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.
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.
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.