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Virtual 'Cue

Smoke screen: The pulled pork sandwich may smell of smoke, but it doesn't taste like it.
Troy Fields

The neon sign above the front door of Lyndon's Pit Bar-B-Q reads, "Open Pit." But there is no fragrant smoke wafting through the restaurant. That's because the two Southern Pride gas-fired, electric-powered rotisserie smoker-ovens at Lyndon's are neither open nor pits. They are high-tech units that cook meat in a smoke-infused environment while emitting hardly any smoke into the restaurant or the environment. I suppose the sign means to imply that the meat at Lyndon's tastes like it was cooked in an open pit. But that's not true either. It tastes like what it is: virtual barbecue.

When I first walked into Lyndon's, I thought of Lyndon Johnson, and his barbecue caterer, Walter Jetton. Jetton would have been aghast at what passes for barbecue these days. In his seminal work The LBJ Barbecue Cookbook (1965) Jetton wrote: "To barbecue, you need a pit … and it definitely shouldn't be one of those backyard creations with a chimney." If you weren't willing to dig a hole in the ground, Jetton allowed that you could put the coals in a cinder-block pit with a grate across the top. Walter Jetton was a purist.

Building open pits is a lost art. But they're probably illegal where you live anyway. In an effort to clean up the smog, big cities across the country have enacted clean-air measures and ozone action plans. Inner-city barbecue restaurants now rely on industrial contraptions that approximate the barbecue pit by adding smoke to a sealed gas or electric oven.

The Southern Pride smoker-ovens at Lyndon's are huge stainless-steel units with a firewood chamber in the back and a main oven in front. The chamber is filled with three or four logs, which are ignited by means of a gas jet. The wood smoke vents into the main oven, where a gas burner keeps the temperature at the level selected. A carousel of hanging wire baskets rotates inside to keep the heat and smoke exposure even so there is no need to open the oven. As the Ferris wheel turns, the meats baste each other with dripping fat. An electronic damper traps the smoke inside the oven chamber so that very little escapes. The meat is never turned, poked, mopped or otherwise touched my human hands.

Lyndon's is located in a strip center on the Northwest Freeway near the Hollister exit. I saw the place while I was buying tropical fish supplies at a nearby aquarium store. Since the neighborhood is populated mainly by such chains as Red Lobster and International House of Pancakes, I picked Lyndon's for lunch because it was the only homegrown restaurant I could find, except for the "All Day Chinese Buffet."

Barbecue is an obsession of mine. I have written about the top barbecue joints in Texas and eaten at famous barbecue restaurants all over the South. My next cookbook is titled Legends of Texas Barbecue. In my spare time, I judge cook-offs. So just because I see Lyndon's as part of an alarming trend that seeks to substitute technology for artisanal cooking skill, that doesn't mean I can't recognize the restaurant serves the best lunch available in the neighborhood. When it first opened in 1997, Lyndon's generated a lot of mail in the Houston Chronicle. While you stand in the cafeteria-style line, you can read the entire correspondence, because all of the letters have been enlarged and hung on the restaurant's walls. A lady named Irene Herd wrote to say that Lyndon's "serves pulled pork as I remember it from Alabama."

Lyndon's pulled pork is served authentically on a hamburger bun with the sauce on the side. And the folks at Lyndon's do a really cute thing with their barbecue sauce. They partially fill empty ketchup bottles with hot barbecue sauce and put them on a heated plate, so you get warm sauce with your meal. Unfortunately they do not, as far as I can tell, pour the drippings from the carved meats into the mixing bowl, which would give the sweet, ketchup-based sauce some flavor.

But the lack of jus in the barbecue sauce isn't the problem that the negative letter on the wall addresses. The pulled pork at Lyndon's is great, Charles Wilson wrote, but "the meat was lacking in any smoky flavor."

The criticism is well founded. The pulled pork is nicely crisped (a pulled-pork sandwich is $4.50, $6.95 with two sides), but I would have to agree with Wilson -- it lacks a deep smokiness.

I also had a sliced brisket sandwich (also $4.50, $6.95 with two sides), and I found that while Lyndon's brisket smells like smoke, it doesn't taste like smoke. The problem with the barbecue produced in rotisserie smokers is that the smoke doesn't penetrate the meat very deeply. It is a simulation of Texas pit barbecue, not the real thing.  

