Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Vincek's Smokehouse

Vincek's Smokehouse
139 S. Dill St. Map
East Bernard, TX 77435
Open Tues-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3

Between the deer processing, sausage making and meat smoking, Gary Vincek is a busy man. He is also a great host who showed us around the entire operation at this gem of a barbecue joint southwest of Houston. A couple of skinned deer legs peeking out of the boxes in the back of a truck in the parking lot reminded us us that their core business is meat processing, and inside the shelves of goods and the meat case that runs the length of the joint could be warning signs that the barbecue is an afterthought. That couldn't be further from the truth.

On the far right of the meat counter is an area with several bustling employees filling the orders for smoked meat. You almost have to yell out your order into the crowd and hope that it sticks. My combo plate of ribs, brisket and the homemade sausage came out quickly with potato salad, beans and a slice of homemade bread.

As Gary explained, the huge concrete smokers in back were there when they bought the place 26 years ago. Huge metal lids are raised by a pulley system to reveal grates full of chicken and ribs with glowing charcoal below. There's no wood for these meats, just lump oak charcoal. Over in the bricked smokehouse, the sausages and briskets are indirectly smoked with pecan. When the briskets are within about three hours of being done they are transferred to the charcoal pits to finish cooking and to take on some of that charcoal flavor. It's a unique process that brings about a unique flavor.

Sausage is the house specialty, and it shows. The meats are ground rather than chopped in order to get a coarse consistency. Spiced with black pepper and garlic, these links are smoked until the casing are nicely crisp resulting in one of the finest sausages I've had anywhere. St. Louis style ribs had taken on the flavor of the charcoal quite well. They tasted similar to the ribs I had all over Memphis, which is a city where direct heat charcoal cooking is popular. The high heat hadn't rendered out the fat, and the ribs were still tough, but the flavor was great. The brisket slices were a bit dry, but they had great smoke and a crisp crust that had been further developed over the charcoal fire. Even with the dryness, this was some fine brisket that any joint would be proud of, and it's good to see that the ownership here takes plenty of pride in what they do. This includes the mini homemade pies that should be a required finale to any great meal here.

Rating ****
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Austin's BBQ

507 East Main St.
Eagle Lake, TX 77434
Open Thur-Sat 8-6, Sun 9-2

Only two BBQ joints in Texas have made it into Texas Monthly's Top 50 BBQ in 1997, 2003 & 2008 without being in the top 5. One is Schoepf's in Belton and the other is Austin's in Eagle Lake. I've had this one on my wish list for some time, so I was excited to give it a try and see what's so special. A good sign upon arrival was a haphazard pile of pecan logs taking up several spaces in the parking lot. This is the only wood they use in their very large indirect smokers out in front of the building.

The placement of the smokers right next to the entrance make for a appetizing odor and a solid advertisement for their smoking methods.

Ordering is done inside along a small walkway that leads to the register. Options are limited, so I went straight for the Texas trinity of brisket, ribs and sausage. There are signs stating that you must request your sauce on the side if you want it that way, so I did.

A homemade sausage was a beef and pork mix with heavy black pepper seasoning. The links were good, but could have had more smoke and a better snap to the casing. The grind made for an almost cohesive sausage, but it hadn't reached commercial sausage consistency. The ribs were incredible. A heavy black pepper rub helped create a beautiful crust. The smoke penetrated deeply into the meat, and the rendered fat within made these ribs perfectly juicy. Brisket had the same heavy rub and well rendered fat. The smoke was bold on these tender slices, and the fat that remained had excellent flavor. All the standard sides are available, but I went with the duo of potato salads. Both types were mashed pretty heavily. The mayo-based option had a heavier vinegar kick with some good sweetness while the mustard-based one was pale yellow with a milder flavor. Either option would be one of the better potato salads around. With all of these quality meats and sides, it's no wonder the accolades have been steady and frequent. This is a joint worth seeking out.

Rating ****

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rucker's BBQ

HEARNE: Rucker's BBQ
601 Colbert St

Hearne, TX 77859

Phone: Probably not

Hours ?

Hearne is known as the Crossroads. The area got its name as a result of the crossing of two major rail lines when the Missouri Pacific and the Southern Pacific met in town. Along Highway 6 you'll see billboards for a couple BBQ joints, and you might also notice a building with flaking plaster almost touching the highway with "Shamrock" painted on the side. The building has probably had dozens of uses, but most recently it housed a bed & breakfast, then Shamrock Bar-B-Q. Several months ago it became Rucker's BBQ. This is only marked by some painted plywood next to the gravel driveway.

Smoking with a mix of pecan and oak out in front of the joint, the results are mixed. Sausage from Slovacek's has good smoke and great snap and the ribs are great. A rough, smoky, sweet exterior has moist and tender rib meat beneath. The rendered fat helps mix in all the flavors from the rub right into the meat. If only the brisket was smoked as thoughtfully. A pile of smokeless roast beef was soggy mush with strands of chewy fat that even an over-sweet sauce couldn't save. With competition in town from not one, but two cousins, this Rucker has some work to do.

Rating **

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Gerardo's Drive-In

HOUSTON: Gerardo's
609 Patton St
Houston, TX 77009
Open Daily 5:30-6 (Barbacoa F, Sat & Sun only)

If you're reading this I presume you're awake, which means that Gerardo's is probably open. If it's a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and you're anywhere near Houston, then you need to make a trip for some hearty barbacoa. Barbacoa has many meanings. A strict translation is barbecue, but depending on your heritage, it could mean any cut of smoked goat, mutton, or more specifically cow heads. Most times in Texas when you find barbacoa on the menu it will mean cabeza de vaca or cow head (unless you're at Chipotle), and it will rarely be smoked. In fact, other than Vera's in Brownsville, there may not be any commercial barbacoa that is smoked. At Gerardo's in Houston they wrap the heads in foil and steam them like owner Jose Luis Lopez learned to in Michoacan. The seasoning is mainly salt, pepper and oregano, and the results are incredible.

The meat could be eaten by the forkful. The silky salt-soaked fat mixed in with the chunks of meat make for a rich flavor. Add some of their famous salsa verde on a fresh grilled tortilla, and you'll have one of the finest breakfasts that can be had.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Strictly speaking, this probably isn't barbecue, but the rich tradition of barbacoa in the state is very much overshadowed by other traditional barbecue styles. I'll be interested about the effect the smoke used at Vera's will have on the meat when I visit there in the coming month. There isn't a hint of smokiness here (why would there be?) but the results are worth coming back for.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

In addition to cabeza of the cow, they also feature chicharrones, pork carnitas and mutton barbacoa. The mutton lacked the gaminess I had braced myself for, and was just as good as the beef. It was more tangy, and a bit dryer, but not too dry. The meat also had a nice reddish hue different from the dark brown flesh of the beef. I don't think I'll be able to choose between the two on my next visit, so I'll just have to get both.

Rating ****

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Dozier's Grocery & Market

FULSHEAR: Dozier's Grocery & Market
8222 FM 359

Fulshear, Texas 77441


Open Tues-Thur 9:30-6:30, F-Sat 9:30-7, Sun 10-7

I've been told that this was among Texas' best BBQ joints when award winning pitmaster Ed Dozier was still manning the pits. I wasn't around then, but I can tell you today that they still put out some respectable, just not incredible barbecue.

A three meat plate was served up quickly with ribs, brisket and sausage. The two sides of fresh and still crunchy green beans and creamy baked potato salad were both great. The sausage had good seasoning and pretty good snap to the casing. The meat had been ground a little more fine than I like, but it was a good link. Brisket had good smoke but was left a bit dry after all of the fat was scraped off the meat. A good smoke ring and nice black crust made for pretty slices, but the meat just wasn't as good as it looked. The ribs had a thick rub that hindered a good crust from forming, or they may have just been stored a little too long. Either way, the meat was still tender, moist and enjoyable. If you can't make the drive to some other exceptional choices for barbecue in this area west of Houston (like Vincek's in East Bernard and Austin's in Eagle Lake) then Dozier's is a fine option for smoked meats.

