As Texas barbecue goes, smoked brisket is king. Sliced, moist and fall apart tender, it's both a protein and technique that separates Texas from the pulled pork and rib traditions of the South and Midwest from Kansas City to Charleston. And yet, within Texas that bias toward beef tends to alienate the traditions of mostly black-owned East-Tex barbecue joints that favor the pork styling of the deep South over the brisket culture of the Hill Country.
For decades Houston's barbecue pedigree was more Louisiana Creole than Texas cattle ranch. Like the music, culture and people of the Bayou City, Houston barbecue had more in common with the Gulf Coast to the east than its inner-state neighbors to the west.
Since 1977, Burns BBQ has been synonymous with that Houstonian smoked meat tradition. That's when founder Roy Burns began selling the stuff out of this Acres Homes house. As word spread and demand soared, Burns recruited his sons to help and eventually relocated to the site of the current Burns Original BBQ.
Despite closing after Burns' passing in 2009. the neighborhood smokehouse reopened in 2012 with the help and investment of Burns' grandsons Cory and Carl Crawford (former MLB player). Since then, the brothers have expanded with the addition of Burns Burger Shack across the street and renovations to the parking lot and original building. After being featured on a 2017 episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, the historic and once shuttered institution has enjoyed a cultural resurgence and constant flow of weekend customers.
The line on Memorial Day was out the front door and across the patio. With about a dozen people ahead of us, the wait from arrival to food in hand was no more than 20 minutes. The old white and red building that's stood since the '80s is now marked by a large white sign out front and a massive patio offering the only seating in the house. Orders are made to go and served in Styrofoam boxes inside brown paper bags.
The bustling parking lot is as good a place as any to enjoy your meal, and provides a photo op of the recent Donkeeboy mural on the side of the more contemporary burger shack across the street. The Burns experience is timeless, uniquely Houston and somehow foreign to those of us who don't frequent the streets of Acres Homes or the north-side in general. On smokehouse aesthetics Burns scores a 9/10.
This column is perhaps unfair to a joint that openly admits its disinterest in Central Texas style sliced brisket. Brisket is the fourth, or perhaps fifth most popular meat on the menu. It is smoked overnight and sliced right out of the pit; no resting or wrapping. Beef is cut sandwich thin and, while maintaining some level of tenderness and natural beef flavor, is almost always dry and rather unsalted. Chopped beef is more forgiving, and when stacked between two pieces of bread delivers a much more satisfying flavor and moisture profile (with the help of some Burns original sauce). On quality of brisket Burns scores a 5.5/10.
The good new is you don't go to Burns for the brisket, so you shouldn't leave disappointed by it. You go for the ribs, or the potatoes, the chicken or the links. Ribs come in small and large sized. Small are typically more tender but even they don't fall off the bone. Their perfectly salty and tender meat takes some gnawing and results in some sticky fingers. The lightly glazed bark is just sweet enough, and a dousing of house sauce adds a beautiful kick of pepper and smoke. Homemade links are as deep red and greasy as chorizo, with a loose grind that even provides a similar mouth feel — though the flavor is much more refined and with more distinguishable spicy notes.
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Stuffed potatoes are the house specialty. Customizable with up to three meats, they're stacked to the sky with sour cream, butter, cheese and what seems like half a pound of protein. Some customers don't bother with anything else. Some don't stray from their favorite sandwich. It's a place full of regulars with usual orders. As a smokehouse should be. On non-brisket protein Burns scores an 8/10.
The sides menu has its standout favorites like a beloved mac & cheese that was unfortunately sold out by 2 p.m. on Memorial Day. The dirty rice is a nice dose of Creole influence that, while hearty, lacked flavor. The green beans and sausage, presumably cooked in bacon grease, were satisfying but, again, lacked seasoning. The potato salad is an apparent customer favorite and admittedly an almost impossible side to screw up. On quality of sides Burns scores a 6.5/10.
The revival of Burns BBQ may have been unrelated to the ongoing Texas barbecue renaissance — a culinary movement known to have brought Austin quality brisket to Houston over the past five years. Still, the timing was fortuitous. At a moment when primarily white chefs and pitmasters are raising Houston's barbecue profile with their brisket, the Burns family holds down the city's first barbecue traditions in a neighborhood that has long battled the encroachment of gentrification. While we welcome the undisputed greatness of joints like Truth, Killen's, Pinkerton and Feges, Houstonians should also honor the unique barbecue heritage that separates their city from the rest of the state.