For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2012 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Just yesterday, Anthony Bourdain told us all about how he'd become a recent convert to Texas barbecue while eating with barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn in Central Texas. "I'd previously taken sort of a dim view of Texas barbecue," the chef said, "but Franklin and J. Mueller showed me how good it really was. I had a religious experience there."
Now, Franklin Barbecue and J. Mueller BBQ are both a bit of a drive from Houston. And while both are arguably some of the absolute, all-time best barbecue you can get in Texas, what we have in our own backyard isn't too shabby.
Note: Many entries are excerpted from previous Best of Houston® entries, as many previous award winners have maintained the same standards of quality that garnered them awards in the first place. Go 'cue.
True, most people (including Tony Vallone himself) go to Blake's for the burgers (and the catfish, and the smoked turkeys at Thanksgiving, and the veggie burgers). But the barbecue -- especially the tender ribs -- shouldn't be dismissed entirely, unless you (like Bourdain) aren't a fan of sauced meat. The sauce at Blake's is sweet and there's a lot of it, but it's a nostalgic kind of sweet that may remind you of the barbecue sauce your mom made for your dad's brisket, with plenty of ketchup and brown sugar. Save room for dessert, because you'll want a slice of one of Blake's homemade cakes or a milkshake made with none other than Hank's ice cream.
On Saturday afternoon, Burns Bar BQ is party central in Acres Homes. The crowds line up when the place opens, and they never let up until the ribs are gone. Burns Bar BQ serves their ribs well done under a sweet and subtle glaze of sauce and smoke. Burns' brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth; it's as soft and wet as pot roast. If you judge it by the standards of white barbecue, then you won't get it. Beef that isn't falling apart simply isn't done enough according to the black East Texas aesthetic. Carolina barbecue is whole-hog, slow-smoked to stringy mush; the black East Texas style does the same thing with beef, which was always cheaper and more plentiful in Texas. Put some of Burns's falling-apart brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions, and think of it as Texas's answer to a Carolina pulled-pork sandwich. Suddenly, you'll understand. Its new location on 7117 N. Shepherd isn't as good as the original (see: Thelma's, for the same story), but it's still a Houston institution.
Like both Thelma's and Burns before it, Triple J's is now on its second location at 6715 Homestead Road, just north of Kashmere Gardens and right outside the Loop. Triple J's isn't just popular for its East Texas-style barbecue, though, as good as it is. This joint also serves some pretty fine links of spicy Cajun boudin and smoked turkey. Around Thanksgiving time, orders for that juicy turkey -- which Triple J's will also deep-fry for you -- keep the joint busy around the clock.
The Brisket House refutes the notion that a good barbecue place can't also have good sides; the smoked chicken, ribs and brisket here are every bit as wonderful as its baked potato salad and coleslaw. Try them all on a three-meat plate for an inexpensive but very filling lunch. The little strip mall 'cue joint also refutes the notion -- just discussed above -- that good barbecue can't be had at a place with a gas-powered smoker. There's always an exception to the rule, and The Brisket House is it. Belly up to its best plate, The Brisket House Special, and you'll get a pound of its smoked meat (your choice) on a piece of butcher paper with a whole pickle, chunk of cheese and an onion.
Yes, it's a chain. Yes, it also sells gasoline. Yes, it looks a bit like a Buc-ee's. But you'd be remiss in passing off Rudy's as just another lame chain restaurant. The barbecue here is top-notch stuff, and the fact that there's almost always a line at all of the Houston-area locations attests to this fact. It's Central Texas-style stuff, which means the sauce is served on the side and doesn't detract from the surprisingly moist brisket and tender ribs. You can even purchase some of the wood that Rudy's uses in its brick smokers to use yourself at home. Even better, Rudy's is a reliable pit stop for road trips as well as the type of cute, Texana-flooded restaurant that's perfect for out-of-state visitors who are getting their first introduction to Lone Star-style 'cue.
Veteran barbecue expert Robb Walsh tells you all you need to know about Lenox: "The ribs at Lenox Bar-B-Q on Harrisburg Street are very good, and the stubby pork links, which are custom-made in Yoakum, are a nice variation on the meat-market sausage theme," he wrote back in 2000. "The little restaurant, once known as the Lenox Cafe, was originally located a block away at the corner of Harrisburg and Lenox. It was here that barbecue first met modern technology." That modern technology was the Oyler rotisserie, patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. This rotisserie-meets-steel-pit is heated only with wood in a far-away firebox, and is so good at its job that's it's now used at many of the best barbecue joints across the state.
The red oak in the smokers gives the barbecue at CorkScrew BBQ a sweet, mild flavor that's drawing people from all over the city to this tiny shack in Spring. Although it's located just off a busy road south of The Woodlands, CorkScrew BBQ is a legit roadside 'cue stand: There's no indoor seating, just a few scattered picnic tables, and the massive pit is on full display with a scent that permeates your clothes and hair for hours. Try the moist brisket, the equally moist turkey or the whole roasted chicken to see what CorkScrew can really do.
Originally known as Shepherd Drive Barbecue, this is the restaurant where the legendary John Davis once presided as owner and pit boss. When John Davis died in 1983, the current owner, Jerry Pizzitola, bought the place from the Davis family so he could preserve it. The old-fashioned pit burns hickory, just like it did in John Davis's day. The sausage comes from a Czech sausage maker in the Hill Country; the barbecue sauce is thin and spicy; and the ribs and brisket are among the best in the city. And while the sides are plain, the desserts -- which are made by Jerry's mom and include banana pudding and coconut pineapple cake -- are excellent. The dining room sports one of the city's wackiest collections of bric-a-brac, much of it related to fishing.
Back when the Houston Chowhounds were still doing BBQ Smackdowns every year, Virgie's consistently received high marks for its rich, smoky flavor and tender texture, most evident in its popular pork ribs. But according to pitmaster Adrian Handsborough, it's the brisket that is far more popular at the restaurant. He sells more than 100 pounds of it each day, far more than his pork ribs. Both are excellent options, however, especially when topped with Handsborough's signature spicy-sweet barbecue sauce. And the nearly 8-year-old restaurant makes its own sides, too, ranging from an excellent, picnic-ready potato salad to homestyle green beans.
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The line at Gatlin's never gets any shorter, but the city's barbecue fans keep coming. Could this one day be Houston's answer to Franklin's, outside of Austin? Perhaps, but for now it's our little secret. And the secret lies in Greg Gatlin's ribs, cooked low and slow over pecan wood, his fall-apart-good brisket with a thick smoke ring, his liver-laced dirty rice and his mother's homemade desserts -- not to mention the smiles of the people who hand it to you over the counter of the small shack as you receive your bounty of barbecue after a long wait. At that moment, you'll feel victorious.