Chef Chat, Part 3: Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ, Tasting the Craft of Houston Barbecue

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Greg Gatlin Gatlin's BBQ 1221 W. 19th St. 281-804-4555 www.gatlinsbbq.com

This is Part 3 of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed the first parts to this series, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, Greg Gatlin has been sharing stories about barbecuing as a kid, catering to large groups, selling barbecue from a truck on weekends while working at Pappadeaux, about his special brand of barbecue sauce (he makes his own), and why he chose hickory to flavor his meat. Today, we get to taste some of his barbecue.

He asked me my preferences for meat before making me a plate, heavily laden with a generous portion of ribs, sausage and brisket, and accompanied by a side of barbecue beans, potato salad and coleslaw. Instead of dousing the plate with barbecue sauce, I received a small plastic dipping container filled with Gatlin's famous house-made sauce.

I'd gotten a glimpse of the sausages being cut in the kitchen for a catering job, and the sight had been so mouthwatering that I started with those first. They had deer sausage on the menu that day as well, but I'm glad I started with the traditional sausage because it turned out to be the thing I couldn't stop eating.

The sausage casing was very light, with just a slight crisp on bite. This is notable because casing can sometimes be too thick or too chewy, and one of my gripes with real barbecue sausage is that I often find myself chewing the casing to the point where I have to spit it out. Not so at Gatlin's. The whisper-thin casing gave way easily to showcase the sausage meat, which was moist and literally perfectly flavored. Not too salty, sweet or spicy, it was packed with flavor that exploded when you dipped it into Gatlin's barbecue sauce.

I must spend some time on this sauce, which exceeded expectations even though Gatlin had thoroughly described its flavor profile to me. The tomato-based sauce displayed a good viscosity -- not too thick or thin -- so that when I dunked my sausage piece into it, I got an even coating of sauce over the entire piece of sausage. Nice. The taste of the sauce was exactly what I wanted in a barbecue sauce. I'm not a fan of overly vinegary -- you get that a lot around these parts. Sometimes people want to throw you off and try to make it more gourmet with herbs and extra spices and the like.

This sauce was slightly sweet, lightly tomato-ey, with a good balance of vinegar and just the right kick of spice on the end that is so unbelievably pleasing. "Do you sell this sauce?" I asked him.

"That's something we'd definitely like to do," he replied.

"You absolutely have to sell this sauce!" I practically ordered as he smiled at my enjoyment of the food. Side note: If anybody wants to help this man sell his sauce, you will make a killing.

Now to the meat. I like a really juicy brisket, which means you have to give me pieces that still have some fat attached to them. Mine had a small layer of fat at the end of it, which was fine by me. The meat was tender, juicy and utterly delicious when generously dunked in the barbecue sauce, followed by a bite of crispy coleslaw and smooth and creamy potato salad.

And the ribs. The ribs were a revelation because of their texture. Each rib was cut very neat precise, so that you thought you were getting a firmer rib meat until the moment you bit into it. Then, the meat was practically, but not quite fall-off-the-bone. It was in that valley of "cooked to perfection," where the meat has lost the tough quality, yet wasn't so overcooked as to lose its texture. And then there was the flavor, for which ribs are the best vehicle for delivering to your palate. You could taste the almost sooty caramelization of the outer rub, mixed with this pervasive hickory-smoked aroma. Fantastic.

I found the sides to be just as excellent as the meat. Gatlin's potato salad is not the chunky kind. It's more like a cold mashed potato that's lightly sweetened yet tangy at the same time. I did as Gatlin secretly instructed me to do and drizzled some of the barbecue bean sauce all over it as I ate, giving it an added dimension of flavor. And speaking of barbecue beans, I can say resolutely that they're the best I've ever had. Sweet and smoky and extremely smooth, the beans were so delicious, I finished them off first and greedily asked for seconds.

I caught a glimpse of one of their pulled pork sandwiches in the kitchen, and I wanted so badly to taste it, but I was beyond full after my hearty plate, not wanting to eat so much that it would ruin the euphoric pleasure of eating the down-home tasty goodness of Gatlin's.

So I leave it for next time, because there's a reason why Gatlin's sold all those 3,900 briskets last year. There's a reason why they were able to build a brick and mortar business from a fledgling catering business. It's because once you've tasted their barbecue, you're going to taste all the love and care that they put into it, and without a doubt, you'll be back for more.

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