Smoked Out: Gatlin's BBQ

Three-meat platter with brisket, pork ribs and chicken.
Three-meat platter with brisket, pork ribs and chicken. Photo by Carlos Brandon
Greg Gatlin, the former Rice Owl defensive back and graduate, opened the first iteration of his self-titled barbecue joint sometime in 2010. Back then Gatlin's BBQ was housed in a tiny west 19th Street cottage that fit about 30 people. The family business (opened and operated with the help of Gatlin's parents) has since relocated to a much larger, shinier retail space at 3510 Ella.

Soon after its launch, and for nearly a decade since, the north Heights smokehouse has gained a fanatical following and a proud reputation as one of Houston's best. While the passing of time and relocation to a larger, more suburban locale have tempered the once famous lines, Gatlin's continues to serve — in our experience — some of the finest and most regionally diverse smoked meats in Houston.

click to enlarge Gatlin's BBQ has expanded to a larger location since opening in a tiny cottage in 2010. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Gatlin's BBQ has expanded to a larger location since opening in a tiny cottage in 2010.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
The move away from the original BBQ shack was a necessary expansion that has proved good for business. Though it came at a cost. Specifically the loss of its once unique charm and neighborhood smokehouse vibe. While the new location has been outfitted with every classic trope of the urban smokehouse genre (ship-lapped walls, indoor firewood stacks and a more minimalist logo) the strip mall exterior and contemporary open ceilings are a confusing dichotomy against those rural elements. On smokehouse aesthetics Gatlin's scores a 6.5/10.

click to enlarge Just. Look. At. That. Marbling. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Just. Look. At. That. Marbling.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
In a 2014 interview with Texas Monthly's Daniel Vaughn, Greg Gatlin credited his father with teaching him to cook brisket. He also defined his business as a mix of both East and Central Texas barbecue styles. The latter cannot be overstated. Gatlin's is a true Houston que' joint with the dirty rice and pork ribs to prove it, yet they smoke and sell some of the finest brisket this side of the Brazos River. Our generous three-meat platter featured four slices of moist brisket. From its thick and well-crusted black bark to its beautiful brown hue, heavy smoke penetration and top notch marbling, it was one of the finest pieces of brisket we have yet to feature on this column. On quality of brisket Gatlin's scores a 9.5/10.

click to enlarge The definition of tender. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
The definition of tender.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
It's hard to say what the specialty is at Gatlin's. While the brisket is a definite contender, ribs are given singular attention. They smoke two types of pork ribs, both baby back and St. Louis style. Our platter came with three hearty, sweet and savory, pull-apart tender St. Louis ribs that were perfect on their own and better with some housemade hot BBQ sauce. Smoked chicken was tender and had good smoke penetration, though perhaps little chewy and under seasoned. While not on our platter, venison and pork sausage links are customer favorites as well. On quality of non-brisket proteins Gatlin's scores an 8/10.

click to enlarge Creamed corn and potato salad from Gatlin's BBQ. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Creamed corn and potato salad from Gatlin's BBQ.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
The star of the sides menu is the Cajun dirty rice. A fact this author tragically discovered after his visit. Nonetheless, the creamed corn is both rich and savory, though perhaps a little runny. Potato salad was surprisingly well-balanced with the addition of bacon and diced tomatoes. Dessert is highly regarded as well, with cobbler, bread pudding and banana pudding coming straight from Mrs. Gatlin's own recipe book. On quality of sides Gatlin's scores a 7.5/10.

In all, Gatlin's thrives as one of the hands-down best smokehouses in Houston. Without the pedigree of a classically trained chef-owner, or even one with Central Texas training, this local smokehouse manages to out-do most of the high profile, chef-run joints through sheer natural talent, hard work and creativity. Gatlin's is a true Houston institution that proves we don't need to emulate Austin to make our own kick-ass barbecue scene.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon