Smoke plus meat is a winning combination as old as our ability to create fire and manipulate its heat for cooking. Once used as a method of preservation, the act of smoking raw meat has evolved into a sophisticated and ancient art form. Like all the world's greatest masterpieces, both artistic and culinary, the beauty of barbecue lies in its apparent simplicity. Smoked meat is, after all, a simple premise. A seasoned cut of meat cooked slowly by the indirect heat of a wood or coal fire, typically in a closed and smoky pit. Yet, despite this seemingly simple process, true barbecue mastery is an ambition rarely achieved.
Here in Tejas, barbecue means brisket. Yes, sausage and turkey play vital roles in any pitmaster's lexicon. And in some parts of Houston the pork rib is as critical to a barbecue platter as anything. Still, the cultural value of non-brisket protein pales in comparison to the immense importance of brisket within the canon of Texas barbecue tradition.
In this weekly series we'll visit the many smokehouses that call Houston and its surrounding suburbs home, along the way testing their mettle and judging their brisket (among other things). This column aims to highlight both the restaurants and pitmasters that define Houston barbecue. We'll dive into their unique histories and grade their performance along the way. Each restaurant will be judged on four essential elements of good Texas barbecue; aesthetics, brisket, other proteins and sides.
We begin this Smoked Out endeavor with a visit to a Bellaire smokehouse that's only been in business for a few months, though is already considered one of the best barbecue joints in the city — none other than Blood Bros. Texas BBQ.
The guys behind Blood Bros. opened their first brick and mortar restaurant in Bellaire just three short months ago. In that time the Blood Bros. name has become synonymous with Texas barbecue perfection. So what is it about this Vietnamese inspired, Chris Shepherd recognized, pop-up famous barbecue that earned such high praise in a New York Times feature just two months after it opened?
The concept started several years ago when brothers Robin and Terry Wong, along with their high school friend Quy Hoang (all natives of Alief) started experimenting with barbecue as a creative side hustle. Hoang, the group's pitmaster, gained some fame within Houston's culinary circles by incorporating Asian spices into the bark of his well-loved brisket and pork ribs. So much so that he was invited by Chris Shepherd to participate in a barbecue pop-up in the back lot of Underbelly, long before he ever opened a brick and mortar.
Fast forward to December 2018, after countless pop-ups and barbecue competitions, Blood Bros. Texas Barbecue opens on Bellaire just outside the loop.
The first thing you'll notice as you walk up to the newly christened location is that it's completely custom built. From the recessed front facade that creates a make-shift patio space to the shiplap covered exterior walls that give the strip mall storefront an authentic country feel, it's easy to see how the place took a year to build.
Inside, custom wood tables and chairs built by the Wongs' step father and corrugated metal panels on the walls give the place more of that country diner feel, allowing customers a brief respite from the manic city life just outside. On the other hand, bright orange walls, pitch black ceilings and a noticeable lack of natural light give the place a bit of a claustrophobic vibe. Nothing that'll ruin a lunch outing, but a questionable design choice nonetheless. On smokehouse aesthetics Blood Bros. scores a 7/10.
Ordering is straight forward and old school. A fast moving line that starts building around noon leads to a counter where side orders are taken first, followed by meat orders at the cutting station. A staff member — often Hoang himself — takes custom meat orders by the pound, the slice, the rib or whatever metric your can think of. All meat is priced by weight so get as little or as much as you want.
From behind the glass, huge slabs of black brisket stare back at you. Watching it get sliced and loaded on a plate is a near erotic experience.
The brisket is what first drew those two-hour-long lines to the Blood Bros. pop-ups, generating so much buzz around the name. Made by Hoang with a mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese spices, the crux of this brisket is its thick, luscious bark. A spicy, peppery, even mildly sweet crust that holds the brisket's fatty moisture in, creating that perfect "melt in your mouth" texture. We recommend opting for a burnt end to more thoroughly enjoy the thick, jerky-like crust along the edges. On quality of brisket Blood Bros. scores a 8/10.
It's that implementation of Asian influence that has helped Hoang and the Wong brothers reach such great barbecue heights in such a short time — and one of the main reason for the heaps of praise bestowed on them in that February New York Times piece. The use of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese ingredients extends well beyond the bark on the brisket. From pork ribs with a hint of Korean BBQ, to a smoked turkey banh mi (available daily), to the brisket fried rice and green curry boudin (available selectively), the trio's Alief/Chinatown roots shine through in every aspect of the menu. On non-brisket proteins Blood Bros. scores 9/10.
While not particularly famous for their traditional sides, a creamy mac n' cheese with a just-right consistency is a pleasant surprise. The potato salad is well executed, as are the housemade sweet pickles — a nice palate cleanser against a house sauce that treads on the spicier side. On quality of sides Blood Bros. scores a 7/10.
At a time when Houston's barbecue scene is truly blossoming the cynic in us may want to say "too many barbecue joints!" In those moments we're thankful for an opening like Blood Bros. that inspires us to keep searching for that next great brisket, or that next great barbecue fusion. For now the bar is set. This is the concept to beat.