One of the best things to come out of the Texas barbecue renaissance in recent years has been the industry wide shift toward better beef. The best pitmasters in the state seem to have universally adopted prime as the only grade suited for their world class brisket. Even pork has been upgraded, with several locals now sourcing prized breeds both domestically and abroad for their ribs and pulled pork.
The changes have been largely well received. After all, who doesn't want better barbecue? But what happens when the product disappoints? When a plate of barbecue costs as much as a prime rib-eye from a top flight steakhouse you expect to be blown away, intoxicated, to leave a greasy mess of beef fat and happiness. Sadly, that's not always the case.
After Grant Pinkerton opened his Heights smokehouse near the tail end of 2016, it took maybe a month or two for the city (mostly food media) to crown him one of the best — if not the best — pitmasters in Houston. Since then, his mesquite and post oak smoked brisket, huge beef ribs and glazed pork ribs have been lauded as some of the finest smoked proteins in the state by critics big and small.
An amateur pitmaster turned local beef celebrity, Pinkerton made headlines for his dedication to his craft, sleeping upstairs over the restaurant and devoting his every waking moment to perfecting his backyard style barbecue. The dedication paid off. Two and a half years later the weekend line still makes it out the door. The Pinkerton name now merits mandatory mention in any conversation about Houston's best barbecue.
The "Come and Eat It" sign that hangs above the entrance to the huge, hunting lodge-style building is a fitting slogan for the authentically Texan establishment. Inside, mounted animals line the ship-lapped walls of a dining room full of rustic wood tables and chairs. Outside, the massive patio is scattered with picnic tables and oak trees. The setting is as much pure Heights as it is pure country — a perfect example of Texas urban. On smokehouse aesthetics Pinkerton scores a 10/10.
More than the well decorated, classically Houston ambiance, customers line up at Pinkerton's week after week for the brisket. Prime slabs of beef smoked overnight, first in mesquite smoke then finished with luscious post oak for that deep campfire penetration. Unfortunately this writer's first Pinkerton experience was soured for two reasons.
The first: two tragically lean slices of brisket. While the thick peppered bark and top layer of fat delivered a nice dose of flavor, the brisket underneath was flaky and pathetically dry. Understanding that every slab of beef comes with its lean and moist sections, the sheer size of both colossal slices made their total lack of marbling all the more disappointing.
Bringing us to our second grievance. It's been noted that the brisket slices at Pinkerton's exceed the size and weight of most other smokehouses. And, to the extent that size is part of the "Bigger in Texas" aesthetic of the place, a little extra weight can be forgiven — even welcomed. Yet, when your brisket sells by weight at a brow-raising $20 per pound, cutting half-pound slices doesn't come across as good service, but rather an aggressive business tactic. The three-meat plate seen above rang in at an alarming $45 with just one drink and two small sides ($3.50 each).
Even still, its staggering price and relative dryness didn't entirely take away from the brisket's well-salted flavor and tender bite. On quality of brisket Pinkerton's scores a 6.5/10.
This column focuses heavily on brisket as the flagpole of Texas barbecue. It's the protein that defines the state's barbecue heritage, separating Lone Star smoked meat from the pork-centric traditions of the southeast. It's why we give brisket its own rating and group all other proteins under one roof. And yet, from time to time we are faced with a smoked meat so incredibly well-executed, so flavorful, so tender, that for a moment we forget beef even exists.
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Such is the case with Pinkerton's glazed pork ribs. Smoked pork so tender you can pick it up off the bone and eat it in one bite. A smoky red glaze so savory and sweet you won't waste any on napkin. The ribs are a revelation, one this writer was eternally grateful for after that depressing brisket ordeal.
Also worth noting is the spicy, smoky, rich and greasy jalapeno-cheddar sausage. On non-brisket proteins, Pinkerton's scores a 9/10.
Sides were unfortunately mediocre. While our platter included an extremely well-balanced and tangy mustard potato salad with a heavy dose of green onions, it also featured a bacon mac n' cheese that tasted like Kraft Easy Mac with chopped up bacon. Overall the side experience was good to passable, adding to Pinkerton's unfortunate hit and miss qualities. On quality of sides Pinkerton's scores a 6/10.
It's worth noting that restaurants have bad days. Pinkerton's is, after all, one of the most beloved and raved about smokehouses in Houston. We'd like to believe the brisket quality isn't taking a dive as much as we were served one particularly dry cut of beef. If nothing else, this writer may have found the best pork ribs in Texas, and a beautiful Heights patio bar worth giving a second chance. Our advice, take it easy on the half-pound slices and rethink that tired old sides menu. Either way, we'll be back.