Rating ***

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Maywald's Sisterdale Smokehouse

SISTERDALE: Maywald's Sisterdale Smokehouse
1123 FM 1376 (at FM 473)
Sisterdale, TX 78006
Open Every Other Sat & Sun 11-7

In 2007, John Maywald had a restaurant building that he couldn't lease out, and he was more than skeptical about using it to run his own place. After nearly four years of sitting vacant, he decided along with his spouse and some friends to fish rather than cut bait. He hasn't yet quit his accountant day job since he was used to the grind of the weekend warrior circus that is competition barbecue, but they have some very limited hours (every other Saturday and Sunday, aka: call ahead) that hopefully will change given the stellar smoked meats.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

An old Oyler pit that he picked up second hand sits within a trailer out back of the joint. Hickory is the only wood that goes in, and what comes out is not the beef broth injected and over-trimmed brisket from the competition circuit. This meat has deep smoke, and perfect meaty texture. The silky soft fat had sucked up any remaining smoke that the brisket missed for an otherworldly flavor. The rub was ingredient laden, but salt and sugar are high on the list keeping the surface from gumming up. Tender but meaty ribs had the same rub flavor, but with more punch (maybe from MSG). Either way, it was a stellar combo.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

I had to fish out the lonely link of sausage from under the pile. It was hiding from embarrassment. There was nothing redeeming from this limp precooked link. It was meant for an oblong white bun, not butcher paper. It honestly had me a bit depressed about the plate as a whole until I bit into the chicken. I can say without hyperbole or any self-doubt that this was the finest smoked chicken thigh I have ever consumed. With the chicken, John was just showing off those competition smoking chops. At the judge's table, nothing is worse than chewy chicken skin or dry meat, but this thigh had a perfectly paper-thin crispy skin that came away cleanly with every bite through the lusciously moist and tender meat. Smoked chicken is not something I'm used to gushing about, but this was poultry nirvana.

Hard to find at the crossing of two small Farm-to-Market roads just a dozen or so miles north of Boerne, this joint is worth seeking out. With some luck and consistent food, this joint may just find themselves open a few more than four days a month, and the pitmaster can finally put down his calculator.

Rating *****
Maywald's Sisterdale Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

R Place

23254 FM 1155 E
Washington, TX 77880
Open F-Sat 11-9, Sun 11-6

The road seems to end right at the doorstep of this renovated historic building. Just before you run into the joint, hang a right as the road makes an abrupt turn, and the parking is on your left. Large letters outside read "H. A. Stolz Groceries", but it now houses R Place restaurant. If it looks familiar, you may be a Daytripper fan. The interior is part preserved general store, and part refined art-clad dining room. The long bar completes the inviting feel, but you'll want to walk right through to the back doors if the weather's nice. A number of picnic tables sit beside the barbecue pits and the open grate grill used for Saturday night steaks. From here you can see the site where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed just over the low fence that marks the boundary of the adjacent state park.

We waited at one of these outdoor tables while our sampler plate was prepared. A heaping plate of ribs, brisket and sausage came out as we mulled over the dessert options. The smoked meat smacks of the well meaning results of a barbecue hobbyist. Ribs were well smoked, but the seasoning was too thick to allow a good crust to form. Another hour on the smoker would have rendered out the fat and aptly tenderized the meat, but what we got was tough and chewy. Brisket suffered the same fate. It was seasoned well and had a great looking crust and smokering, but the tough meat with unrendered fat just needed more time on the smoker. Sausage has decent seasoning and was a cut above Eckrich, but lacked adequate smoke.

Any deficiencies in the meat were quickly forgotten when the large bowl of peach cobbler came to the table. Homemade cinnamon ice cream (it wasn't clear if it's from scratch, or if they mix in the cinnamon flavoring into Blue Bell vanilla) was the perfect complement to the warm cobbler, and between three men who were about proteined out, it didn't last long. I would honestly make the drive here again just for dessert. I guess I'd try the barbecue again, if only because it was obvious they were trying. Hopefully they can work out some of the kinks we found on this day.

Rating **

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Rattler's Pit

NAVASOTA: Rattler's Pit
1106 W. Washington Ave.

