Smoked Out: True Texas BBQ

Two meat platter with moist brisket and smoked turkey.
Two meat platter with moist brisket and smoked turkey. Photo by Carlos Brandon
We're going to skip the lead up this week and tell you that the worst thing about True Texas BBQ is having to drive an hour to get to the nearest one — which honestly begs the question, what are some of you thinking commuting to Kingwood everyday? Our hats go off to you.

In case you didn't know, and if you live in Houston you might not, H-E-B has its own line of in-store barbecue restaurants. And we mean restaurants. This isn't an extension of the grocery store's bakery and kitchen. You won't be ordering brisket and sides from a warming tray next to the sushi counter. True Texas BBQ is an honest to God, stand alone(ish) smokehouse inside select new H-E-B stores.

Despite launching in 2014 and receiving nothing but praise from publications and patrons alike, H-E-B has yet to open a True Texas location inside the city limits of Houston, Dallas or Austin. In fact, there are none within reasonable driving distances of Dallas and Austin. By that measure, Houston is spoiled with one in Kingwood and another in Magnolia. Perhaps the idea behind the random small town placements is to avoid competition with established barbecue names. Or maybe the concept only works in new stores, making it hard to expand into cities with dozens of existing H-E-Bs. Whatever the reason, eight of the ten existing True Texas BBQ locations are in small towns.

click to enlarge The brisket is tender and intensely flavored at True Texas BBQ inside the Kingwood H-E-B. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
The brisket is tender and intensely flavored at True Texas BBQ inside the Kingwood H-E-B.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
The stand alone nature of each location is, perhaps, the concept's most appealing feature. The Kingwood store, while housed inside an H-E-B, is its own restaurant complete with stone arch entryway, ordering counter, classic smokehouse design elements and plenty of tables. They've even gone so far as to dim the lights, taking diners completely out of the fluorescent-lit grocery store environment. It's entirely possible to sit and eat a tray of barbecue and forget, for a moment, that you're inside an H-E-B. And yet, some questionable elements remain. A wall of digital menus behind the counter gives the place a real fast food vibe, while a window display of True Texas big gulp mugs and other branded merch seems more suited to a truck stop. On smokehouse aesthetics, True Texas BBQ scores a 6.5/10.

Even having read so many glowing reviews prior to my visit, the quality and texture of the brisket came as a pleasant surprise. While not the best in Texas by any stretch, the fatty slices were moist, fork-tender, and deliciously seasoned. The fat distribution could have been better, but having seen some truly pathetic piles of fat passing as moist brisket, the product was stellar in comparison. The bark flavor and consistency is outstanding. Not too chewy and not at all crumbly, the well-baked and salty crust keeps a firm consistency across the whole slice. On quality of brisket, True Texas BBQ scores a 7.7/10.

click to enlarge Pulled pork sandwich from True Texas BBQ. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Pulled pork sandwich from True Texas BBQ.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Other protein options abound. In fact, the expansive menu features more than just staple, by-the-pound smokehouse meats. Beyond brisket, turkey, ribs and sausage, the restaurant offers sandwiches, BBQ baked potatoes, and weekly specials like giant "dinosaur" beef ribs on Fridays. Slices of smoked turkey breast were delightfully tender and salty, if only a tinge too dry. Its luscious peppery bark reminiscent of peppered salami. The pulled pork sandwich, however, had all the markings of mediocrity. While the pork itself was actually quite nice, both tender and extremely well-flavored, the preparation was lazy. A bland, white, fast food bun housed a neat scoop of too-fatty, sauce drowned pork. Objectively it was decent, perhaps even good. But against the quality of the restaurant, it felt cheap. On quality of non-brisket protein True Texas BBQ scores a 6.8/10.

The sides menu falls somewhere between boring and truly amazing. Brisket beans are rave-worthy. Unlike most sides that use brisket as a hook only to disappoint later, the charro-style beans are noticeably smoky, with a gravy that tastes like brisket drippings and pieces of burnt end in the mix. On the other hand, the mac and cheese was dry and paste-like, with a pronounced fake cheese flavor that belongs on stadium nachos. The charred creamed corn is known to be a winner, though didn't make it onto our plate on this occasion. On quality of sides, True Texas BBQ scores a 6.5/10.

Though it's been around for five years, True Texas BBQ's slow expansion into major markets (if not actual city limits) is quietly making it a household name across Texas. It's been called the best chain barbecue restaurant in Texas by Texas Monthly and, until Delta Blues opens more locations (which it plans to start doing later this year), we're inclined to agree.
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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