Mothballs and wood smoke are a strange combination of aromas. That's what I smell when I sit down at Reid's Barbecue restaurant down in Sunnyside. I think the mothball smell is coming from the floor-length red curtains on the window a few feet from my table. The long curtains are pulled tight so the place stays dark and cool.
The mothball smell reminds me of the cedar chest where my mother kept her cheerleader sweater, my dad's military uniforms and old photos and letters. The conjured memory seems oddly appropriate to this place. Reid's Barbecue feels like it's been tucked away in mothballs for about a third of a century.
The wood parquet pattern on the linoleum floors is wearing off. The menu hanging on the wall has been slow-smoked to a light brown. Inside the old wall clock above the bar, the Budweiser Clydesdales have been frozen midstride since Reid's opened for business in 1968. In the middle of the bar sits a plastic plant in the kind of squat ceramic planter I remember from my childhood.
My lunch date is running late, so I'm sitting by myself at the table. There's another handwritten copy of the menu, photocopied and displayed in two sheets inside a Coors Light Plexiglas table display. But the illustrated Coors bottle obscures half of the writing. So I slide the two sheets of paper out and lay them on the table where I can read them.
When the swinging door to the kitchen opens, Eddie Reid appears in a plume of meat-scented wood smoke. She's an older, small black woman with metal-framed glasses. Reid grew up in the Third Ward. She opened the place with her husband, James Reid, who passed away nine years ago. Eddie runs the place now, along with her son James, who learned to smoke meat from his father and has worked at the restaurant since the beginning.
The only other customers in the place are nearly through eating. Eddie Reid walks over to where I'm sitting, looks at the sheets of menu on the table and frowns.
"Did you take those out of there?" she asks.
"Yes...just to read them," I reply. Then I add meekly, "I'll put them back."
"I wish you would," she says.
Although my friend isn't here yet, I would rather go ahead and order for her than risk the wrath of the lady now standing poised with pen over order pad, waiting for me to make up my mind.
"An order of ribs, a sliced beef sandwich, a pint of potato salad, a pint of beans, pickles and onions, two Cokes and pie if you have any," I say as I restore the menu to its proper place in the Coors Light display.
"I didn't bake any pies today," Eddie says, writing it all down and shuffling off. A few other customers come in and stand at the bar to order food to go.
Our barbecue arrives shortly after my lunchmate sits down. But the food doesn't come on plates -- it's all tightly wrapped in brown paper.
"Do you think she's trying to tell us something?" my friend whispers. We unwrap the food and spread it out on the table, and Eddie returns with some napkins.
"You're going to eat it here?" she says with surprise.
"Yes, ma'am," I answer.
"You should have told me; I would have served it to you," she says, seeming genuinely sorry.
The brisket and ribs are smoked in the classic East Texas African-American style, so that the meats are very moist and tender with a powerful smoky aroma. And in keeping with the style, everything is drenched in a barbecue sauce that's a tad sweet for Anglo palates such as ours.
The mashed potato salad is homemade and seasoned with a little pickle juice. The pinto beans are plain. The "sandwich" is actually a generous pile of falling-apart brisket and a couple of slices of white bread. Pickles and onions are 50 cents extra. You assemble your own sandwiches. That way they don't get all soggy.
"Is that red oak you have stacked up out back?" I ask Eddie Reid. She shoots me a dismissive glance.
"There's no red oak back there. We cook with white oak and hickory," she says.
The brisket is delicious, though it's not served in neat slices. Barbecue cook-off judges look for deep smoke rings and uniform slices in brisket cooking contests. And that's the culinary aesthetic taught in barbecue seminars and cook-off judging classes -- which is one reason so few blacks participate in barbecue cook-offs.
"That's the difference between white and black barbecue," says Houston artist and Fifth Ward barbecue fan Bert Long. "Blacks cook everything to death." At Goode Co., every piece of meat is served in a perfect slice, he says. At black barbecue joints, they don't mind serving you a messy pile of tender meat.
My lunchmate has devoured four ribs with uncharacteristic abandon. I reach over and grab a couple "tender bones" before she eats them all.
"Sorry if I got carried away," she says. "These are really good."
I have to agree. The meat is so tender it falls easily away from the bone. The ribs have been spiced with a dry rub, which gives them a nice salt and red pepper tang. On the outside, the meat has a crunchy black crust. They are truly world-class ribs, except for the sauce.
"What do you think of the barbecue sauce?" I ask my lunchmate.
"I think it makes an excellent face cream," she says with an orange smile.
On my next visit, I'm the only customer sitting at a table. I order a link sandwich and a Coke, and an order of ribs to go. I also risk Eddie's wrath by asking if I can get the ribs with the barbecue sauce on the side. To my surprise, Eddie has no problem with the request.
Seven or eight people come and pick up sacks of barbecue, but no one else sits down. I wonder why. Though the decorations are dated and the floor is worn, the restaurant is spotlessly clean. Almost too clean, I muse. I wonder if Eddie Reid is one of those obsessive neat-and-tidy types who puts plastic covers on the sofa.
She brings me the link sandwich, which consists of ten or so little sections of East Texas links doused in barbecue sauce with three pieces of bread on the side. But this time I discover that deep down under that put-that-menu-back-where-you-found-it exterior, Eddie Reid has a heart full of pent-up hospitality she's dying to share. Not only does she bring me a glass of ice for my Coke, she brings me an unsolicited glass of ice water.
East Texas links are made of finely ground beef, lots of fat and plenty of cayenne. They aren't like the coarse-ground German- or Czech-style sausages found in Central Texas. Among Anglos, they're an acquired taste. Although they're stuffed in edible natural casings, they tend to ooze out of the skins. Many people squeeze the sausage meat out onto a piece of bread and leave the casings uneaten. This is the essence of a link sandwich.
Reid's links are very peppery and well smoked. Already I've used up two pieces of white bread making fold-over sandwiches with link meat, sauce, pickles and onions, and I'm down to my last slice. That's when it happens.
Eddie Reid walks over to my table and asks, "Would you like another slice of bread?" I take advantage of her offer. And now, between the sauce on the side and all that free bread and water, I'm full of warm and fuzzy feelings.
She hands me the ribs wrapped to go, and I give one a try. In my opinion, James Reid's spectacular ribs are even better without sauce. The crust is crunchier and the flavor of the smoke is unmasked. Later that day, I bring the ribs to the office and hand them over to two colleagues who haven't had lunch. Both rave about them. One likes them better with the sauce, and one prefers them without.
I work up the courage to walk up front and ask Reid if I can take a look at the barbecue pit. Having checked it out already from the back of the building, I know it's a brick pit with the classic old Third Ward design -- the firebox opens to the outside, and the meat-smoking chamber opens on the inside. But I would love to get a closer look.
"Nobody goes behind the counter," Reid says, scowling.
"Just a peek?" I plead.
"Are you some kind of inspector?" Reid asks.
"No," I say.
"Then why do you want to inspect my pit?"
Finally, I give up and leave.
I highly recommend that you go visit Eddie Reid and her awesome barbecue time capsule. Don't worry: She barks, but she doesn't bite.
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