Navasota, TX 77868


Open Tues-Thur 11-7, F-Sat 11-10, Sun 12-4

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2012: The photos of the worn signs from Wyatt McSpadden's book on Texas BBQ made Ruthie's a joint that I sought out on two separate occasions. Neither time was it open. The first was the wrong day, and on the other try a passer-by told me that the owner was riding his horse in the woods, and might be back later. This was at noon on a Saturday. After these two experiences, it should not have been surprising to find the business gone on this latest try. While the sign along the road that reads "Ruthie's Pit Bar-B-Que" remains, all of those other hand painted wooden signs that hung on the building were gone. Inside the screen door was a small table with take home menus that read "Rattler's Pit".

In addition to barbecue, the Rattler's Pit also does fried foods. The fried ribs and wings were already gone, but there were plenty of gizzards left in the warming tray. I'd never tried these little delicacies, and the amount of effort that it took to chew them to a consistency that could be swallowed didn't convince me that I'd missed much.

A side of beans was well spiced and tasty, but the potato salad may have been from a bucket. Big thick and meaty spare ribs had a great crust and good smoke. The meat came off the bone a little too easily, but it was good and moist. The brisket, however, had been wrapped during smoking, so it was like soggy roast beef without any smokiness. A dip in the sauce didn't even help. Luckily, it was near the end of the day and we were no longer hungry anyway.

Rating **

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew

AUSTIN: Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
6610 N. Lamar
Austin, TX 78757
Open M-Thur 11-8:30, F-Sat 11-9

Austin has traditionally been a jumping off point for barbecue trips to famous towns like Lockhart, Luling, Taylor and Llano. Great barbecue seems to surround the city, but the city has been getting a reputation of its own as a barbecue destination. Some have even started to question if there's a need to trek the forty-five minutes from Austin to Lockhart. Franklin Barbecue started these questions, and the Austin crowd got louder after John Mueller's return. The opening of Stiles Switch may just seal the deal. While matching the experience and ambiance that can be had at those hallowed barbecue temples, there's now no reason to leave the city for great smoked meat, whether you're in north, south or central Austin.


I arrived late on a weekday after pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick had completed his day's work. Lance had worked for a long at Louie Mueller Barbecue (and is even referred to as Bobby Mueller's "right hand man" in this Food Network video), but his time there didn't end well. He tried his hand at upscale dining in Taylor for a short time, but it wasn't too long before rumors began to surface that a Louie Mueller alumnus would be opening a joint in Austin. A bit of a controversy leapt up when Wayne Mueller asked nicely (through a cease & desist notice) that Stiles Switch not use the Louie Mueller name when promoting the new joint. It seems that Lance and the crew, with a little help from their Klose pit "Megatron", are beyond the controversy.

When ordering brisket here, I'd suggest skipping the lean meat altogether. It was so dry it had grown fuzz. The smoke and seasoning were there, but go for the fatty cut if you want moist and succulent meat. If you know the Louie Mueller style, then you won't be surprised by the heavy black pepper seasoning. I was certainly pleased with it. The beef rib was equally well executed, but not to the level of John or Wayne. While smallish, the meat was well smoked, fat perfectly rendered out, and thick dark crust provided a nice textural counterpoint to the tender meat.

Beef Rib

Three sausages are made in house, and all have notable qualities. The all beef Thorndale had exemplary smoke and texture, but I just like a little pork fat in my sausage. Pork lovers who can take some heat will be well served with the jalapeno cheese sausage which is a 50/50 beef and pork mix with a spicy kick that's not timid. For me, the best of the bunch was the Switch original. The casing had a perfect snap, and hot fat rushed into my mouth when I bit into it. It's a beef link with 15% pork and 100% perfect seasoning. Not too salty, just enough black pepper and perfectly smoked. If I'd had a better link than the one I had on this evening, I'm not sure where it was.

The pork ribs had that same black pepper rub. The tips on these spares was overcooked and chewy, but the meat right at the bone was moist and tender. A meatier rib would have been welcomed.

Sides aren't and afterthought, but also not particularly memorable. Two slaws, vinegar and mayo based, are available. Vinegar slaw with jicama was soggy and missed the pop that I expected from vinegar. The chopped mayo slaw was well executed, but beans were too watery. Homemade banana pudding was a good way to end the meal.

