Restaurant Reviews

Timing is Everything at Jackson Street BBQ

I want Jackson Street BBQ brunch. An eggs Benedict riff with collard greens and a smoky hollandaise, perhaps? Maybe an omelette station, fluffy eggs folded around burnt ends or shreddy, smoky chicken? A partnership between homegrown heroes (both graduates of St. Thomas High School) Bryan Caswell (one of Houston’s most recognizable culinary names) and Greg Gatlin (a young barbecue gun steadily climbing the ranks) comes with a lot of expectations. It largely delivers, aside from a special “brunch.” Instead, all you get during the website’s advertised Sunday brunch is curtailed hours and a slightly longer line.

Of course, that line moves quickly, so you’d better know what you want.

The standard Texas trio of ribs, brisket and sausage works just fine here, as well it should. Of course, one essential truth of barbecue is that it is a fickle business, often varying in quality from day to day, even swinging toward or away from perfection depending on the location of the big hand on the clock. More than once, I’ve had a backyard pitmaster tell me how much better his once-a-week brisket is than at this or that storied joint, based on one visit when the fatty point needed a bit more rendering, the lean flat a bit less time. Hitting the sweet spot with one hunk of beef, without the pressures of running a commercial operation, is a laudable task, to be sure.

In a large-volume operation like Jackson Street, though, consistency is king.

A little bit after noon on a Tuesday, and the fatty brisket is in top form. The intramuscular fat and connective tissue are well rendered, drawing the smoke into the meat in melting rivulets of pure atavistic pleasure. The meat itself retains a bit of texture, incredibly tender but holding together long enough to bring a bite to your mouth, fat glossing your fingertips (the proper way to eat Texas barbecue being, of course, with one’s hands). The smoke itself is aggressive but not overpowering. If you get a piece cut from the end, with its three-dimensional crust of seasonings — a simple affair hinging on salt and pepper — there are additional rewards in the texture of the bark, not yet softened by holding.

Of course, you may find that seasoning a bit casually applied, plentiful in some spots and sparse in others. In comparison, the well-seasoned bites outshine their slightly more wan counterparts. This inconsistency seems consistent, popping up across several visits. Still, when a slightly more seasoned bite of brisket takes it from good to great, the quibble needs to be kept in perspective.

That same fatty brisket lost a bit of its luster on a late afternoon visit, falling apart into shreddy bits at the slightest provocation. The smoke is a bit too insistent as well, catching just a bit in the back of my throat. Good, good enough to warrant appreciation, but just a few ticks off center. Such is barbecue.

The lean brisket wobbles a bit more from one day to the next. While fatty brisket is my personal favorite, it is said by some that a properly cooked piece of lean is a better test of the skill of a pitmaster, with more potential pitfalls between sadness and sublimity. Jackson Street’s lean brisket is far from sad, but never quite summits, either.

Smart trimming leaves just enough of the fat layer between the point and the flat, lubricating the leaner cut and providing a better conduit for gentle-edged smoke to permeate the meat. This was enough to render the cut — sliced thinly seems to be the norm — delicate and tender on that Tuesday visit, but 4:30 saw it slightly desiccated, offering an experience veering dangerously toward jerky. The same was true during a Sunday not-a-brunch. While I’m not willing to say the lean brisket here is the measure of the man behind the pits, it’s definitely not the best thing coming out of the smoker.

I find it odd to say, but that honor might go to the smoked yardbird. It’s unusual for me to fawn over barbecued chicken. Its leanness doesn’t often lend itself to low-and-slow. Here, gorgeously burnished skin rubbed with a mix of warming spices and punchy thyme gives way to fairly trembling flesh, somehow still supple even while its pinked color hints at the smoke suffusing it. Moist, flavorful, evocative. It’s wonderful stuff.

It makes me wonder, then, why that efficient clockworks of a service line can’t chop one to order for a stuffed baked potato. Instead, the spud is loaded with meat held in Jackson Street’s dusky sauce, drying in spite of its bath. It’s a shame. If you want a potato, you’re better off with the brisket variant. Filled with a hodgepodge of bits culled from both parts of the primal, it’s a rogues’ gallery of textures that would fare better if it came with the punch of green onion and slick of sour cream that seem promised. As is, the potato is a spartan affair. If an impressive mound of chopped beef blanketing an ocean of melting cheddar can be called spartan.

The same holds for the chopped salad, where the beef is actually a lovely foil for a thin house-made ranch riotous with dill. Chopping the meat to order for these add-ons would gum up the works a bit but vastly improve the product.

Most people won’t come for a potato or salad, though. They’ll want to round out that trinity. Do so with a bit of both sausages on offer, a gentle German variety and a woolier venison number whose earthier base holds the smoke particularly well, offset nicely by just the slightest edge of heat. Both are of the fine-grained variety and, while I prefer a looser fill, have enough fat in the mix to keep things lubricated, along with a pleasantly snappy casing.

