In December 2017, the folks behind Houston's most polarizing chain barbecue brand and the city's quintessential restaurant empire opened a smokehouse unlike anything else on the company's roster. Pappas Delta Blues Smokehouse arrived, rather quietly, in Webster, Texas — a stone's throw from Space Center Houston and League City.
The concept is markedly dissimilar to the standard Pappas Bar-B-Q brand on many levels. For one, the full service bar, restaurant and scratch kitchen is more upscale than any traditionally casual Pappas Bar-B-Q location. This is no counter-service, pay by weight, in-and-out kind of joint. It's a craft cocktails and beer, prime steaks on the menu, $33 for a three-meat plate kind of joint.
When it opened, Delta Blues was perhaps the first of its kind in Houston. Goode Company had already introduced the upscale BBQ-Tex-Mex concept earlier the same year with their Kitchen & Cantina opening in the Woodlands. And Ronnie Killen had, the year before, wowed with his even more upscale, beef-centric Killen's STQ. Both concepts incorporated elements of their creators' initial concepts into new menus. Still, Delta Blues is something else altogether. An expressly barbecue-focused upscale reinvention of the Pappas Bar-B-Q name.
Outside the decor is suburban kitsch. Something between Pappadeaux and Texas Road House. But inside things get more upscale. The dining room is dimly lit with a steakhouse aesthetic. The bar area takes up almost half the square footage, with dozens of high end bottles and craft taps on display. Also the hostess stand doubles as a display fridge full of yet unsmoked meat, which is pretty cool. And yet, all in all, the upscale nature of the place robs the diner of a genuine smokehouse experience. Despite the impressive ambiance, the very nature of the concept is antithetical to Texas barbecue. On smokehouse aesthetics Delta Blues Smokehouse scores a 5.5/10.
It's no secret that the barbecue quality at any Pappas location, in particular the brisket, is a long ways short of amazing. Perhaps that loss of quality over the years, the notoriously dry and paper-thin brisket, is what motivated the company to reinvent itself via this new venture. Delta Blues' head chef and pitmaster Michael Velardi smokes only Creekstone prime briskets. He smokes them round the clock, 18-hours each, in wood-burning Oyler smokers. He also rubs them in safflower oil before seasoning with a thick layer of assorted peppers and salts. The final product, from my one and only experience, was lusciously flavored, fork tender, and intensely fatty.
While the moist slices were far too fatty, with a near 50/50 ratio of actual meat to pure fat, the so-called "lean" slices were essentially perfect. A bark-covered fat cap sat atop a thick slice of perfectly tender and flaky beef. Smoke flavor was plentiful and the coloring consistent. On quality of brisket Delta Blues Smokehouse scores an 8/10.
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While past reviews have remarked on the concept's renewed focus on outstanding brisket, based on our experience that focused is shared, at least in part, with the St. Louis style pork ribs. Smoked until bones are little more than formalities, these ribs were thoroughly glazed, with a thin and chewy outer bark concealing small slabs of tender meat. Meat that so effortlessly slid free of it's bones one could pop them like candy and devour an entire rack without stopping for air. On quality of non-brisket proteins Delta Blues Smokehouse scores a 9/10.
Our two-meat rib combo came with two sides: Brussels sprouts and creamed corn pudding. The former was drab. Under-steamed and under-seasoned, the preparation did little to mask the sprouts' natural bitterness. The latter, however, shone. Thick not watery, the corn's natural sweetness countered by the slight heat of jalepenos and taste of cilantro. Other sides choices include pit-smoked pork and beans, chilled kale and buttered mashed potatoes. On quality of sides Delta Blues Smokehouse scores a 6.5/10.
With a Dallas-area location on its way (set to open in September) the Delta Blues Concept may well replace the original Pappas chain in the future. A possibility this writer is admittedly giddy about. Despite its prices, Delta Blues is a top-flight Houston smokehouse. One of the finest smoked meat establishments in and of Houston, and a brilliant combination of Texan and non-Texan barbecue traditions. While the original Pappas often feels like a bad parody of Houston barbecue, Delta Blues is the saving shot of adrenaline the company desperately needed.