After being open for less than two months, it sounds as if the neighborhood is embracing this new joint. Nice touches like having multiple Austin based breweries on tap show that Stiles Switch is embracing their city as well. Austin should be proud to have them in the barbecue mix.

Rating ****
Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew on Urbanspoon

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Martin's Place

BRYAN: Martin's Place
3403 S College Ave

Bryan, TX 77801


Open Tues 10:30-4, W-Thurs 10:30-7:30, F 10:30-8, Sat 11-6

Update: This trip to Martin's was a bit disappointing. Pitmaster Steve Kapchinskie eschews adding any seasoning to his briskets or thick slabs of pork ribs. Seasoning meat with only smoke and time has a timeless sensibility, but a little salt would have gone a long way on this plate of barbecue.

A thick black crust encircled the slices of brisket, so I was expecting a big punch of smoke. The smokiness was fleeting as was the moisture in these dry slices. They lacked a whole lot of any flavor. Ribs were even drier, so a few swigs from a cold Lone Star bottle were in order. There was a bit more smoke on these ribs, but a punch of slat or pepper or...anything would have helped. A bright spot was the sliced pork shoulder. Ribbons of nicely rendered fat made for a moist cut with plenty of smoke and loads of clean pork flavor. The pork along with a side of the ultra crispy onions rings would have made for a great lunch. As much as it pains me (this place is just so cool), stars are not gained by having great onion rings.

Rating ***

2010: Steve Kapchinskie is a third generation pitmaster who runs the pits and the business as this historic location. The historic part isn't self-proclaimed, but they've been recognized with a historical marker commemorating the business which had been running since 1924, and the brick building that was built in 1939. Steve's been the sole owner since 1980 when his father Albin passed, and he has changed very little.

A semi-circular low bar dominates the dining room, and we took up three of the short rickety stools to peruse the menu. We quickly settled on lean and fatty brisket, pork ribs and sausage as they were all available by the quarter pound.

While the sausage was standard grocery store fare, the level of smokiness was intense and gave the links a pleasing depth of flavor. Ribs had a great bark, and the meat was perfectly cooked. They had a great flavor, and the bones were clean at the end of the meal. Slices of brisket were confounding. Both lean and fatty slices were smoked to perfection, and had a great texture. While the bark was well formed, and there was plenty of smokiness, there was something missing from the flavor of the meat. Maybe it just needed some salt and pepper, but it definitely needed an extra boost.

After the meal, I got a guided tour of the pit area from Steve. The old brick pits were full of briskets, and there were others resting on the counter just waiting for Steve's knife to hack off a few slices. The room was full of smoke, and I'm not sure how Steve spends so much time back there, but it's all to our benefit. You won't find any gas fired contraptions here, and the meats all show it.

Martin's Place on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Whup's Boomerang Bar-B-Que

MARLIN: Whup's Boomerang Bar-B-Que
1203 Bennett St.

Marlin, TX 76661


Open Thur-Sat 10-8

This is a tiny joint in a small town with a compact patio and a tight parking situation. I was momentarily trapped between another car and a sleeping dog in the narrow drive that leads past the smoker to the gravel road behind the joint. Orders are taken at a window on the patio that has just a couple of tables. Traffic in and out of the driveway is brisk given that most of the customers are taking their orders to go. We took our order to one of those small tables and enjoyed a rhythmic basketball bouncing serenade at the hands of a ten year old throughout the entire meal.

The brisket and ribs were a contrast in texture. The rib meat fell from the bone when lifted from the box while the brisket was tough and chewy. The slice of beef looked great with a nice smokering and black crust, but it was undercooked. The overcooked ribs lacked seasoning and good smoke.

The best items were the hot links and sausage. Sausage was the same as they used at the Que Shack, but the smoke had been put to this one. The casing had a great snap, and the links were moist, but not too fatty. Hot links had the unnecessary red food coloring, but they didn't have that awful hot dog texture. The spice was good with a depth beyond straight heat.

The chicken looked good, but was pretty sad. The skin was limp and chewy with an acrid and unpleasant smokiness. The meat beneath had a good smokiness, but every bit of it was dry, even the dark meat. Not event the over-sweet sauce could save it.

Rating **
Whup's Boomerang Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.