Piper’s pitmaster Richard Orozco.

Image: Jeff Fitlow

I was sitting in my car in the middle of Austin about five years ago, in town to visit my wife’s family. It was a Friday with an endless blue sky, the windows were down, and public radio was blaring—sorry, it was Austin. I took a big whiff of the air, shut my eyes, and smirked as I breathed it in.

“I love the smell of this. What the hell is it, wood chips?”

It was pecan and oak wood burning at some smokehouse a block away. The waft of barbecue, ever present in the Texan air, delighted me. That scent and the flavor it signals was all I wanted, and since moving to Houston, I’ve experienced it at a number of restaurants. There’s the superior everything at Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue in Tomball, a glorious beef rib at Pinkerton’s in the Heights, those melty pork ribs at Burns Original BBQ in Acres Homes, and whatever the heck Brett Jackson is trying next at Brett’s BBQ Shop in Katy. I could go on. Roegels, Blood Bros., Harlem Road, Truth … it’s impossible to rank ’em. The point: Houston is a great barbecue town.

The list of local smoke spots has grown recently with the arrivals of Piper’s BBQ & Beer in the Heights and E’s Smokin’ BBQ in Westbury. I’m grateful for these openings, if only for the fact that they perfume their neighborhoods with that pungent, wood-fueled fragrance.

Back in November 2020, about a month after Brandon and Justin Piper of Heights’ Southern-focused eatery Preslee’s opened their nearby ’cue hang, Piper’s BBQ & Beer, I had leathery brisket and mangled pork ribs, and I had to really chew on the pork sausage. But I wasn’t too concerned: One can’t judge a smokehouse’s rations on one meal, and after seeing other trusted foodies’ photos of Piper’s grub in early 2021, and hearing that a new pitmaster had come aboard, I figured it was time to return.

Dinner in May and lunch a few weeks later found much better results. My brisket was more luscious than leathery, the ribs were a glistening pink with a paper-thin, peppery crust, and the snappy pork sausage dripped with beautiful porcine juices. All those meats can be had by the pound or in various plates, with the three-meat option at under $20 representing a good deal as beef prices stay high after the pandemic-fueled shortage.

But as we know, modern Lone Star barbecue isn’t just about the Texas trinity. Maybe it’s the pulled pork, which at Piper’s is juicy even when it ain’t sauced, but I recommend having them sauce it up and slap it into a sandwich between soft potato buns. Piper’s offers simple sandwiches with your choice of meat, be it pulled pork, sausage, or chopped or sliced brisket.

Or maybe current-day ’cue is about the sides. It certainly is here, specifically the potato salad. Growing up in Pennsylvania I either had store-made tubs of mayonnaise-laden potato salad, the vinegar-strong German stuff, or the Amish version, which basically means a heaping of eggs with mayo and taters. Piper’s eschews those styles for a warm, yogurt-and-herb potato salad that has vaulted to the top of my list. As a single side it’s fantastic, but it’s even better as part of the hearty, loaded smashed potatoes. Here, Piper’s lays down a base of potato salad, then throws either brisket or pulled pork on top, with bacon bits, green onion, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and barbecue sauce for a rich kiss. I prefer it to the traditional, big baked potato and its fickle doneness.

Piper's famous poppers.

Image: Jeff Fitlow

Then there are Piper’s Peppers, jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped tightly in bacon. Back in November they were skewered and unwieldy but delicious; by June they were effortless eats bursting with that creamy, fatty flavor. Forget jalapeño poppers after you’ve tried these.

The potato salad and peppers reign over the more typically executed sides like macaroni and cheese—if you order it, eighty-six the microgreens topper—baked beans, and creamed corn.

You’d better bring your appetite for Big Tex.

Image: Jeff Fitlow

If you’re among friends you might want to order the Big Tex, combining a half pound of brisket and pulled pork with a sausage link, a half rack of pork ribs, a half chicken, and four sides. On weekends you can order a special beef rib, and once in a while Piper’s features one-offs like turkey legs and baby back ribs. Dessert includes a decent banana pudding and a more exciting smoked apple fritter.

Of course, half of the name at Piper’s BBQ & Beer is beer, but you’re not getting a Pinkerton’s-level bar at this Heights smokehouse. Everything here is in cans or bottles, set inside the ice chests beside the line. You’ll get locals like Eureka Heights, New Magnolia, Buffalo Bayou, and Karbach here, so you can certainly sip on a Buckle Bunny while digging into that loaded potato salad on the patio.

