Gabby's BBQ is a name Houston barbecue lovers, especially native Houstonians, ought to know. Given its 36 year history, it is among the few restaurants of any kind to survive as long as it has in this town of booms and busts.
While the current North Shepherd location is not the original — that one shuttered long ago along with two other stores in recent years — today it is the lone outpost of a long overlooked, old-school Houston smokehouse. Owners and founders Frank Roche and John Mariner, both graduates of UH, opened the concept in 1978, just two years after launching the still operating Spanky's Pizza.
Described as a Hill Country ranch house, the standalone building is large by smokehouse standards. With a ranch-inspired stone exterior and a dimly lit dining room inside, it's the kind of Texas restaurant you might remember eating at with your grandparents. Counter ordering and diner-style booths, country music in the background, and tinted windows that make noon feel like dusk — Gabby's feels like Texas in the '80s, like a King of the Hill episode and a George Straight music video all in one. On smokehouse aesthetics this classic country diner scores a 7/10.
While Gabby's has been called, and branded as, Hill Country barbecue, that seems almost a misnomer. In truth the menu is a mix of Texan regional influences, with ribs shining through as the primary protein. These are joined by your standard selection of brisket, smoked birds, sausage, pulled pork and something called a Texas BBQ Pie that is essentially a frito pie on steroids. The brisket, typically the focal point of this column, was woefully lean and sliced paper thin. While the meat was tender and very-well smoked, with a picture perfect grain and a thin but pleasant outer bark, the flavor fell flat from a lack of both seasoning and fat. Cholesterol-craving patrons may need to specify moist over lean, though some fat content is expected nonetheless. On quality of brisket, Gabby's scores a 5/10.
As mentioned above, ribs are the star of the show at this north Heights barbecue joint. Spare ribs are the standard offerings on any 1-4 meat plate, but can be upgraded to baby back ribs for a couple bucks more. The spare rib in our three-meat plate had a marvelous sweet glaze, and came off the bone with relative ease. Its heavy fat content was forgiven by its massive size and tender meat. While not really necessary, the house's smokey and vinegary sauce was a pleasant addition. The pork sausage was good, though uninspiring. A little chewy and very greasy, its best quality was its heavy seasoning. On quality of non-brisket proteins Gabby's scores a 7/10.
The sides menu covers the gamut of southern regional influence, with classic Southern staples joined by flares of Creole and Texan cooking. A serving of Cajun red beans and dirty rice was hearty, with thick gravy and chunks of sausage. It delivered a low but welcomed level of heat, careful not to over power or ruin the accompanying barbecue. Fried okra was perfectly light and crunchy, though is admittedly hard to mess up. Dessert was less pleasant, however. The peach cobbler torpedoed our expectations with its lukewarm, straight-from-the-can peach flavor and artificial consistency. A scoop of vanilla Bluebell may have saved the day, but was nowhere to be found. On quality of sides and dessert, Gabby's scores a 6.5/10.
After 36 years in business Gabby's BBQ has seen its fair share of ups and downs. The business enjoyed a period of tremendous growth that almost saw it join the ranks of Houston culinary icons; names like Pappas and Goode. Sadly that period ended, leaving only the Shepherd location behind. That last outpost now carries the tradition of nearly four decades of history. While the fare can be a little outdated, unrefined by modern standards of craft barbecue and opulent brisket, some of its offering remain as good as ever. Perhaps its days are numbered, or perhaps its loyal and longtime customers may just keep this old smokehouse in business long after its more recent competition has died off.
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