Restaurant Reviews

Virtual 'Cue

The neon sign above the front door of Lyndon's Pit Bar-B-Q reads, "Open Pit." But there is no fragrant smoke wafting through the restaurant. That's because the two Southern Pride gas-fired, electric-powered rotisserie smoker-ovens at Lyndon's are neither open nor pits. They are high-tech units that cook meat in a smoke-infused environment while emitting hardly any smoke into the restaurant or the environment. I suppose the sign means to imply that the meat at Lyndon's tastes like it was cooked in an open pit. But that's not true either. It tastes like what it is: virtual barbecue.

When I first walked into Lyndon's, I thought of Lyndon Johnson, and his barbecue caterer, Walter Jetton. Jetton would have been aghast at what passes for barbecue these days. In his seminal work The LBJ Barbecue Cookbook (1965) Jetton wrote: "To barbecue, you need a pit … and it definitely shouldn't be one of those backyard creations with a chimney." If you weren't willing to dig a hole in the ground, Jetton allowed that you could put the coals in a cinder-block pit with a grate across the top. Walter Jetton was a purist.

Building open pits is a lost art. But they're probably illegal where you live anyway. In an effort to clean up the smog, big cities across the country have enacted clean-air measures and ozone action plans. Inner-city barbecue restaurants now rely on industrial contraptions that approximate the barbecue pit by adding smoke to a sealed gas or electric oven.

The Southern Pride smoker-ovens at Lyndon's are huge stainless-steel units with a firewood chamber in the back and a main oven in front. The chamber is filled with three or four logs, which are ignited by means of a gas jet. The wood smoke vents into the main oven, where a gas burner keeps the temperature at the level selected. A carousel of hanging wire baskets rotates inside to keep the heat and smoke exposure even so there is no need to open the oven. As the Ferris wheel turns, the meats baste each other with dripping fat. An electronic damper traps the smoke inside the oven chamber so that very little escapes. The meat is never turned, poked, mopped or otherwise touched my human hands.

Lyndon's is located in a strip center on the Northwest Freeway near the Hollister exit. I saw the place while I was buying tropical fish supplies at a nearby aquarium store. Since the neighborhood is populated mainly by such chains as Red Lobster and International House of Pancakes, I picked Lyndon's for lunch because it was the only homegrown restaurant I could find, except for the "All Day Chinese Buffet."

Barbecue is an obsession of mine. I have written about the top barbecue joints in Texas and eaten at famous barbecue restaurants all over the South. My next cookbook is titled Legends of Texas Barbecue. In my spare time, I judge cook-offs. So just because I see Lyndon's as part of an alarming trend that seeks to substitute technology for artisanal cooking skill, that doesn't mean I can't recognize the restaurant serves the best lunch available in the neighborhood. When it first opened in 1997, Lyndon's generated a lot of mail in the Houston Chronicle. While you stand in the cafeteria-style line, you can read the entire correspondence, because all of the letters have been enlarged and hung on the restaurant's walls. A lady named Irene Herd wrote to say that Lyndon's "serves pulled pork as I remember it from Alabama."

Lyndon's pulled pork is served authentically on a hamburger bun with the sauce on the side. And the folks at Lyndon's do a really cute thing with their barbecue sauce. They partially fill empty ketchup bottles with hot barbecue sauce and put them on a heated plate, so you get warm sauce with your meal. Unfortunately they do not, as far as I can tell, pour the drippings from the carved meats into the mixing bowl, which would give the sweet, ketchup-based sauce some flavor.

But the lack of jus in the barbecue sauce isn't the problem that the negative letter on the wall addresses. The pulled pork at Lyndon's is great, Charles Wilson wrote, but "the meat was lacking in any smoky flavor."

The criticism is well founded. The pulled pork is nicely crisped (a pulled-pork sandwich is $4.50, $6.95 with two sides), but I would have to agree with Wilson -- it lacks a deep smokiness.

I also had a sliced brisket sandwich (also $4.50, $6.95 with two sides), and I found that while Lyndon's brisket smells like smoke, it doesn't taste like smoke. The problem with the barbecue produced in rotisserie smokers is that the smoke doesn't penetrate the meat very deeply. It is a simulation of Texas pit barbecue, not the real thing.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh