When Jeffrey Met Thelma
The brisket at Thelma's Bar-B-Que on Live Oak has a tasty black char on the top, but the inside is slick with juice and as tender as the white bread. How Thelma gets it so soft is a head-scratcher. She swears she doesn't wrap it in foil. She says she just starts an oak-log fire around 5 p.m., and then lets the meat smoke until the next morning. The buttery brisket comes anointed with dark brown sauce, and if you order "in and out," you get plenty of black outside pieces along with the inside cuts.
It's not the kind of fanned array of picture-perfect brisket slices that wins barbecue cook-offs. This is a hot and greasy, falling-apart mess o' meat, East Texas-style. The first time I tried it, Thelma's barbecue brisket ate better than any I've ever had in the city. That's why I brought Jeffrey Steingarten, the famous Vogue food writer and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, here for lunch today.
The restaurant is in a little red house just east of the George R. Brown Convention Center in a crusty Third Ward neighborhood composed primarily of littered lots and windowless warehouses. You have to pass through a screened-in porch housing a dilapidated mustard-colored vinyl sofa and a pile of broken chairs before you reach the entrance proper.
Inside the house, there's a cozy little dining room with 12 mismatched tables, a jukebox loaded with blues, Motown and zydeco discs, and a television that's usually tuned to a soap opera. At dinnertime, the place is practically empty, and the brisket, while still good, isn't as moist as it is early in the day. That's to be expected. As any serious 'cue hound knows, great barbecue joints have peak hours, and Thelma's peaks at noon. Her lunch crowd includes policemen in uniform, truck drivers taking a break, some folks from Thelma's church and occasionally a couple of barbecue fanatics like us.
Steingarten asks to see the pit and quizzes the proprietor about her methods and cooking times. Thelma fields all questions graciously and takes us around back to see her fabulous little smoker. It's got a firebox outside and a weighted door that opens into the kitchen. In its last incarnation, the building was a bar with a couple of pool tables, but the place obviously started out as a barbecue joint. Judging by the design of the pit, which is nearly identical to the one at Green's on Almeda, I'd guess it was built in the 1950s.
Back at our table, Thelma whips out her pad and we put in our orders. Steingarten attempts to skip the two sides that normally come with a two-meat plate, but Thelma will have none of that nonsense. He settles on potato salad and coleslaw with his brisket and ribs.
"Take off your jacket, honey. Make yourself comfortable," Thelma chides the New Yorker. It's a steamy June afternoon, and Steingarten has arrived from the airport wearing a blue blazer and jeans.
The Harvard Law School graduate and onetime Manhattan legal consultant is known for bringing a rigorous scientific skepticism to food writing. The ultimate in tough customers, he bases his research more on verifiable data than anecdotal opinions. (In this month's Vogue, he sends away to an industrial dairy lab for a vial of butyric acid in order to critique the aroma of butter.) At the moment, he is studying Texas barbecue. And as a regular judge at "Memphis in May," the nation's largest barbecue cook-off, he isn't as clueless about 'cue as your average New Yorker.
Steingarten, along with some 75 other food writers and scholars from around the country, is on his way to Central Texas for a barbecue field trip organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.olemiss.edu/depts/south/foodways). I invited him to come down a little early and sample East Texas-style barbecue in Houston before the Central Texas tour got started. Thelma's is our first stop.
Thelma Williams, 52, grew up Creole in rural Louisiana. She never worked in a restaurant before this one; she got her cooking experience doing church dinners at Good Shepherd Baptist on North Wayside. "I just love to feed people," she says. Her father catered parties for a living while she was growing up. "I learned how to barbecue from my daddy," she explains. Thelma's friends and family convinced her to open this restaurant three years ago. But despite the excellent food, her business hasn't really taken off.
Thelma brings me a huge stack of fried catfish fillets. Steingarten was mystified when I ordered fish for lunch, and ordinarily I would consider it pretty strange behavior at a barbecue joint, too. But I'm acting as a guide on one of the tour buses tomorrow, and we're scheduled to visit five barbecue joints in just a few hours. Besides, Thelma's fried catfish may be even more heavenly than her brisket. It's fried to order and served cornmealed and crispy on the outside and piping hot and mild inside. No fork is required; the fillets are rigid so you can pick them up and eat them like candy.
Thelma returns and sets some barbecue down in front of the skeptical gastronome. After a few bites, the movement of his eyebrows indicates that he is having an epiphany. I try to steal a piece of beef off his plate to see what sort of jubilee is taking place in his mouth, but he nearly stabs me with the plastic fork. Finally, he passes me a little bite. I smile from ear to ear as I chew it: Thelma is having a good day.
The ribs on the two-meat plate are also excellent, but you can get good ribs in many parts of the country. Thelma's wet and winsome extra-smoky brisket is something else altogether.
"This gives me a new perspective on brisket," Steingarten says reverentially, still clad in his blazer and regarding the shrinking pile of beef with something approaching awe. "Now I see what people in Texas have been talking about for all these years. I've had only 40 or 50 briskets in my entire lifetime, but Thelma's is on an entirely different level." He is also impressed with the crisp, greaseless catfish, and he takes an instant liking to mashed potato salad, which he has never eaten before.
After a quick sampling of the barbecue here, I figured we would visit several other Houston restaurants. But as much as I try to hurry Steingarten up, he won't budge. Evidently, once the New Yorker has empirically ascertained that a given foodstuff is of exceptional quality, he unleashes a wildman's appetite. He grunts contentedly as he eats, and I sit back to watch the soap opera. Might as well relax -- nothing is going to separate him from that Styrofoam plate heaped high with Thelma's brisket.
On SFA's Central Texas barbecue tour, Steingarten will see all the celebrated places: the meat markets that appear in the barbecue guides, the smoky temples from the magazine stories and the quirky haunts that make Jane and Michael Stern's books. But Thelma's supplies a heartwarming illustration of the true beauty of Texas barbecue: In the Lone Star State, you might find the best smoked meat you've ever tasted under a shade tree by the side of the road, at a Baptist church supper or in a ramshackle little joint nobody has ever heard of smack-dab in the middle of the city.
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