-thin slice proved soft and buttery, with a sweet, smoky flavor.
The housemade sausage was boldly spiced and loosely ground, like Hill Country meat market sausage. The half-pound links were sliced on the diagonal so the pieces were very long. The sooty pecan smoke made the outer skin look deceptively black, as if it were burnt, but it tasted excellent. When the counterman started slicing my rack of ribs, I could barely believe my eyes. The perfect little rack looked like it weighed about three pounds.
"Wow, look at that tiny rack of ribs," I said admiringly to the old codger, named Jeff, who was working behind the counter.
"We only use 'three-and-a-half and downs' here," he told me.
The best spareribs for barbecue are the little racks from smaller pigs that weigh three-and-a-half pounds or less. These small-size ribs have disappeared from the grocery store. They have been replaced by enormous racks weighing four and five pounds. The bigger racks never get as tender or taste as good as the little ones, which is why cookoff competitors and talented home barbecuers are always looking for a steady source for tiny pork ribs.
"Where do you buy pork spare ribs that small?" I asked Jeff.
"At the meat market next door," he said with a bit of "duh" in his tone. "We don't even sell those big five-pound racks here. The meat market has been here for over 50 years," Jeff told me. "We've only been in the barbecue business for 14 years."
On a subsequent visit, I got some smoked pork butt and some more sausage. They didn't have any smoked chickens left, or I would have tried one of those, too. The pork looked overcooked and dried out, but once again appearances were deceiving. The pork butt fell off the bone as the counterman carved it. It made an awesome sandwich with pickles and onions.
Everybody who sampled Midway's barbecue at my house was wildly enthusiastic about the meats. But nobody liked the sides, including me.
The potato salad was made of uniformly cubed-shaped and slightly watery potato chunks in sweet yellow mayo with pickle relish. Did it come out of a plastic bucket? Or was it made with frozen potatoes? The sweet beans resembled baked beans out of a can. The toothache-sweet barbecue sauce didn't have any meat drippings or meat flavor to it — it also tasted like unadulterated commercial stuff.
Maybe we are getting spoiled. Sit-down barbecue restaurants in big cities, like Goode Company or Pizzitola's, generally have very good sides. A few weeks ago, I reported on Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que, an African-American barbecue joint on T.C. Jester with wonderfully spicy beans, decent mashed potato salad and a couple of passable desserts. But authentic Central Texas-style meat market barbecue joints seldom have very good sides. Some don't serve any at all. It's just not part of their history.
The meat market barbecue tradition started when itinerant cotton pickers who weren't welcome in small-town cafes started eating smoked sausages and meats right off of the butcher paper at meat markets or outside in their parking lots. The sides were bottles of pickles and boxes of crackers from the markets' shelves. And there wasn't any barbecue sauce.
I highly recommend Midway BBQ in Katy. Tell them to cut your brisket from the fatty end and don't miss the pork. You can't go wrong with a couple of ribs or a brisket sandwich there. But if you want to make a fancy meal out of these fabulous smoked meats, I suggest you do something else for sides. This can be as simple as buying some quality potato salad and other interesting stuff at the prepared-foods case at Central Market or Whole Foods. Or you can get creative.
I visited a lot of old meat markets while I was writing Legends of Texas Barbecue, and I interviewed people about how the locals ate their smoked meats. A woman of Czech descent at Smolik's in Cuero told me her grandmother used to buy smoked sausage and smoked pork loin at the meat market and serve it at home with German dishes like sauerkraut or red cabbage. The story inspired me to try serving Texas meat market pork and sausage with sweet-and-sour red cabbage. I thought the combination was inspired, and I included the recipe in my cookbook.
Smoked pork, sausage and ribs work equally well with lots of other ethnic foods. I like them stir-fried with Chinese cabbage or as a topping on Vietnamese mi. They taste terrific with Cuban black beans and fried plantains on the side. Think of the lackluster sides at meat market barbecue joints like Midway as an opportunity to do something cool. Hell, if you can find some poi, you can have a luau.
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