This story has been updated to reflect that Bryan Caswell is no longer associated with Jackson Street BBQ.
In 2015 chef Bryan Caswell (Reef, El Real Tex-Mex) and Houston pitmaster Greg Gatlin opened Jackson Street BBQ in the shadow of Minute Maid Park. The joint venture aimed to capitalize on the growing popularity of Texas barbecue while catering to hoards of hungry Astros fans on their way in and out of games. As of last summer, Bryan Caswell is no longer associated with the downtown smokehouse, which just recently opened a satellite concession stand inside the ballpark itself.
After its opening, the smokehouse — named for the downtown street on which it resides — received an extremely positive review from Texas Monthly's Daniel Vaughn, along with overall positive reviews from both the Houston Press and Houston Chronicle.
It's been four years since that lauded and much anticipated opening. Today, any buzz surrounding the big red building north of the ballpark has been all but drowned out by the a roster of heavy-hitting new pitmasters slinging prime, Central Texas-style brisket as tender and moist as the finest rib-eyes in town. So, do the charms of a once local favorite hold up against the tide of new competition?
Jackson Street BBQ is, aesthetically, a near perfect Houston smokehouse. Housed in an antique building, alive with old-school H-Town charm and painted a loud, obnoxious red with vintage saloon lettering that screams "Welcome to Texas, y'all!"
From the street it's the exact type of Houston stereotype you want when waiting in line for barbecue, dressed in your finest Biggio jersey (the one with the stitching), hoping you'll see Springer ding one out of the park in an hour. Of course, all that beautiful vintage patina is somewhat lost inside, where a dim and sterile interior takes on more of an industrial personality. On smokehouse aesthetics, Jackson Street scores an 8/10.
In his 2015 review, Daniel Vaughn both expounded on and documented the fine, Gatlin-smoked brisket served at Jackson Street BBQ. From both the description and images, it appeared to be a heavily barked, well seasoned and extremely moist cut of beef — both thoroughly smoked and tender. Our experience four years later proved much less impressive. At 11:30 am on a Sunday, just moments before the Astros' pre-game rush formed a line out the door and around the block, the brisket in our Texas Trinity three-meat platter was entirely devoid of anything resembling a bark. Its lean consistency, while actually quite tender, lacked the fat content one would expect from a brisket of such high esteem. While smoky and flaky, the beef lacked seasoning and was buoyed by its own natural flavor and salt content.
While smoked brisket is a notoriously fickle protein, ranging from world-class to mediocre on a day-to-day, slice-to-slice basis, this is an acceptable crutch for a backyard barbecue champ not a smokehouse associated with Greg Gatlin. On quality of brisket Jackson Street scores a 6/10.
Where the brisket failed, the pork ribs succeeded. Tender and glistening with fat, their crispy bark was coated in a semi-sweet glaze. Our three small ribs had almost no bones to speak of, though what little there was slid out effortlessly. Bright red sausage was no culinary revelation but a fine product and, at $4/half link, quite the bargain.
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Previous reviews have made much of the Jackson Street BBQ yardbird, an arguable house specialty. With these reviews in mind we set our expectations a notch (or three) too high for this lauded smoked bird. The meat on our overflowing yardbird sandwich was, in a word, dry. Drier than can be salvaged by the measly single serving of sauce you're given with each tray (is there anything worse than sauce rationing?) The story here seems to be one of hits and misses. Where one protein impresses, the others disappoint. On quality of non-brisket proteins Jackson Street scores a 6.5/10.
Side dish specials are fun. Most chain barbecue joints offer paltry sides menus that rarely stray from the classic, easy to replicate, cafeteria-style standards. Weekly or daily sides specials are a sign that a joint is locally owned, creative and flexible with its menu. They're also a sign that a place does more than smoke meats and scoop potato salad. The weekly specials on our visit to Jackson Street were the smoked devils eggs and cheddar biscuits (the latter being more of a mainstay at this point). While both were delicious, the deviled eggs posed a confusing quandary — what exactly makes them smoked? They were tasty, yes. Mustard based, topped with chives and tomatoes and dashed with an obligatory pinch of paprika. But they were not, as far as this writer's palate could deduce, smoked in any way. On quality of sides Jackson Street scores a 7/10.
The verdict on Jackson Street BBQ circa 2019 is a disappointing and regretful, "meh." Perhaps its owners' attentions have been pulled into other projects. Perhaps its quality has suffered in the face of mounting, more craft-focused competition. Either way, those early photos and reviews don't lie. This was, at one point, a smokehouse serving some of Houston's finest barbecue. Whatever happened between then and now can, and absolutely should be reversed. The big red smokehouse is, after all, the only exposure to Houston or Texas barbecue thousands of out-of-town baseball fans' get on their visit to Houston. Given that responsibility, Jackson Street BBQ owes it to this city to do better.