Smoked Meats and a Charming Brood Welcome You to Brooks Family BBQ
Barbecued salmon on a bed of field greens and strawberries is a unique option at an otherwise beef-heavy restaurant. Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Brooks Family BBQ: A Closer Look."
'Excuse me, ma'am," came the shout from across the room directed my way. "We don't allow that kind of language here."
Don't ever utter the word "vegetarian" inside the walls of Brooks Family BBQ.
I'd just been called out at a barbecue restaurant for talking about vegetables. My shame was palpable. I don't remember how the forbidden word came up in conversation or why, but one bite of my chopped brisket sandwich on thick, buttered Texas toast had me forgetting those naughty green things that grow in the ground even exist.
The chopped brisket isn't the juiciest I've ever had, but the aroma of smoke and the heat from the signature Big & Bold Rub imbues every bite with a flavor you have to taste for yourself to fully understand. It's clear the lean meat has been cooked slowly while the smoke from gently burning wood infuses the huge slabs of ruddy beef and racks of ribs. Each mouthful (or forkful, because there's no way that much chopped brisket is ever going to stay between two slices of bread when you pick it up) is pure, rich beef and smoke with just a hint of spice from the Brooks Family rub.
Still, the meat is juicy enough. There's very little fat on it, which I tend to appreciate, and the fat that is there is ideally rendered. There's nothing chewy or superfluous. Just meat, glorious meat, some of it burned ever so slightly at the ends, which takes on a deeper flavor and a crunchy texture. Add the special Brooks Family Big & Bold BBQ sauce, and my search for the ideal brisket sandwich in Houston is over. And at only $6.95 each, I can see myself eating a lot of them.
Of course, none of this would surprise owner Marlon Brooks, whose father, Harlon, first established Harlon's Bar-B-Que in 1977 in Houston with his high school sweetheart, Alfreddie. This led to a barbecue empire of more than 24 restaurants across Texas and the surrounding states. Marlon explained that the business went through some tough times in the past several years, eventually going bankrupt. There are no longer any Harlon's Bar-B-Que restaurants or catering businesses.
Barbecue is in the Brooks family's blood, though. After Harlon's Bar-B-Que closed up shop, it wasn't long before Marlon got the urge to open another place, this one with a different name and some new recipes. Last December, just two days after Christmas, Marlon and his wife, Ros (along with help from the entire Brooks brood, including Harlon), opened Brooks Family BBQ on Scott Street using the knowledge that he and his family had gained over years in the business. It's a fledgling restaurant, still relying heavily on catering but gaining popularity among the students at the University of Houston right across the street, and even a few folks who make the trek from downtown for a quick lunch.
Once business picks up and the restaurant becomes more self-sufficient, Marlon says, he's hoping to bring back the wholesale shop that once put the Brooks name in grocery stores all over the city. But he knows that will take time, and he's willing to wait.
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Brooks Family BBQ: A Closer Look."
The motto of Brooks Family BBQ is "family first, barbecue second," and when you walk in the door, this mantra comes to life. Everyone working there is family. Marlon is often in the kitchen with a sibling, and any number of other family members work the counter or greet guests.
On one occasion, what seemed to be Marlon's entire immediate family was seated in the dining area, his sons wearing their school shirts and throwing a tennis ball back and forth while talking about middle-school dating. Uncle Clifford, who had been standing behind the counter taking orders, pulled a despondent younger boy aside.
"We've all been broken up with by girls," he explained gently. "Even the best of us."
I wanted to walk across the restaurant and give the kid some barbecue — as if he hadn't had it dozens of times before — in a gesture of compassion. The family is so tight knit, you can't help longing to be more than an outsider looking in, munching on sausage and ribs.
It's easy to become absorbed in the goings-on of the Brooks family while eating at Brooks Family BBQ because the few times that I was there, I was virtually alone in the dining area. It's a cheery enough space that seems to have been constructed on a shoestring budget in an old corner store. The walls are a warm butter-yellow, and reclaimed wood paneling has been affixed to the lower half for a more rustic feel. The ceiling is lined in corrugated tin, which helps diffuse the outside light coming in through several large windows and a glass door.
