I really like the pulled pork at The Pit Room, one of the city’s newest and most highly praised young barbecue joints. I didn’t expect that. While the stuff is popping up on barbecue menus across the state with more and more frequency these days, it still tends to take a backseat to the Texas Trinity of brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Not so at The Pit Room.
A generous quarter pound came as part of our “Feast No. 1,” a fixed-format deal meant to serve four to six people. The Feast offers a romp across the menu, delivering on its portion promises and then some. Lush and porky-sweet, the pile of tender, fall-apart chunks (the textural variation providing for a more interesting, less mushy experience than you may have had previously) come laced through with tang and pepper, the smoke itself a sure but subtle backdrop. It’s a head rush of meaty savor and salivating acid kick, fatty enough to feel indulgent; rich and yet suave.
It’s excellent on its own, and possibly even better when tucked into a freshly griddled flour tortilla (larded with smoked brisket fat, they’re deeply flavored if a bit tough and ill-formed). Graced with additions of pickled red onion, salsa verde, cotija and cilantro, the resulting taco is more than the sum of its parts, which is often the tricky part for barbecue tacos. The pork on our taco came just a bit dryer than the tangle that had fared so well in our Feast, but the other players pull in the slack and then some. The pickled onions are the key here, a wonderfully vibrant jolt that snaps all the other flavors to attention.
As a matter of fact, all three tacos on the menu are exemplars of an often-abused form. Most surprisingly delicious among them is the smoked chicken taco. It sounds like a mess. It is a mess, actually, but it works. A thick mantle of “griddled cheese” seems certain to overwhelm the smoked chicken verde (roasted green chiles offer a nice kick alongside the juicy, smoky shredded meat), and full cloves of garlic appear almost threatening in their insistence. You may wish the charred garlic had a gentler texture, but then you notice the melding of roasted garlic sweetness with the bite and fire of the fresh stuff, and it all makes sense. It is all over-the-top smother and punch, and it is fully delicious.
Even the chopped brisket taco — a sort of Tex-Mex blend of cafeteria taco swagger and street taco soul traipsed through a smokehouse — finds favor. Tart, spicy sauce-drenched chopped brisket, a heaping handful of shredded cheddar and squiggles of sour cream seem at first glance like an ungainly taco combo, but turn out to be flavorful, messy fun.
All three tacos are worth ordering, standing up both as tacos in their own right, and as admirable uses for the trio of meats they feature. As for the Trinity itself, I’ve had mixed results. That prix fixe platter, ordered during one of The Pit Room’s early dinner services, featured brisket that managed to be mushy inside and almost jerky-like outside, with an unappealing crunch to the bark. The salt and pepper rub was unbalanced and unevenly applied, which left some bites bland and others aggressively salty with the smoke flavor hesitant throughout. It wasn’t quite bad, but it was disappointing.
The story was the same with the pork ribs, two plump and meaty specimens and two wimpy end-pieces. The skimpy ribs suffered the same fate as the brisket, with mushy meat and dry, stringy bark. Their better looking brethren walked the walk, offering a delightful tug and a sweet meatiness that shone through under a pleasantly genteel smoke and a slightly piquant rub. The better version bore out in subsequent visits.
Those follow-up visits — one a late afternoon meal, the other smack in the middle of lunch — also saw improvements in the brisket. The salt balanced out, and the bark -became a nicely crusty cap topping a well-rendered fat cap shot through with smoke. Oddly, though, the best brisket experience I had at The Pit Room came in the form of a chopped beef sandwich. The beef came pre-chopped and immersed in sauce. Immersed, but not drowned, lending a lacquered effect worlds apart from the watery sandwiches wherein it seems like the meat is mere binder for runny sauce. This sandwich is generous with its meat, and the sauce gilds instead of overwhelming. Dress it yourself with selections from the enticing pickle bar, for some needed crunch and acid. I suggest the taqueria-style and carrots.