In my hotheaded and idealistic youth, I would have simply condemned the whole concept of high-tech barbecue. But as I have grown older, I have learned many things, most of them inconvenient. In the last couple of years, for instance, I have discovered that some of my favorite barbecue joints use electric and gas-fired smoker-ovens. At Joe Cotten's, a legendary old South Texas pit in Robstown, just outside of Corpus Christi, they augment the mesquite with gas. Even the hallowed Kreuz Market in Lockhart, the No. 1 barbecue spot in Texas by most surveys, uses an electric oven with piped-in smoke to cook the sausages these days.

In truth, sausage does much better in these high-tech ovens than brisket, pork shoulder or other large cuts. Roasting a brisket with gas heat and little smoke does not yield the same flavor as cooking it with pure hot smoke. But in the case of sausage, the smoker-oven does just fine; the flavor it imparts to the surface is enough. And when you start with good Texas meat-market sausage, the results can even be called excellent. Such is the case with Kreuz Market's sausage and with Lyndon's coarse-ground, peppery pork and beef links, which are purchased from the Chappell Hill Meat Market in Chappell Hill, near Brenham. Lyndon's sausage sandwich ($4.50, $6.95 with two sides) was by far the best thing I ate there. The sausage was cooked perfectly, sliced thin on the diagonal, just the way I like it, and piled incredibly high on the bun. The sausage sandwich is enough to soften you up on technology.

The ribs at Lyndon's ($1.50 a rib, $17.95 a slab)are also above average. A rack of ribs offers enough surface area for the smoke to penetrate, giving them a nice taste. They were also moist and tender, owing partly to the fact they're held in a steam-heated unit until they're sliced. If you pulled the meat off a couple, as they do in Dallas at Sonny Bryant's, it would make an excellent rib sandwich.

In rebuttal to the Charles Wilson letter, a correspondent named Omar Misleh raved about Lyndon's. "All food is made from scratch and is absolutely delicious," Omar says, "including, among other things, the fried okra…." This brings up a strange point: The fried okra (all sides are $1.40 each) at Lyndon's is, in fact, a prebreaded frozen product, but it is quite good. The beer-battered onion rings, on the other hand, are made from scratch ($7.45 for a full order, $3.95 for a half), and they are awful. Dipped in beer and then flour, they lack any actual batter. When you bite into them, the brittle brown crust simply falls off the undercooked onions.

"We cook everything from scratch," co-owner Matt Maeker told me on the afternoon of my second visit, after I had finished lunch. You can't judge Texas barbecue joints by their side orders. The best places don't even serve sides. So I wouldn't have faulted Lyndon's much on the beans and potato salad, except that I found Matt's statement so fantastic.

"Umm, I couldn't help but notice that your beans are canned," I said.

"Well, that's true, we do buy cooked pintos in cans, but we add the bacon, peppers and seasonings." The beans were good. Not cooked from scratch, but good.

"Everything else is from scratch," he said.

"The okra is frozen," I said.

"Well, yeah, we get the okra and the cobblers frozen," Matt agreed, without seeing a contradiction in any of this. I guess "cooking from scratch" doesn't mean what it used to.

The sad fact is when Lyndon's really does cook from scratch, the food tastes worse. I mistook the potato salad and pasta salad for prepackaged products because they were so bland. But Matt convinced me they really were family recipes. The pasta salad recipe was created by Matt's father, Lyndon himself. Lyndon Maeker comes from a mechanical-engineering background. He used to work for an oil-field equipment company just down the street. Which explains a lot.

"My dad went and saw the Southern Pride smokers, and he really liked them. It's a high-tech engineer's kind of barbecue smoker," Matt says, as he shows me how the unit works. For several years Matt managed a Sonny Bryant's location in Dallas where they cooked in barbecue pits made from sawed-off oil barrels.

"I was skeptical about it at first," Matt admits, as he fires up the Southern Pride's gas igniter to demonstrate how it lights the hickory logs. Once the unit is loaded with meat and a couple of logs, you push a button, and that's it. It's not like barbecue from a real open pit, Matt agrees. "But it does a good job. And you can't build an old-fashioned barbecue pit in the city of Houston anymore."  


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