From inside, you could be sitting in an old-fashioned Southern barbecue joint, save for the view of UH out the front windows and the strong emphasis on brisket, as opposed to burnt ends or pulled pork. The barbecue at Brooks is steadfastly Texan. In fact, when I asked whether they ever prepare pulled pork (something I crave from my days living in Missouri), Uncle Clifford laughed at me.
"You're in Texas, girl!" he replied. "Here, have some ribs."
Like the brisket, the ribs are beautifully lean, and the meat pulls cleanly off the bone. The beef is tender and juicy and ever-so sweet from a thick barbecue-sauce glaze that also makes an appearance on the barbecued salmon, without a doubt my favorite item on the short menu.
Most barbecue joints offer meat, meat and more meat, so I was surprised to find fish — moist, flaky salmon, no less — served on a bed of field greens at Brooks Family BBQ. The BBQ salmon salad is made to order, and it takes about ten minutes to prepare, a point I make only because the rest of the meat is already smoked and just needs to be sliced and served. Marlon cooks the salmon on the grill, giving it a smoky sear on the bottom, all the while glazing it with a subtly sweet and spicy marinade. The edges of the fish get almost caramelized from the heat of the grill and the glaze, and as I devoured my salad, I saved them for last, a final sweet bite of smoky salmon to pair with the fresh strawberries and tangy, fruity vinaigrette on the greens.
Lest a salmon salad sound a little too healthy for a barbecue restaurant, though, keep in mind it's served with two giant slices of buttered and toasted jalapeño cheese bread, and you can augment your order with one of Marlon's five side dishes — collard greens, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans or spicy ranchero beans. I generally find barbecue-plate side dishes to be superfluous, something I order purely because they're included in the price. I'd eat a whole pint of Brooks Family BBQ's bitter collard greens, though, brightened with a hint of citrus and spice. The ranchero beans are equally alluring, stewed with red, green and orange bell peppers as well as jalapeños and bacon for some of the most flavorful, complex pinto beans I've ever encountered.
It's this attention to detail in a cuisine that's been done and done again in Houston that makes Brooks Family BBQ stand out to me. This city is brimming with excellent smoked meat, but this modest little restaurant sets itself apart with special efforts and personal touches. It's the addition of cranberries to the coleslaw, the tricolored peppers in the beans, the extra bit of smokiness that infuses every inch of meat. And it's the warm welcome I get every time I walk in the door that keeps me coming back.
Brooks Family BBQ isn't the type of place you have to return to again and again to get a feel for the menu. There aren't chef's specials or seasonal dishes. Sometimes they don't even have everything on the short list of available items because they've run out. But dining there is like dining at your grandparents' house. Whatever they have is yours, if you want it.
"Just help yourself," Marlon said to me as I glanced into the kitchen during one meal, searching for someone to ask for water. "Whatever you need. There's water on the counter. If you want tea, have some tea. You need another bottle of barbecue sauce? Just grab it."
I gathered my drink and more homemade sauce and returned to my table and my huge plate of brisket, idly chatting with Marlon and Clifford between bites as the thick, tangy sauce ran down my chin. Rather, they chatted with me, interjecting humorous comments into the conversation between my dining companion and me.
Normally I want to be left alone while I'm eating, but not here, where the boisterous Brooks family is part of the restaurant's charm. "Family first, barbecue second," they repeat while cooking, as if infusing the meat with the message. Then they laugh at you and tell you to stop talking about veggies and eat your darn ribs. I've only been here a few times, but already I feel like an old friend welcomed into the fold with simple, solid smoked meat and a side of chitchat.
One trip to the humble restaurant with barbecue worth bragging about, and I daresay you'll feel like family, too.
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Brooks Family BBQ: A Closer Look."
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