Tunnel Explorer: Charlie's Old Fashioned BBQ

Disarmingly, surprisingly good. Also, a lie.
Disarmingly, surprisingly good. Also, a lie.

I had to go to Charlie's Old Fashioned BBQ (713-750-0562) three times before I made up my mind about it. For a while, I was half-convinced I had stumbled on some unexpected gem of Houston barbecue, hidden in the bowels of the First City Tower. I don't know if it was wishful thinking or the generous opinion of a growling stomach that clouded my judgment, but Charlie's, I'm sorry to say, is exactly what you're assuming it is.

It's easy to walk right on past Charlie's. It doesn't have much in the way of signage, and is tucked into the corner of a turn in a hallway leading from one stale-aired stretch of the tunnels to another. It looks like it must be a newsstand. I'm not really sure what lured me in to begin with, aside from a shrugging sort of "what the hell" curiosity.

That first visit, late in the day and with most other options closed or closing, I ordered a sausage and chopped brisket sandwich and a basket of fries. I also noted a wide and interesting array of side items, running from deeply emerald-hued greens and pale fried okra to creamy hummus and herb-stingy tabouleh. The man behind the counter grabbed a foil-wrapped brisket from the cabinet behind him and began chopping meat for my sandwich. A few slices of spicy sausage were piled on top and chased by a hit of barbecue sauce that made its way in between his question "sauce?" and my response "on the side." He apologized, but did nothing to correct the issue.

That sandwich was surprisingly, disarmingly good. It was only subtly smoky, but the meat had a deeply beefy character, with a good mix of fat and lean, and just a little bit of bark. The sausage wasn't bad, either. It had a nice snap and decent spicing. I didn't really mind the sauce, though it was ignorable, serving mostly to make me wonder what the meat would have tasted like naked. Excited and hopeful, I vowed to return.

My next visit to Charlie's didn't go so well. In the name of a full evaluation, I ordered a plate of ribs and sausage, sided by those vibrant greens and some rice and beans that reminded me of Puerto Rican arroz con gandules. The greens were delicious.

Silk-textured and subtly spiced, the greens featured finely chopped spinach and sweated onions. They were at once bright and subtly earthy, playing off both the sweet and savory aspects of spinach to perfect effect. I could have eaten several bowlfuls and been perfectly happy.

The ribs were a sad and gristly affair, both dried out and disconcertingly damp, still bearing the remnants of whatever mixture they'd been braised in. Yes, braised. They also had an earthy funk about them, recalling dry-aged meat and the softened-yet-lingering pungency of properly prepared chitlins. It was disconcerting though, I'll admit, not wholly unpleasant. Had the meat been properly smoked, tender and redolent of pecan or post-oak, that funk might have been an interesting and enjoyable subtlety. As it was, it was mostly just odd. The sausage was passable, as before, and the beans and rice mushy and bland.

So, two visits in and a decidedly mixed bag. I decided to give Charlie's one more go. "Maybe they make good brisket, but fail on the ribs," I thought. Third time through, I went back to the chopped beef sandwich. To my dismay, the counter man scooped my portion from a steam-table insert of pre-hacked meat and piled it on my bun along with a few bits of sausage. He heeded my request for sauce on the side. I was wise enough to sub in greens (still delicious) instead of the pre-fab fries.

The meat was dried out and decidedly lacking in flavor. I was heartbroken. I'm still not sure if my first impression was overly weighted by my hunger. There is, of course, the fact that my first sandwich was chopped to order from a whole brisket, rather than languishing on a steam table. Perhaps the key is to show up either well before or just after the lunch rush, and hope you get lucky. Either way, Charlie's is at best a (slight) hit or (huge) miss proposition. Unless, of course, you really like spinach.



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