That’s what I want to do, at least. Piper’s has some seats inside if that’s your thing, but I’ll always take my grub out to the covered patio with lacquered wood tables and benches. A couple of TVs show whatever sporting event is happening, while Texas country and classic rock blast, keeping the mood familiar and light. >>

Even as cars zip past on ever-growing Shepherd Drive, Piper’s serves as a welcome diversion, the kind of smokehouse you can trust whether it’s for midday work lunch or early evening dinner with the kids. That’s proof that it has settled in quite nicely.

Squint and you’ll miss E’s Smokin’ BBQ, tucked into the corner of a Westbury shopping center at Post Oak Road and West Bellfort Avenue, and within spittin’ distance of the 610 Loop. The property was previously home to Fainmous BBQ, the Tennessee-style smokehouse that moved to Sawyer Yards in early 2020. E’s position in back of a commercial center beside a tangle of busy avenues might make for difficult marketing, but Southwest Houston lacks in top-notch barbecue. For that reason alone, E’s is a welcome presence in a family-packed neighborhood.

Ernest Contreras serves up chopped briskett street tacos

Image: Jeff Fitlow

The E in E’s Smokin’ BBQ is Ernest Contreras, a weekend home smoker who participated in competitions before deciding to open a brick-and-mortar during the pandemic. He runs the show with his wife, Lisa, and their family, exuding the kind of warmth and comfort that comes from a close-knit establishment. For example, during my first visit, small talk at the counter led to a free banana pudding. I’m not saying you’ll get free food when you go, but you never know.

If you’re mining for gold with E’s, the best bet is to dig into the items most closely associated with Mexican cuisine. The street tacos are mighty good, with chopped brisket, cilantro, and queso fresco packed into corn tortillas. Even better is the tomatillo tang you get from the salsa verde in the pulled pork tacos. They pair well with superb sides of charro beans submerged in a spoon-coating, meaty broth with brisket chunks, and sunny and sweet elote with queso fresco, cilantro, and cayenne. It’s big on corn flavor and keeps the heavy mayo to a minimum.

Delicioso traditional latin sides and a bangin banana pudding fill out the menu at E’s.

Image: Jeff Fitlow

Meats, sold either by the pound or in combo plates (a three-meat meal is $20), tend to be more hit and miss. I want to like the brisket at E’s, but on every occasion even the moist meat has been a crumbly, grayish slab with little to no smoke ring. Much better is the slick pork sausage, especially when filled with jalapeño and pepperjack, an inspired choice with even more heat than your usual spicy variety. The stringy pulled pork is above average, too, best employed in the meaty potato, E’s version of a loaded baked spud topped with shredded cheese and chives. The pork also works well in a sandwich called the Wrangler with coleslaw on a lightly charred brioche bun.

I wouldn’t spring for the too-simple Rancher sandwich: just a couple slices of lightly peppered turkey on a bun, for a dollar more than the Wrangler. You could pour some of E’s vinegar-rich barbecue sauce on top, but again, just go with the Wrangler.

I’d also leave some room for dessert, because whether or not you get it for free, the banana pudding is among the best I’ve had in Houston. Somehow the vanilla wafers way at the bottom, under the layers of both creamy and chunky banana, stay firm and crunchy. Atop all that banana is a healthy sheet of snowy whipped cream topped with wafer crumbs. Dig the spoon deep down to pull up a magnificent bite.

Contreras has been catering for years as part of his barbecue hustle, so E’s offers considerable bulk options for families and groups. A pack for four people that includes two pounds of meat and two pints of sides runs $56, while an order for 24 people that includes 12 pounds of meat and six quarts of sides costs $330.

Unfortunately, E’s doesn’t have outdoor seating, but the modest and clean interior is inviting. A floor-to-ceiling chalkboard on the side wall might read out specials, while a few vintage signs add a little charm to the joint. The most charm, however, comes from the chipper staff behind the counter.

With E’s Smokin’ BBQ, Westbury residents once again have reason to stay closer to home for a quick barbecue fix, especially if they’re craving tacos, charro beans, and a top-of-the-line banana pudding. That there’s a smile and some family-sized comfort going along with it makes the whole package all the more appealing.

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