About a year ago John and Veronica Avila expanded on their little known downtown barbecue stand, El Burro & The Bull, with a totally new concept aimed at reviving the dying neighborhood grocer and bringing some New York charm to the streets of Sixth Ward. Henderson & Kane is an old-school grocery store with a full barbecue menu, bakery, wine section and goods from dozens of local makers and growers.
The Avilas took inspiration for their country general store from the bodegas of Brooklyn. The kind they enjoyed while John manned the pits at Morgan's Barbecue. But it wasn't in Brooklyn that Avila learned to smoke meat. It was in Bryan, Texas, where he'd spend summers helping his grandfather run the old family barbecue joint. Years later, John and wife Veronica would move back south to start their own business as tenants of downtown Houston's underground food court, The Conservatory (the only original tenant still in business).
Despite a surprising lack of formal coverage in its initial year of business, El Burro & The Bull did great business. Enough to warrant an expansion. While most would assume a second location, perhaps a standalone brick and mortar, would be the obvious next step, the husband and wife team set out to create something much more original. And so Henderson & Kane was born.
Named after the Houston intersection on which it is located, the small corner store was beautifully renovated inside and out. What was once an empty and dilapidated retail space in the lovely yet aging Sixth Ward, today looks like a vintage photograph of midcentury Houston. Inside, a mix of classic country store elements combine with necessary modern touches like a row of refrigerators full of local craft beer, produce, Texas wine and more. In the back you'll find both the barbecue counter and bakery. During lunch they offer a full menu of barbecue even larger than the original food court offerings, complete with signature sandwiches, daily specials and rotating draft beers. Breakfast tacos are available in the mornings and pastries throughout the day. The rest of the store features a variety of craft goods like coffee from Pearland Coffee Roasters, salsa from Chilesquiles and Nando's local honey. While it's not the classic smokehouse vibe, this grocery-focused twist is perhaps even more authentic to the real roots of Texas barbecue. On smokehouse aesthetics Henderson & Kane scores a 9/10.
Our visit to El Burro & The Bull early on during the life of this column resulted in a pleasant though not entirely remarkable brisket experience. The underground food court sells really good brisket for downtown, even better considering it's not smoked onsite. But qualifiers aside, it could have used more in the way of bark and tenderness. Perhaps it's the full-sized kitchen and smoker on site, or maybe just a better slab of meat that day, but the brisket at H&K, in our limited experience, was superb. While the consistency and flavor of the bark improved very little (something we'll chock up to the pitmaster's own personal style) the beef was more tender, the fat well-rendered and the meat well-salted. It's not the cleanest brisket in the world. More chopped than sliced, it's a greasy mess suited more for a bun than a fork — not that I'm complaining. On quality of brisket, Henderson & Kane scores an 8/10.
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While the brisket impressed, it was (to our dismay) outdone by the pulled-pork sandwich. One of the better renditions of this barbecue staple you're going to find in Houston, the traditional hamburger bun is replaced by two slices of thick, buttery Texas toast. Delicate pulled pork is topped with housemade slaw to complete a flavor combo as perfect and timeless as chocolate and peanut butter. Jalapeno cheddar pork sausage is another knockout. While the grind is a little greasy and the casing a little too tough, the cheddar oozes out like a grilled cheese. The jalapenos pack a nice loud punch too, even considering they've been smoked to a crisp. On quality of non-brisket proteins Henderson & Kane scores an 8/10.
The sides menu seems to match that of El Burro & The Bull to a tee. This isn't really a problem — mac and cheese was as velvety and delicious as ever. The list includes most of the standard tropes of Houston barbecue: potato salad, creamed corn, ranchero beans. But the real treat here is the store itself. With an entire bakery of fresh pastries and a store full of craft goods to choose from, what you pair your barbecue with is entirely up to you. While this might technically be cheating, it's not as if other places don't have their own advantages. Whether it's the homemade chocolates at Tejas, the massive cakes at Truth or the full menu of Tex-Mex delights at Killen's, it's important to stand out in today's extremely saturated and always improving barbecue scene. The added charm the store brings to a routine barbecue experience cannot be dismissed, especially when judging our loosely defined "sides" category. On quality of sides, Henderson & Kane scores an 8.5/10.
This quaint and expertly curated shop is, naturally, more than a barbecue joint. It's a collective of some seriously impressive local goods, an old-school meat market, a local bakery, and a Texas bodega all in one. Henderson & Kane is a throwback to a Houston that's quickly disappearing, making room for more Shake Shacks and In-N-Outs. It's an authentic neighborhood experience in one of the city's best and often overlooked wards. And yeah, it's one hell of a good barbecue joint too.