As much as any aspect of Texas barbecue, regionality plays perhaps the most prominent role in any pitmaster's portfolio of smoked meat. The protein, preparation and flavor preferences of each region vary in ways both subtle and overt. From the whole-hog smokers of East-Tex, to the slow and low brisket masters of the Hill Country, the barbacoa kings of the RGV and the mesquite wood fires of El Paso, Texas pitmasters tend to reflect the styles of their home region.
But what happens when a Bryan-born chef with ranching heritage and Tex-Mex roots cuts his teeth working the pit at Franklin's, pitmasters at a noted Brooklyn smokehouse, then opens his own place in Houston? A fantastic mix of regional-influences and a lifetime of experience come together to create one of H-Town's most underrated barbecue joints.
El Burro & The Bull is the only remaining original concept inside Downtown’s underground food court, The Conservatory. The dimly-lit BBQ stand tucked into the back corner of the trendy cafeteria has been there since the place opened in 2016. Opened by pitmaster John Avila, whose barbecue credentials stem back to his days growing up on a Texas cattle ranch, the Burro & Bull concept aims to bring varying Texas barbecue styles, south of the border influence and Gulf Coast seafood under one roof.
As a food court stand, especially one with as little room as El Burro & The Bull, judging its smokehouse aesthetics head to head against standalone brick and mortars seems unfair. While we won’t give the place a 1-10 rating on aesthetics, it’s worth noting that Avila and company do what they can with the space they’re given. A custom-built wood counter with inlaid shelving and some hints of cowboy decor help give the extremely dimly-lit affair a bit of smokehouse flavor despite it’s literal underground location.
Food court or not, the brisket at this grab and go counter rivals even the best full-bore smokehouse in town. Clearly smoked offsite, it’s kept moist and warm all day in a full-sized warmer and sliced to order. Though not the most tender brisket around, its darker complexion and deep flavor profile suggest some serious smoke penetration. A nice juicy bark over a succulent fat layer keeps the whole thing moist and greasy, making the brisket’s firm bite a lot more forgivable. On brisket quality, El Burro & The Bull scores a 7/10.
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While the brisket is impressive on its own, the restaurant’s real calling card is its larger array of meat offerings and specials. That includes beautifully tender pulled pork, smoked wild turkey, spicy Andouille jalapeno-cheddar sausage, wonderfully smoky boudin, a selection of barbecue-filled tacos and intriguing specials like seafood gumbo. By far the most original and highly rated dish on the menu is the Brisket Benedict Torta — a combination of Texas barbecue, Mexican torta and classic eggs Benedict form a gooey, drippy, mouth watering sandwich that should be a first ballot entry into the fusion food hall of fame. On non-brisket proteins El Burro & The Bull scores a 9/10.
Despite the concept’s amazing selection of non-traditional meats and exciting specials, sides are given noticeably less significance on the inspired fusion menu. The normally indelible mac n’ cheese is a little on the watery side, and a lot on the bland side. While slightly better, the creamed corn is also in need of some TLC in the form of more seasoning. Ranchero beans are likely the best rated side on the menu, fitting with the overall Tex-Mex vibe. A respectable potato salad comes in second, though doesn’t do quite enough to raise the stakes. On quality of sides, El Burro & The Bull scores a 5.5/10.
The fact that this tiny — and we mean tiny — barbecue stand has survived when its fellow Conservatory opening acts all fell by the wayside says a lot about the quality of the barbecue. Food courts are notorious for their turnover, and by those standards El Burro and the Bull has survived a lifetime. Its success has even allowed John Avila and his wife Veronica to open a barbecue-centric old-school general store in the Sixth Ward called Henderson & Kane; perhaps the first in a coming line of Burro & Bull expansions. With barbecue chops like these, any of Avila’s future ventures are likely to do well; he may just need to tweak the sides menu a bit.