The ribs may find favor with some, as they did most of my dining companions. While they were properly cooked, retaining just enough tug to make you feel the fact of stripping meat from bone, there’s just something about the rub that makes them seem a little flat, a little one-note. Rather than enhancing the ribs’ porcine sweetness and meaty oomph, the rub seemed to dampen everything underneath it, even if it wasn’t particularly aggressive on its own. The quality of the meat and the cook shines through, though, so I’m willing to say that this one might just come down to personal taste. Again, such is barbecue.

If my example of the pulled pork sandwich is true to form, however, it’s not just a matter of taste. The pork would fare much better on its own; as it is, the pork is ancillary to the sandwich. The smoke flavor and texture are what they should be, but the meat fades under the weight of bun and slaw. Also, I want more vinegar tang. If you’re going to dress your pig, make it snappy.

That lack of bite holds true in a side of slaw, which is otherwise crisp, simple, barely sweet and nearly perfect. A bit of acid bite and it’d be swell. The other sides are a mixed bag, swinging from excellent to ignorable. Given the fact that staunch no-sides policies once ruled many Texas barbecue traditions, I’d say that’s an acceptable situation. For those who want to know: The collard greens are pinnacles of the form, with their ribbon of meaty smoke thanks to shreds and chunks dotting the silky greens, which retain just the right amount of resilience and back-end vegetal bitterness. Deeply savory, the greens are balanced out by just a hint of sour and sweet, from what I’m guessing is apple cider vinegar. Don’t miss them. An avowed collard-hating friend declared them delicious, even if he wouldn’t eat more than a few bites, on principle.

The dirty rice disappoints, missing that livery funk that gives the stuff its name. It’s inoffensive, which might even be considered an offense, depending on your dirty-rice stance. The beans might appeal to some, with their bounty of meat trimmings, but I find their dusky-sweet sauce (the same base as the sauce-on-the-side, I believe) a bit overbearing.

Fried mac and cheese is a hot-selling item, though I can’t tell you why. It relies entirely on the first factor in that equation, missing out entirely on oozy, creamy cheese. If I’m going to eat fried mac and cheese, I want it to come with serious risk of delicious third-degree burns. Skip the smoked deviled eggs, which don’t taste the part and have an odd, compacted texture. If you enjoy Sriracha mayonnaise, the potato salad might find favor.

Along with sides, Jackson Street brings a few other slightly unusual cards up its sleeve, perhaps chief among them a full bar and a very decent tap wall strong on locals. It’s especially nice to be able to get a frosty mug of 8th Wonder Dome Faux’m to go with top-notch brisket, an amenity not many barbecue joints can boast. Similarly, the partnership between Gatlin and Caswell means that the occasional seafood special pops up unannounced, like the barbecued crabs that floated across my social media back in May. I’ve yet to see one of these surf specials in person amid all the turf, but by God I’ll keep looking.

Jackson Street also offers a burger, but you’re at a barbecue place, after all. Two super-thin patties have decent crust but offer little beef flavor. Fresh produce adds crunch and juice, while two squares of American cheese add a slick of fat. The beef is, alas, underseasoned, and the grind a bit lean and edging toward dry. Grab mustard from the condiment station if you like your burger dressed, since it comes without. Really, though, if you want a burger, go to a burger joint.

As far as sandwiches are concerned, you’re better off waiting for 5 p.m., when the burnt end biscuit shows up. Better yet, order a biscuit on the side, stuff it with the barkiest bits of point you can find and dress as thou wilt. I recommend a simple gilding of pickles and maybe a sliver of raw onion. In that guise, it’s an admirable sandwich. The official version doesn’t merit the $10.95 ransom Jackson Street is asking.

Feel free to gloss over dessert. The chocolate chip cookies tend toward dryness even amid a bonanza of chocolate chips, and the pecan pie is run-of-the-mill. It’s too bad Gatlin didn’t reproduce the homey, captivating peach cobbler he used to serve on 19th Street.

So where does that leave Jackson Street? Broad hours with consistently good barbecue that verges on great, in the downtown district of a major metropolitan area, with a handful of perks like craft beer on tap and occasional specials from a gulf seafood whiz? Jackson Street is a very worthy addition to a swelling scene. Houston is just beginning its charge into the barbecue limelight, thanks in no small part to newcomers like Greg Gatlin. For a city whose public barbecue face has been so long dominated by chains, Jackson Street and its high-profile partnership may well stand as a line in the sand. Do this or better, or go home. It’s not a bad line to draw. On the right day, at the right time, it’s a damn good one. Now, about that barbecue brunch.

Jackson Street BBQ
209 Jackson, 713-224-2400, Hours: Mondays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Beef brisket $18.95/lb.
Ribs half rack/$12.50, full rack/$23.95
Sides $2.95
Sausage $7.85/link, $3.95/half link
Venison sausage $8.75/link, $4.45/half link
Burnt End Biscuit $10.95
Double double burger $7.95
Pulled pork sandwich $8.95
Half yardbird $6.50
Stuffed baked potato $8.50/chicken, $10.45/chopped beef
Chop beef salad $9.95
8th Wonder Beer $4
Pecan pie $3.95
Chocolate chip cookie $1.95
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall