‘I’m not a restaurant guy. I’m just a competition cook,” declared Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque owner Wesley Jurena while describing his restaurant and food during a review visit. Well, he could have fooled us. For a first try out of the gate, his place seems ideal for hungry guests who work downtown, visit the nearby sports arenas or attend conventions at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque is in a casual strip center just down the street from BBVA Compass Center, home of Houston Dynamo. (Regarding the spelling and grammar: The restaurant name says “Barbeque,” not “Barbecue,” and the apostrophe before the “s” is up for debate. There’s none on the sign, but omitting it makes us twitchy. Jurena named the place after his dad.)
It’s not exactly small — about 60 seats — but it’s humble and spare, so Jurena hired an artist to come in and spruce up the place. It’s decked out with artwork any longtime Texan would recognize. The wooden supports under the bar are jaunty with the star and stripes of the Texas flag. The wall sports the “Come And Take It” cannon symbol from the Battle of Gonzales flag. Abridged butchery diagrams for pork and beef are marked on the floor in chalky white.
Jurena is a member of the new breed of Houston barbecuers who owe much of their recent evolution to their peers in central Texas. Hallmarks of the style are meats that are smoky and simply seasoned with kosher salt and a whole lot of coarsely ground black pepper.
Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque started as a trailer parked outside Jackson’s Watering Hole, where it caught the attention of barbecue writer Daniel Vaughn of the Texas Monthly barbecue blog, TM BBQ. Vaughn wrote a glowing review of Jurena’s work in July 2015, calling him “Houston’s favorite barbecue vagabond.” Texas Pit Quest blogger Scott Sandlin, also a fan, wrote that he visits the new restaurant digs almost weekly. Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist J.C. Reid also praised Jurena’s barbecue, while noting that cooking out of a trailer leaves you subject to everything from the weather to the whims of the people whose lot the trailer is parked on.
Making barbecue in a restaurant setting is subject to another set of whims. It’s not like making barbecue outside. Jurena now has to cook inside using two stainless steel smokers, and when pit masters make the transition from trailer to brick-and-mortar, there’s always a concern that something won’t translate. There are other pitfalls, like human error. The business has grown big enough that Jurena has employees to help mind the smokers and take care of customers. “Good help is hard to find,” he muttered when he noticed the doors on one of the smokers had been left open. Smoker temperature can dive 50 degrees in the blink of an eye.
All in all, Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque seems to have survived the transition intact, although there have certainly been some adjustments. Many barbecue restaurants open around 10 or 11 a.m. and close as soon as they are sold out. Depending on volume, that might be as early as 3 or 4 p.m. However, Pappa Charlie’s is now in the middle of a district surrounded by urban lofts and a bustling bar and music scene. It closes at 8 p.m., and residents say that’s too early, Jurena told us. That’s not the only surprise. The restaurant’s beer program sports five beers from Houston breweries on tap — but some of the cosmopolitan residents are asking for red wine. Not many barbecue joints are known for their wine lists, but it’s a request Jurena plans to fulfill soon.
To support the volume of customers, Pappa Charlie’s smokes two rounds of meat per day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Fortunately, Jurena has long been a fan of the “hot and fast” method, and it helps keep meats on-the-ready.
Every barbecue place seems to have one type of meat it does especially well, and at Pappa Charlie’s, it’s the pork ribs. The ribs we had around 4 p.m. on a Friday were slightly overdone, but those we consumed at noon on a Saturday were utterly perfect. Jurena says his rib rub is very close to his competition recipe. There’s a fine balance struck between salt, sweet, smoke and spice, and a pleasant touch of heat that lingers on the back of the tongue. Get enough ribs so there are some left to take home. When the ribs are left overnight in the fridge, the salt, smoke and spice become even more pronounced, and that’s a tasty evolution.
Pappa Charlie’s often offers a daily specialty meat and sometimes there’s a standout there as well. One of the offerings we tried was the “pork prime rib.” It’s a big rib chop served in two pieces: the meaty side and the rib bone side. The way it was cut, the moisture and the mild spicy-sweet flavor reminded us of the stellar one Perry & Son’s is known for, sans the applesauce on the side.
