Last Saturday was the third annual Houston Chowhound BBQ Smackdown, a hard-nosed, meat-a-rrific event that pits six area barbecue joints against one another in a blind tasting for pit-master glory. Eighty attendees once again filled the Pearl Bar on Washington to grab a slice of brisket and a rib from each of the vendors, rating them on flavor, smoke ring and tenderness. The high-octane atmosphere -- one filled with barbecue, beer and World Cup soccer -- inspired a warm camaraderie as guests sampled, suggested and smacked-the-crap-down.
Each year the smackdown takes the top three finishers from the previous year and adds three new challengers. This year Pierson's (Houston), Virgie's (Houston) and Vincek's (East Bernard) were the automatic entries based on last year's top finishes, and the newbies included Dozier's (Fulshear), Pizzatola's (Houston) and Smokin' Mike's (Sugar Land). Guests chowed down on meat a-plenty, plus potluck sides and desserts -- coleslaw, baked beans, homemade pickles and pasta salad, plus cobblers, kolaches, brownies and more. Faces around the crowded room scrunched up in thought as voters wrestled with meat hierarchies, flavor ranks and the dreaded full-stomach demon. And once the noshing was done, a surprise winner emerged: Smokin' Mike's, a tiny barbecue joint housed in a strip mall on Highway 6 in Sugarland.
Smokin' Mikes won four out of the five categories for brisket and ruled the tenderness category for ribs. Virgie's, a close second and vocal crowd favorite, received high marks for flavor and smoke. Pierson's, which had dominated the two previous events, faired well in the brisket category, but not so much the ribs. And newcomer Pizzatola's took third place in ribs for the tenderness and nice seasoning. Per usual, the event had some duds: Dozier's and Vincek's came up with goose eggs, failing to score well in a single category. I may have seen several people spit these meats out, claiming the two were blasphemy against the good name of Texas BBQ.
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The smackdown began three years ago in response to Texas Monthly's list of the top 50 BBQ joints in the state. The goal was to try as many as possible from the original list and test them against other local favorites. Only Virgie's and Vincek's remained from Texas Monthly's original list, and Burns and Goode Company had already been smacked down. Each year, organizers wrestle with the dilemma of how far they're willing to drive to secure the barbecue entries -- perhaps next year they'll expand their reach to Lexington or Lockhart. Until then? I'm off meat.
2010 Winners 1) Smokin' Mike's 2) Virgie's 3) Pierson's/Pizzatola's Also participating: Vincek's, Dozier's
2009 Winners 1) Pierson's 2) Virgie's 3) Vincek's Also participating: Thelma's, Burns, Luling City Market
2008 Winners 1) Pierson's 2) Burns 3) Luling City Market Also participating: Goode Company, Kozy Kitchen, Swinging Door