Increasingly, the landscape of Texas barbecue has become one of new versus old. 12-hour low-and-slow pits versus three-hour high heat smokers. Dinosaur-sized beef ribs versus sauce-slathered pork ribs. Ethnic fusions and hipster beards versus old school pit bosses smoking the classics.
In Houston, the nouveau trends of Central Texas have firmly planted roots in the city's barbecue scene. In a town once equally lauded for its mastery of pork ribs and ridiculed for its hopeless attempts at brisket, $25-30 per pound, chef-smoked prime beef is the new standard.
While the influx of trendy, media darling smokehouses has, overwhelmingly, been good for both consumers and the city's industry reputation, the changing landscape has left some Houston old-timers in the dust.
One of the Bayou City's oldest (perhaps its oldest) continually operating smokehouses is Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue on Shepherd. The family-owned kitchen has been around since 1935. Still a full service, diner-style restaurant — one of the only barbecue joints still employing this aging business model — Pizzitola's is a neighborhood monument with regulars on a first name basis and nostalgia-adorned walls.
If you're wondering what they specialize in, it's written on their sign, in bigger letters than the name itself. "Houston's Home for Spare Ribs".
The sign, likely an antique itself, draws a likely unintentional line in the sand between this East Texas staple and its neighboring newcomers. Brisket comes second, perhaps even third, in the protein hierarchy. Here, old school isn't meaningless jargon. Their open brick pits are literally illegal unless grandfathered in — as theirs obviously are.
The out of fashion smoking style has its charms. A more immediate trace of smoke and fire on the meat's exterior, thanks to the high heat and close proximity of glowing coals just below. On the other hand, outcomes are consistently drier than offset smoking, with proteins like brisket and turkey suffering the consequences.
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While the pork spare ribs were, as advertised, delicious — thoroughly peppered and tender, yet firm enough to grip their bones and demand some enthusiastic nibbling — brisket was predictably dry, under-seasoned and one-dimensional. The beef lacked character and complexity. Good enough for a killer brisket sandwich or taco but lackluster as a standalone entree.
In true Houston fashion, the menu features some Tex-Mex highlights like brisket queso and "make your own" tacos. Soft "rolled" tacos are $8 for a very generous order and come stuffed with any boneless protein on the menu. Doused in the house's tomato-heavy sauce and rolled in soft flour tortillas, the chicken variety proved more Tex than Mex, though no less satisfying.
If your idea of good and proper Texas barbecue is one rooted in tradition, nostalgia and high-heat, then Pizzitola's may be your pick for best cue in town. This place has no shortage of history, nor charm. The diner service alone is reason to stop by. As is the pie.
However, if like myself, the fatty, smoke-soaked allure of prime brisket trump's any notion of old-school dominance, this might not fit your idea of perfect barbecue. While it is, as always, a matter of personal preference, the argument could (and should) be made that institutions like Pizzitola should be kept alive at all costs. Despite changing appetites, the cultural and culinary significance of a place like this should be protected and revered.