I only tried the one beef rib; the restaurant sold out early on my subsequent visits. I was not impressed. A big, bad beef rib should be a glory of meaty splendor. I received an ashen and shriveled simulacrum of the royal joints that parade through barbecue-themed social media postings. It was greasy and gristly, with only a thin ribbon of meat between the rock and hard place of bone and desiccated bark, which had far too much bite. This is not what you’re expecting when you order a beef rib. You’re expecting meltingly tender meat, run through with jolly, jiggling fat — smoky and flavorful and gluttonous. This one looked miserly and tasted like it had been forgotten for far too long. I saw the last rib leave the line my second time in. It looked terrific, wide and wobbly and oozing lasciviously. A far cry from the one I’d received. I’ll be back to claim one for myself, it looked so thoroughly the part I’d wanted it to play.
The Pit Room is among a newish breed of Houston barbecue joints, where the entire experience is being reconsidered. We are, as a city, reclaiming serious barbecue in a way we hadn’t for a while, and that seriousness extends beyond the meat. At The Pit Room, this approach shows up in more-considered side dishes, tuned to a Houston palate. Smoked corn shows up on the menu as elote, slathered in butter and dusted with cotija and cilantro. While the idea here is solid, the effect is unconvincing. The smoking dries the corn out a bit more than it should, leaving me wanting more fresh corn sweetness. I also want more spice, and a slathering of mayo for physical cohesion and the flavor-carrying and -marrying properties of the fat it brings.
A silly quibble, perhaps, but it’s also an odd side to include as an option for a spread of food intended for sharing. Passing around one gnawed ear feels a bit uncouth, even in a place where you’re encouraged to eat large portions of meat off of butcher paper using only your hands. Smoke the corn with a bit more restraint, then treat it like elote’s more demure cousin, the spoon-ready esquites, and this could be a landmark Houston barbecue side.
For my money (not to mention my kids’ willingness to spend it), the super-creamy mac and cheese is your best side bet. It’s basically broad elbow noodles in a queso bath. This is not a bad thing. It’s not fancy cheese stuff; it’s simple and straightforward and kind of perfect. When the noodles aren’t overcooked.
Both the charro beans and the potato salad recall the platonic ideal of their deli counter counterparts, both improving on taste and texture. The charro beans eat like “Ranch Style,” only looser and more vibrant and mined with a meaty rubble, while the mustard potato salad plays nicely on deviled eggs. There are also house-made chicharrones served with house-made hot sauce. I didn’t try those, but you can bet I will.
The Pit Room offers three sausages, each made in house. One house-made sausage is rare in Houston. Three may actually be unheard of. They’re all good, too. The beef version has an intriguing sweetness to it, with a delightful pop from mustard seed, alongside a meaty richness and a subtle mineral twang. Jalapeño cheddar sausage benefits from the snap of fresh chiles, their fruity heat spreading slowly and pleasantly. The cheese acts like pockets of oozing richness, lubricating the sausage as you eat it. The venison sausage is a little dry, but with great woodsy flavor. Sharp smoke, a hint of gaminess and a bite of red pepper play out nicely.
Another deft touch comes in the form of that pickle bar I mentioned earlier. Habanero dill pickles are beautifully fresh, both in texture and in taste, like a clean and spicy wind blowing through the Hill Country. Taqueria carrots snap assertively, an oily richness and resinous savory edge courtesy of a good dose of thyme finding dusky favor with the brisket’s richly favored fat. Pickled green onions kill with the pulled pork, their spiky, mustardy bite and slippery crunch setting off the tender sweetness of the meat.
You can get a beer from the small rotating selection, focused on Texas craft. You can take both your beer and your barbecue outside to the patio at Jackson’s Watering Hole, courtesy of their shared ownership.
The Pit Room is still young, and is already a bright light in Houston barbecue. Its focus is clear, its ideas are interesting and its food can be very, very good. Even if there are a few stumbles along the way, this is a great time to eat barbecue in Houston, even while what that means continues to change.
The Pit Room
1201 Richmond, 281-888-1929, thepitroombbq.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Chopped brisket sandwich $8.75
Brisket(half/whole pound) $9.75/19.50
Sausage link $3.50
Three meat plate $17.75
Beef rib $22
Brisket taco $4.75
Pulled pork/chicken taco $4.25
Sides (single/pint/quart) $3.25/6.50/11.25
Feast No. 1 (feeds 4-6) $85