I honestly don't remember when Pete's BBQ closed. The little barbecue shack on Telephone Road was utterly unremarkable aside from its fantastically retro sign, and waving cowboy above the entrance who beckoned people inside for chopped beef sandwiches and baked potatoes. If I was in the area, it was to eat at Kanomwan or Taqueria Alma Latina or Bohemeo's or any number of other, more interesting establishments.
But I always wished that Pete's was good, if only because of the general dearth of good barbecue in Houston -- and if only to have a reason to visit the cute red restaurant with a fabulous sign.
It looks like the old place may finally be home to some good barbecue now, however, thanks to new tenants Oak Leaf Smokehouse. Owners Brian and Lisa -- a husband and wife team whose only real restaurant experience prior to embarking on this barbecue adventure was as silent partners in The Hay Merchant and Underbelly -- have moved in, fixed the old place up and are committed to exploring not only Texas-style 'cue, but the many other permutations across the nation as well.
It's an interesting move, and one that I'm curious to see expanded on. For now, though, Oak Leaf Smokehouse is still in its soft-opening stage and only open for lunch.
Although it's only been open roughly a week, word about Lewis' barbecue seems to have gotten out. Thanks to this and its close proximity to downtown, Oak Leaf is already selling out of certain types of barbecue each day. When I visited yesterday, the pork ribs had sold out by 12:30 p.m.
"Are we sold out of ribs again?" the woman behind the counter asked one of the cooks. "Those ribs are popular!" The men behind us in line who'd come in too late were chagrined, but finally decided on another option to round out their three-meat plates.
I can see why the ribs are going fast. The post oak that's used in Oak Leaf's smoker imparts a very gentle, sweet, buttery flavor to the pork. The tender meat falls off the bone in that expected Texan way, with no sauce necessary to add any additional moisture.
I was less impressed with the exceptionally lean brisket, which was far too dry for my tastes. The thick, barky smoke ring I look for in a good brisket was mostly absent, but I expect (hope?) this will improve over time. Or not. I heard a customer at the counter specifically requesting his brisket lean, to which my dining companion responded under his breath: "Someone should tell him he doesn't have to ask for it that way..."
I'm one of those people who craves the rugged, fatty end of a brisket and realize that not every barbecue fan lines up in this camp. For those diametrically opposed, the lean brisket with a soft woodsy flavor at Oak Leaf will probably please.
I couldn't find any fault with the Carolina-style pulled pork, which I was pleased to see was of the chunky debris type rather than the stringy shreds of pork butt, nor the incredibly juicy smoked chicken. Ditto the sides of house-fried potato chips, thick-cut and vigorously salted, and the jiggly corn pudding with half a cob's worth of kernels in each bowl.
The ranch-style beans were just average, while the warm German potato salad showed promise. I'd like to see a bit more vinegar tang to the potatoes, and more of them in the bowl. The old adage is that no one goes to a barbecue joint for the sides -- so why fuss with them? Oak Leaf Smokehouse disagrees, and stated its position in the press release I received last week: "[Sides] should not be a necessary evil; they should ideally be crave-worthy on their own."
That commitment is admirable, as is Oak Leaf's desire to make all of the sides both vegetarian and gluten-free -- making the barbecue joint accessible to an even wider audience than normal.
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One thing that clearly isn't gluten-free, however, is the painfully good homemade chocolate cake we finished our meal with, a shotgun wedding of Texas sheet cake and a brownie. Fluffy and moist and oozing with chocolate frosting, it made me utter a silent apology to my mother and grandmother, whose own baked goods had just been topped by this massive slice of heaven. Forks clanged as my friend and I fought over the last bite, even though I was well and stuffed by this point.
The quality of both the food and service at Oak Leaf Smokehouse -- which has replaced Pete's old steam-table cafeteria line set-up with counter service that brings trays of food out to you when they're ready -- is even more impressive considering its infancy. The restaurant promises to be open for dinner soon, another improvement over its predecessor (which was only open for lunch). I can't wait to see what other improvements Oak Leaf has in store.