When I asked about the barbecued pork at Pierson & Company, the new barbecue joint on T.C. Jester in Acres Homes near the ruins of William's Smokehouse, owner and pit boss Clarence Pierson reached inside a stainless steel warmer and extracted some meat that was sealed in cellophane. He unwrapped it, sliced a little and gave me a sample.
"It's pork shoulder," he said, "the cut they call pork butt in other parts of the country." In the old days, Carolina barbecuers cooked a whole hog to make pulled pork. Nowadays, they use pork butt. They smash the well-done pork up into mush, mix it with barbecue sauce and serve it on a roll. It's a hell of a sandwich, but I have always wondered why you can't get the smoked pork without the barbecue sauce.
I took a bite of Pierson's pork. Without any sauce or condiments, the flavor of the meat stood brilliantly on its own. It had a big smoky flavor and an unusually firm yet moist texture. It didn't fall apart the way pulled pork does, and yet it was exceptionally tender.
"What kind of pit do you have?" I asked Clarence.
The pit boss invited me to come around to the back room and see for myself. He had every right to be proud. His big black steel box rig looked like a bank safe with an offset fire box. It was constructed by a famous custom barbecue pit fabricator, Bar-B-Que Pits by Klose, on 34th St.
Clarence told me he used Kingsford charcoal for heat and added mesquite wood a few logs at a time for smoke.
"I've tried oak, pecan, hickory and all the other woods. I like mesquite the best," he told me.
"I've never seen anybody wrap their meats up in cellophane before," I said.
"I learned the hard way that when you wrap meat up in foil, it keeps cooking," Clarence told me. "I kept throwing away all this dried-out meat. But when you wrap it up in cellophane, it stops the cooking and keeps all the moisture trapped inside."
Mesquite is notorious for giving barbecued meat a tarry, oversmoked flavor. Which explains a lot about some of the problems I had with the barbecue in several visits to Pierson & Company. On my first visit, I tried pork ribs and brisket. The rib ends I got had a wonderful chewy texture, but tasted oversmoked.
On my second visit, I got brisket, pork ribs and links. This time I got thicker ribs, and they weren't oversmoked. But the links had a terrible acrid flavor that one of my fellow diners described as a diesel fuel aftertaste.
Barbecue chains that use stainless steel virtual barbecue pits are selling meat with hardly any smoke flavor at all. It's easier to forgive a little oversmoking. And luckily Pierson's brisket and pork are thick enough cuts of meat to stand up to the resiny mesquite and come out with a pleasantly smoky flavor. But the ribs are hit or miss. And the mesquite is just too much for the links.
The other thing you have to get used to at Pierson's is the odd texture of the plastic-wrapped brisket and pork. It doesn't fall apart at the touch of the knife the way the brisket does at many African-American joints like Burns Bar BQ, which is also located nearby. It's hard to get used to, but in fact, the plastic wrap technique has a lot going for it.
The best barbecue in Texas is served hot off the smoker and sliced to order. That's the way it's done in Luling and Lockhart at the old meat markets. That's the way its done at a barbecue competition. And that's the way you do it when you barbecue in your backyard. Fresh-sliced barbecue has a crunchy crust on the outside that complements the juicy interior.
Commercial barbecue is another story. The reason that reviews, surveys and taste-offs involving barbecue joints are so often misleading is that, unlike cook-off competitors, barbecue joints serve all day. If you show up at the perfect time, you might get some fresh-sliced barbecue right out of the pit that rivals anything produced at a cook-off. And if you do, you will think you've discovered the best barbecue restaurant in town.
But on the average day, a barbecue restaurant is serving meat that's been held for a while after cooking. So when you try to rate the place, you are judging their success at both smoking and holding the cooked meat.
Some barbecuers wrap a brisket in foil after smoking it for a while to accelerate the cooking process. Foil wrapping traps the steam and makes the meat very tender, but it ruins the smoke ring and makes the crust soggy. If you hold it too long in foil, it gets overdone.
In barbecue restaurants, steam tables are the most common holding method. They work all right for the short term. But if the kitchen slices all the fat off the brisket beforehand, the meat gets dry. In a steam table, the meat can also get watery. If you get meat that's been held too long, you will declare that you have found the worst barbecue joint in town.
By wrapping his brisket in plastic wrap with the fat still attached and holding it at 140 degrees, Pierson & Company keeps it from getting soggy or dried out. The downside is that the tight wrapping gives the meat the same sort of compacted density and artificial shape you associate with canned ham. It looks weird, and there's no crunchy crust, but the meat is perfectly tender and very moist. And it certainly tastes smoky. It's not as good as fresh-sliced brisket, but it's a lot better than steam table or foil-wrapped barbecue. And that's saying a lot.
When I asked Clarence Pierson where he learned to barbecue, he told me he was entirely self-taught. "I have been messing with meat since I was a teenager," he said. He went on to say that he had ruined and thrown away a lot of meat before he hit on the plastic wrap technique. Now he has virtually no waste.
The best meat I ate at Pierson's was the barbecued pork. I had some on white bread with pickles, onions and barbecue sauce. I also took some home, reheated it in a pan with a little oil and garlic and ate it on a Cuban-style sandwich with guacamole.
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I suppose I departed from barbecue orthodoxy when I tossed some sliced pork with leftover Shanghai noodles and baby bok choy I found in the fridge — the smoky meat brought the Chinese restaurant leftovers back to life. I have also eaten barbecued pork with sweet and sour red cabbage and German potato salad. That's the beauty of Texas barbecue. You aren't forced to eat your smoked meat with the same barbecue sauce all the time.
Don't get me wrong, Pierson's tangy barbecue sauce is quite good. The sides are homemade, too. The mashed potato salad is flecked with pickle relish, and the "chili beans" are loaded with meat and spices. The bread pudding and a cobbler made with canned peaches are both good examples of the genre. But the sides aren't unusual.
Along with the mesquite-smoked meats, it's the warm atmosphere that makes Pierson & Company unique. You seldom run into barbecue men as talkative as Clarence Pierson. It's easy to stick your head in the window of his little kitchen and strike up a conversation while he slices your meat.
The cashier at the window on the other side of the tiny one-table dining room is equally friendly. Of course, I remember a time when the employees at Thelma's were friendly, too — back before the place got famous. Pierson & Company is getting pretty popular, too. We'll see if the staff stays friendly when they're facing a long line of hungry people griping about slow service.