When you set out to review barbecue in the city of Houston, you're bound to walk some well-trodden roads. Barring the occasional new opening, you're often left reviewing old-school stalwarts and hometown heroes. Pitmasters and cooks who made names in the pop-up and competition circuit, who've racked up their share of positive reviews from well known writers and publications over the years. And yet, few smokehouse in Texas have been so widely (and favorably) reviewed as Pappa Charlie's Barbeque — including this 2016 review by the Houston Press' then restaurant critic Phaedra Cook.
To re-review Pappa Charlie's may seem redundant. Though to ignore them seems unconscionable. Wesley Jurena has blazed trails in the Houston barbecue scene that today form the foundation for several noted smokehouses. Most notable of which is last week's Smoked Out subject, Buck's Barbecue — owned by former Pappa Charlie's partner and general manager Jim Buchanan.
Praise for Jurena goes back before his first brick and mortar in East Downtown, to his days slinging meat from the back of a mobile barbecue trailer. A barbecue competitor, he made his name in competitions, eventually opening the first Pappa Charlie's in EaDo in late 2015. In 2017, however, the brick and mortar smokehouse closed its doors; a casualty of both Hurricane Harvey and rising property values. Soon after, news broke that Jurena would reopen in Cypress. In April 2018, Pappa Charlie's opened its doors once again in a large stand-alone building it shares with Cypress Trail Hideout. Today, the multi-use space is part honky-tonk, part smokehouse, and part patio bar.
The large rectangular main building has a charming farm house appeal, with wrap around porch and faded lettering over sheet metal siding. Its sprawling patio is inviting, though perhaps more so when it's not 100 degrees outside. Inside, dozens of tables, a large bar area and full dine-in service paint a more formal restaurant setting than the previously quaint downtown smokehouse ever did. While the barn-like structure and ambient country music have a certain country charm, the new digs lack the intimate atmosphere and aroma one hopes for in a barbecue joint of such esteem. On smokehouse aesthetics, Pappa Charlie's Barbeque scores a 6.5/10.
Like his old partner in crime, Jim Buchanan, Wesley Jurena runs his smokers hot. Brisket and other smoked meats cook in half the time of some slow-and-low Central Texas joints. Yet, despite the rush, our four slices of fatty brisket were extremely tender. A little heavy on the fat, even for moist cuts, the beef was heavily seasoned with a course black pepper bark. Dripping with fat, the brisket had all the makings of top notch barbecue, but lacked the unmistakable smoke penetration and deep color profile of brisket smoked on low heat for 8-10 hours. On quality of brisket, Pappa Charlie's Barbeque scores a 6.5/10.
Not unlike our assessment of Buck's Barbecue, the hot-and-fast method may be unsuited to brisket, but shines in the preparation of other proteins. Pork ribs impressed with a semi-sweet and well-peppered bark and glaze. Not the most tender meat, but intensely flavored and paired wonderfully with the house's thick and tomatoey barbecue sauce. The turkey on our sliced turkey sandwich was superb and expertly smoked — accepting heaps of sauce like a tender sponge.
Beyond smoking turkey, sausage, ribs and boudin, Pappa Charlie's popularity lies in the extensive menu of non-traditional smokehouse fare. Items like pit-smoked buffalo wings tossed in one of four house sauces, Hideout Nachos coated in brisket, pulled pork or smoked chicken, Smoked Brisket Queso, or the signature Red, White and Bleu Brisket — smoked brisket, beefsteak tomatoes, sweet onions, bleu cheese crumble and balsamic vinaigrette over lettuce. It's no wonder Jurena and company coined the term GoofyQue back in their mobile smokehouse days to describe their barbecue-based creativity. On quality of non-brisket proteins Pappa Charlie's scores a 8.5/10.
Sides were both classic and well-executed. Which is admittedly a welcome surprise given the creative flair of the rest of the menu. Sometimes you just want some classic smokehouse fare. A thick and cheesy sauce coats extra large shells in the homey and cozy mac 'n cheese. Creamed corn was nicely textured, not too runny with just a touch of heat delivered by chopped peppers. Though it could have used more seasoning to brighten the dish. Both were generously served. Each "side" was enough for two people to comfortably share a two-meat plate. On quality of sides Pappa Charlie's scores a 7/10.
The relocation seems to be going well. After struggling in an expensive and out-of-character neighborhood, the creatively minded smokehouse has found a more fitting home in Cypress. Both in terms of culture and success, the new Pappa Charlie's seems a better fit in its adopted hometown, while the Cypress dining scene is infinitely better off for it.
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