"We've been open since February 5," said Pearlie Thompson with a smile as she rang me up last Saturday afternoon. "But it's been kind of quiet."
Thompson runs Pearl & Johnny B's BBQ, a little gem out of my fondest slow-smoked dreams, that's just off the main food court inside the the hulking Kim Hung supermarket on St. Emanuel at McKinney. It goes without saying that it's the last place you'd expect to find a barbecue joint. That it's the descendant of a famous barbecue legacy is even more fantastical.
Pearlie's brother Robert runs Thompson's BBQ in Crockett, a little East Texas town that was named after Davy Crockett himself. Thompson's is well known in 'cue circles and even earned a spot on Texas Monthly's comprehensive list of the 50 best barbecue joints in Texas. Robert Thompson has always been an avid proponent of using pecan to smoke his brisket and other meats, and Pearlie has brought that determination to her Houston outpost as well.
"Want to see my smoker?" she asked excitedly, no less than 30 seconds after I'd wandered into the place. I'd seen Pearlie's bright red and yellow sign from the street and noticed it immediately, as it had covered up the old Arcos Express sign that had been outside Kim Hung for years. Could a barbecue joint have replaced the empty Arcos spot inside?
Yes, as I quickly found out. Before I'd even had a chance to inspect the menu, Pearlie was telling me all about her pecan-powered smoker, custom made to her exact specifications by Houston pitmaker Klose. "Mine's special," she said with a grin. "It has the box inside the smoker."
And while I spotted a whole array of Glory canned vegetables in the kitchen, I typically don't go to a barbecue joint for the sides. Unless we're talking about the dirty rice at Gatlin's or the potato salad at The Brisket House, I don't care. What mattered at that moment was choosing a meal off the grand menu. Combination plate? Ribs? Chicken? Brisket? Sausage? I was having a tough time.
I finally settled on the smoked chicken ($7.45) and a chopped beef sandwich ($4.75), the latter made with freshly smoked brisket that Pearlie takes quite a bit of time finely dicing herself. It's worth the wait, however, arriving at the table wrapped with simple wax paper and already threatening to make a mess of my shirt.
The sauce that Pearlie uses is a lot like the sweet, vinegar-based mop sauce my father has always used. Between trading stories of our family homesteads in East Texas and dishing out this stamp of approval, Pearlie and I were becoming fast friends. That sauce infuses the meat with a punchy sweetness that both tones down and enhances the smoky pecan flavor from the cooker. It's a lot like two perfectly compatible people bringing out the best of each other in a relationship.
The same sauce coated the succulent skin of the chicken, while the smoke had done its work on the white breast meat, making it moist and flavorful. I made quick work of both (and the likely store-bought potato salad and beans) and went back up to the register to compliment Pearlie and pay.
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She insisted I stay for a piece of peach cobbler -- "On me!" she repeated, refusing to take no for an answer -- and I was glad I did, as I got more of a sense of exactly how comfortable of a spot Pearl & Johnny B's is to dine. Sports teams' flags hang from the walls and the radio plays softly from one corner. It's just sunny enough from the skylights in the food court, open and airy but also tucked away at the same time. I envision a future in which Pearl & Johnny B's becomes a kind of Irma's-like restaurant to downtown workers who want to escape for a delicious, laid-back meal in a place where they're treated like family.
Pearl & Johnny B's is that place. And the barbecue is pretty terrific to boot.