We ordered two-meat plates so that, among the three of us, we have a sampling of every meat Kozy Kitchen sells. There are ribs, beef links, sliced pork, beef and veal. The ribs are a little too tough. Judging by their size, I'd guess they come from four- to five-pound slabs, instead of tender little three-and-a-half-pound racks. It's hard to cut the other meats with the plastic utensils provided, but the flavor is sensational -- as long as you don't mind a little fat.
A mild red sauce has been ladled over the compartment of the Styrofoam plate that holds the barbecue. It has a nice flavor, but not much spice. One of my dining companions, Fifth Ward barbecue expert Bert Long, picks up the shaker bottle that is provided on every table. It's full of an evil reddish-brown substance that has separated into two layers. He puts his thumb over the top and shakes it, then he squirts some over his beef links. "This is the secret right here," he says. "You need the hot sauce to give it some snap." The beef links are the best I've ever had. The finely ground beef paste is heavy on the fat so the meat stays gushy in the chewy natural casings, but it doesn't ooze out into a puddle, as beef links so often do. The links are mild, but the addition of each dash of homemade shaker-bottle hot sauce raises the spice level exponentially.
Long isn't impressed with the ribs. But Kozy Kitchen never was known for ribs, he explains. That was the specialty of Lockwood Inn, the famous barbecue restaurant that once stood right across the street. "We went to Lockwood Inn for ribs and Kozy Kitchen for links," remembers Long. "I'm 61, and I've been eating barbecue here since I was a little baby," he says. Lockwood Inn burned down several years ago, leaving Kozy Kitchen as the only remnant of the Fifth Ward's once proud barbecue tradition.
Bert Long, a Houston artist who grew up in the Fifth Ward, is one of many Texas barbecue lovers who have stepped forward and offered to set me straight since the publication of my Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses. I did my best to find oral histories, old photos and favorite smoked-meat recipes that elucidate the history and folklore of Texas barbecue. But not everyone thinks I picked the right ones. Long complains that my book includes several photos and recipes from Houston's Third Ward. But there is nothing at all from the Fifth Ward -- a grievous mistake, in his view. "The Fifth Ward is the barbecue ward," he says adamantly. "Always has been."
"Is the Fifth Ward the barbecue ward?" I ask our waitress when she returns.
"Well, it was," she says. "But most of them have closed." Long and the waitress reminisce about Lane's and Simpson's and Hayne's and all the other black barbecue restaurants that once thrived here.
Kozy Kitchen opened in 1946, during the era of segregation. It was one of many Fifth Ward barbecue restaurants that catered to the black community in those days.
Lockwood Inn was one such restaurant that also became a favorite of white barbecue lovers. It was a fancy place with pies and cobblers and iced tea, Long remembers. White office workers in shirts and ties would flock to Lockwood Inn from the Brown & Root plant right down the street on Clinton. Kozy Kitchen didn't appeal to the office workers, because it was a no-nonsense restaurant. It never had any pies, and it never served any iced tea. And it still doesn't. There's canned soda and water, and that's it. (You can bring your own beer.)
While we're talking, a white guy named Chuck Rice walks in, sits down at the table behind us and orders quietly. I check out his plate as the waitress walks by with it. It's an odd-looking pile of meat with lots of black stuff in it. There are beef links on the side. So I go over and introduce myself and ask him what he's eating. It's a special order I've never heard of that includes both inside cuts of brisket and plenty of the black spicy bits from the outside. "Just tell them you want some 'in and out' brisket; they'll know what you mean," Rice says. In fact, he tells me, he has also ordered an "in and out" sandwich to go for a friend back at the office who couldn't get free for lunch.
"How long have you been eating here?" I ask him.
"Around 20 years," he says. Kozy Kitchen and Luling City Market on Richmond Avenue are his two favorite joints in the city, he tells me. That list used to include Lockwood Inn, until it burned down. Rice agrees that more white folks ate at Lockwood Inn than at Kozy Kitchen. But unlike many white folks, Rice likes beef links, although the "in and out" brisket is his favorite.
Kozy Kitchen's brisket is juicy and tender and the beef links are the best, but it's the veal that really gets my attention. I've never seen the meat in a Texas barbecue joint before. It's served in shreds that include a little of the spicy black coating from the outside and long strings of juicy meat held together with plenty of fat. I stuff a big wad onto a piece of white bread and slather it with the mean-looking homemade hot sauce for a sublime sandwich.
"That's the difference between white and black barbecue," says Long. "White people don't cook it as long. And they doctor it up with marinades. Blacks slow-cook it -- and they cook everything to death." At Goode Co., every piece of meat is served in a perfect slice, he says. At Kozy Kitchen, they don't mind serving you a messy pile of meat debris.
The sliced pork looks like a slow-smoked shoulder, judging by the deep red smoke ring. I pile a few slices on some white bread. The Kozy Kitchen isn't stingy with the white bread. The pile on the table must be a foot tall. "Old-fashioned barbecue," says Long with a smile, "nothing but meat and white bread."
Actually, Kozy Kitchen's two-meat plates come with beans and potato salad, plus pickles and onions, but evidently this wasn't always the case. Long dismisses the beans as canned and he regards the pickles suspiciously as some kind of innovation. "They never used to have pickles," he says. He figures the potato salad is okay since it's homemade. It's the extremely soft style known as mashed potato salad. This version is made with pickle relish and mustard.
I remark on how slow business is. It's one o'clock in the afternoon, and Chuck Rice and the three of us are the only patrons in the restaurant. "We used to play hooky from Phillis Wheatley [high school] and come over here and eat lunch," chuckles Long. But the Fifth Ward's younger generation seems to have little interest in black food traditions like barbecue, Long says. "Kids today don't frequent barbecue places. They eat at Mickey D's."
Like many black Southern restaurants, the Fifth Ward's historic barbecue joints were the unwitting victims of integration. Once blacks were free to patronize any restaurant they wished, they deserted the old neighborhood joints in droves. With the simultaneous spread of fast-food outlets and drive-thru lanes, black Southern cooking nearly disappeared from the restaurant industry. Bert Long remembers a different time, when everybody in the Fifth Ward seemed to be out getting their barbecue on weekend evenings. "There was a line out to the street on Saturday night," he says, pointing to the shattered glass doors of the empty restaurant. "You couldn't get in this place in the old days."
I'm sorry I didn't know about Kozy Kitchen when I wrote my book; it would have made a great addition. And I will probably spend the rest of my life hearing about such mistakes. When it comes to Texas barbecue, controversy is part of the territory. But if "getting set straight" always includes a trip to a barbecue joint as good as this one, I'll look forward to the complaints.