For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Note: Many entries are excerpted from previous Best of Houston® entries, as many previous award winners have maintained the same standards of quality that garnered them awards in the first place. Go 'cue.
You judge a barbecue joint by its smoked meat. And the best comes from a real pit. The old cinder-block pit in Thelma's on Live Oak -- before it burned down -- should have been declared a historic landmark. The design was brought to Houston by the legendary Joe Burney of Beaumont back in the '20s. Harry Green, and other Houston barbecue legends who learned the trade from Burney, built pits like this in several Third Ward locations. When Harlon's bought Green's old location on Almeda, the first thing they did was to take a sledgehammer to the cinder-block barbecue pit and install a stainless-steel contraption. The new stainless-steel barbecue ovens, with their gas and electric heating and automatic operation, are convenient for restaurant owners, but the barbecue they produce doesn't measure up to the old-fashioned pit 'cue at honest-to-God joints like Thelma's. And although the meat and sauce at its new location on Southmore aren't as good as they used to be, it's still a solid bet.
9. Burns Bar BQ
On Saturday afternoon, Burns Bar BQ is party central in Acres Homes. The crowds line up when the place opens, and they never let up until the ribs are gone. Burns Bar BQ serves their ribs well done under a sweet and subtle glaze of sauce and smoke. They're the best in the city. Patriarch Roy Burns grew up in Midway, Texas. He sold barbecue from a smoker on the side of the road until arthritis slowed him down. He opened his original barbecue joint more than 20 years ago at 8307 DePriest and brought in some family members to help out. His brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth; it's as soft and wet as pot roast. If you judge it by the standards of white barbecue, then you won't get it. Beef that isn't falling apart simply isn't done enough according to the black East Texas aesthetic. Carolina barbecue is whole-hog, slow-smoked to stringy mush; the black East Texas style does the same thing with beef, which was always cheaper and more plentiful in Texas. Put some of Roy Burns's falling-apart brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions, and think of it as Texas's answer to a Carolina pulled-pork sandwich. Suddenly, you'll understand. Its new location on 7117 N. Shepherd isn't as good as the original (see: Thelma's, for the same story), but it's still a Houston institution.
Like both Thelma's and Burns before it, Triple J's is now on its second location at 6715 Homestead Road, just north of Kashmere Gardens and right outside the Loop. Triple J's isn't just popular for its East Texas-style barbecue, though, as good as it is. This joint also serves some pretty fine links of spicy Cajun boudin and smoked turkey. Around Thanksgiving time, orders for that juicy turkey -- which Triple J's will also deep-fry for you -- keep the joint busy around the clock.
Yes, it's a chain. Yes, it also sells gasoline. Yes, it looks a bit like a Buc-ee's. But you'd be remiss in passing off Rudy's as just another lame chain restaurant. The barbecue here is top-notch stuff, and the fact that there's almost always a line at all of the Houston-area locations attest to this fact. It's Central Texas-style stuff, which means the sauce is served on the side and doesn't detract from the surprisingly moist brisket and tender ribs. You can even purchase some of the wood that Rudy's uses in its brick smokers to use yourself at home. Even better, Rudy's is a reliable pit stop for road trips as well as the type of cute, Texana-flooded restaurant that's perfect for out-of-state visitors who are getting their first introduction to Lone Star-style 'cue.
Veteran barbecue expert Robb Walsh tells you all you need to know about Lenox: "The ribs at Lenox Bar-B-Q on Harrisburg Street are very good, and the stubby pork links, which are custom-made in Yoakum, are a nice variation on the meat-market sausage theme," he wrote back in 2000. "The little restaurant, once known as the Lenox Cafe, was originally located a block away at the corner of Harrisburg and Lenox. It was here that barbecue first met modern technology." That modern technology was the Oyler rotisserie, patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. This rotisserie-meets-steel-pit is heated only with wood in a far-away firebox, and is so good at its job that's it's now used at many of the best barbecue joints across the state.
The Brisket House refutes the notion that a good barbecue place can't also have good sides; the smoked chicken, ribs and brisket here are every bit as wonderful as its baked potato salad and coleslaw. Try them all on a three-meat plate for an inexpensive but very filling lunch. The little strip mall 'cue joint also refutes the notion -- just discussed above -- that good barbecue can't be had at a place with a gas-powered smoker. There's always an exception to the rule, and The Brisket House is it. Belly up to its best plate, The Brisket House Special, and you'll get a pound of its smoked meat (your choice) on a piece of butcher paper with a whole pickle, chunk of cheese and an onion.
Originally known as Shepherd Drive Barbecue, this is the restaurant where the legendary John Davis once presided as owner and pit boss. When John Davis died in 1983, the current owner, Jerry Pizzitola, bought the place from the Davis family so he could preserve it. The old-fashioned pit burns hickory, just like it did in John Davis's day. The sausage comes from a Czech sausage maker in the Hill Country; the barbecue sauce is thin and spicy; and the ribs and brisket are among the best in the city. And while the sides are plain, the desserts -- which are made by Jerry's mom and include banana pudding and coconut pineapple cake -- are excellent. The dining room sports one of the city's wackiest collections of bric-a-brac, much of it related to fishing.
3. Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que (temporarily closed; will reopen later this year)
Friendly, accommodating and spotlessly clean, this top-notch barbecue joint in Acres Homes isn't far from the ashes of the late, great William's Smokehouse. Owner Clarence Pierson is a bear of a man who knows his smoked meats. He cooks on an honest-to-God, wood-fueled, Houston-made Klose barbecue pit -- not one of those gas-fired stainless steel virtual barbecue pits that burn a little wood every now and then. Pierson's deeply smoked brisket is remarkable, and his pork ribs are tender yet chewy. The Louisiana-style beans are mixed with meat and lots of seasonings so they resemble a cross between baked beans and chili. Desserts include homemade peach cobbler and bread pudding. There's one big family-style table in the middle of the dining room -- pull up a chair and make some new friends. While it's currently closed, Clarence Pierson hopes he'll have recovered enough from his recent surgeries to have it open again in the next few months.
Back when the Houston Chowhounds were still doing BBQ Smackdowns every year, Virgie's consistently received high marks for its rich, smoky flavor and tender texture, most evident in its popular pork ribs. But according to pitmaster Adrian Handsborough, it's the brisket that is far more popular at the restaurant. He sells more than 100 pounds of it each day, far more than his pork ribs. Both are excellent options, however, especially when topped with Handsborough's signature spicy-sweet barbecue sauce. And the nearly 8-year-old restaurant makes its own sides, too, ranging from an excellent, picnic-ready potato salad to homestyle green beans.
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At Gatlin's, low and slow are the keywords in this family's burgeoning barbecue empire. There's barely any seating inside, and only a small attached patio, but that doesn't stop the lines from forming outside the front door every single day, demanding Greg Gatlin's brisket and ribs. Unusual for a barbecue joint, the sides are just as craveable as the meat: Try the dirty rice and you'll leave an avowed liver lover, and get some creamy coleslaw for a little crunch alongside your meat. And when they say, "Love is the secret ingredient" here, they mean it: You'll always get service with a smile and a gentle reminder not to leave without dessert.