A half-pound of slick, fat-capped brisket and tender pork ribs sat on a gleaming, glossy white sheet of butcher paper on the table next to me at The Brisket House. It looked like barbecue as still life: to the meat's left on the tableau was a whole pickle, a great lump of Cheddar cheese and a knob of raw, white onion. It was a Hungry Man-style meal, served with a knife, a fork and a sense of satisfaction. It was also a surprising sight in Houston. This meal is a College Station classic, known by those who love it as The Aggie Special.
Fans of the long-gone Tom's BBQ in College Station, which closed more than ten years ago, will possibly remember the old pitmaster there, Wayne Kammerl. But they will definitely remember the Aggie Special, a half pound of meat served on a piece of butcher paper, pared down and simple.
"The Aggie Special was probably 80 percent of what we sold at Tom's," says Kammerl, who ran the College Station barbecue joint from 1992 until 1998. Kammerl opened The Brisket House last June, and has been shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response that his Aggie Special — renamed The Brisket House Special here — has drawn from the local community.
"When I opened, I said I'm gonna do a couple of things the way we did at Tom's," says Kammerl. "It was the quickest recognition of where I came from. The very first day I opened, one of my ten customers looked at the menu board and said, 'Who's the Aggie?!'"
The dish known as The Aggie Special was so popular in College Station that even after Tom's closed in 2001 after 45 years in business, in what Kammerl calls a "heart-wrenching" end to a few years of mismanagement by new owners, the special survived — with its Aggie name intact — in other barbecue joints around town.
At The Brisket House, the butcher-paper meal costs only $9. You can get it in a full-pound size for $18 or a more petite six-ounce portion for $7.50, but what are you — a tea-sipper?
The slight hint of Aggie-Longhorn rivalry runs through the joint, tucked into a classy red-brick strip next door to Cylone Anaya's. The walls of the ever-so-slightly upscale Central Texas-style barbecue restaurant literally bleed maroon here (maroon paint). But Kammerl's team wears both burnt orange and maroon T-shirts as they take orders and chop beef in the open kitchen.
"When an Aggie comes in my building, they always let me know they're an Aggie," Kammerl says. "But I have a huge Aggie and Longhorn following. And that's kind of neat." He continues: "Easily 30 to 40 percent of my repeat business is Aggie alumni. And I'd say half is from a three-mile radius of the Tanglewood neighborhood.
There's the feeling that The Brisket House serves as a sort of living room for the area by both day and night, with regulars who live or work nearby sprawled comfortably at tables in the dining room. Cords of firewood sit stacked by the entrance and genuine smiles emerge from behind the counter when you walk in. Slices of pie tempt you from an ice-packed counter, and Robert Earl Keen joins Jason Boland & The Stragglers on the stereo.
The clientele at lunch are mostly well-dressed businessmen from the surrounding Galleria area, tucking ties into buttoned-up shirts as they politely attack their heaping barbecue plates. The restaurant does a brisk take-out service at lunch as well as dinner, although only 10 percent of the business now is in Aggie Specials.
At night, the dining room has a different vibe, with more families than suits occupying the tables. There isn't a kid's menu to speak of, but what kid wouldn't be happy with the sloppy joe-esque barbecue sandwich, whose buns overflow with finely diced brisket under a peppery, house-made sauce that's always served wonderfully warm?
Nighttime isn't typically the best time to get good barbecue. If you head to places such as Goode Co. or Rudy's, you're faced with the same problem that would exist if spots like Thelma's stayed open into the evening: barbecue that's been taken off the pit earlier in the day, becoming tough and stringy as the meat slowly cools back down.
Because of that, I was hesitant to try The Brisket House past, say, 3 p.m. During lunch, I'd never been disappointed with a single piece of barbecue at the place. What happy feelings would be crushed by a nighttime visit? Only one, it turns out.
My solitary issue was with the lean brisket one weekday evening, which didn't have the same sweetly fatty taste and texture, the same oomph, as the regular brisket served during the day. My dining companion, however, loved it. "I just prefer lean brisket, though," he conceded, after I brought him some of The Brisket House's fatty brisket the next day.