Enormous bone-in beef ribs are one of the current darlings of the Houston barbecue scene, and Pappa Charlie’s serves them on Saturdays. Even before the first bite, it was obvious that the vast hunk of meat had stayed too long in the smoker and had landed in pot roast territory. “Falling off the bone” is not a compliment when it comes to rib cookery. Our server cut a giant specimen from the center of a slab, and the bone, which looked as if it could have come from the dinosaur exhibit at a museum, fell right out. Once it was on the plate, attempting to cut off a hunk was almost pointless, as the beef had a tendency to squish and separate into lengthwise strands.
The best descriptor for the rest of the meats is “solid.” The hot-and-fast brisket, coated in rugged black pepper, is much less inclined to dive into pot roast territory. On every visit, it was tender but not falling apart. The honeycomb texture of a piece, a telltale sign of a properly sliced brisket, was quite elastic but retained its structure when tugged. Everything we tried, except the ribs and barbecue beans, would brighten with a little more salt.
The potato salad at Pappa Charlie’s is of the mustardy kind. A little more brightness from tart pickles would have been welcome, but the skin-on potato chunks hit the right mark between firm and soft. Some barbecue beans are so sweet they seem on the way to becoming the Boston baked kind. Thankfully, the plucky, savory ranch-style pintos at Pappa Charlie’s aren’t like that, another example of steering away from excessive sugar and into savory territory.
More variable is the dressing for the cole slaw. On one visit, it was fairly thin and a pale neutral, although the thinly sliced cabbage was crunchy and attractively fresh. The next visit, the dressing was a decided orange hue and had gathered some snap and spark from an extra dose of cayenne. Rather than being annoying, the inconsistencies are kind of fun and make dining at Pappa Charlie’s more like having dinner at someone’s house.
After our second visit, we were curious about how Pappa Charlie’s would measure up to its nearest competitor, Jackson Street BBQ, which is barely more than half a mile away. We went in and ordered the “trinity”: brisket, ribs and sausage. Jackson Street is also a solid barbecue place that earned some acclaim from Houston Press freelance restaurant reviewer Nick Hall last year (although he did ding Jackson Street on consistency, the most difficult aspect of producing barbecue). However, in every instance, the meats at Pappa Charlie’s proved superior. The ribs were moister, the brisket was more flavorful and the sausage had a looser, more seasoned grind than Jackson Street’s, which had a tightly compacted texture and seemed more like a store-bought sausage. The reason for these differences lies in where Jurena sources his meats. In most cases, the meat comes from 44 Farms, and that makes a vast difference when it comes to good marbling and beefy flavor. Pappa Charlie’s doesn’t make its own sausage. Jurena says it comes from a place in Taylor, Texas. (He didn’t say exactly from where, but every pit master has to keep a few secrets.)
Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque doesn’t quite have the gee-whiz factor or mystique of Killen’s Barbecue or CorkScrew BBQ, where people line up even before the doors open. However, it’s doing a fine job, especially considering the city fire marshal’s restrictions and the ordinances a barbecue restaurant within the city limits operates under. (Fun fact: Pizzitola’s BBQ is the only restaurant within city limits to have indoor wood-burning pits. Due to the age of the restaurant, its open pits were allowed to be grandfathered in, but if Pizzitola’s ever makes substantial changes to its facility, such as remodeling, it will lose that exception.) As at near neighbor Jackson Street BBQ, the meats and sides at Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque are solid and it is a worthy spot for downtown workers, game-goers and urban dwellers to satisfy their smoked-meat cravings.
Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque
2012 Rusk, 832-940-1719. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Two-meat plate with two sides $13.95
Upcharge to add pork ribs $3.50
Beef ribs $20 per pound
Pork prime rib $11
Brash EV7 $5
Saint Arnold Spring Bock $5
Sweet tea $2.50
Bottle of water $2